We walk up to him on a balmy Friday evening in downtown Atlanta, near The Shepherd’s Inn, a program of the Atlanta Union Mission. Wearing a T-shirt, black jeans and scuffed sneakers, with his hair in twists, he greets the group of us with a warm grin. But he has bad news.
He was recently kicked out of Covenant House, a Christian-run shelter for homeless young people, he tells Kaitlin Commiskey, an outreach volunteer for Lost-N-Found Youth, a nonprofit working to help homeless LGBT youth get off the streets and into stable housing.
The young man, age 20 (Commiskey asked I not use his name), says he got into a fight with someone else living at Covenant House because they were stealing his belongings, and for that he was booted from the shelter.
Commiskey, 29, a speech pathologist, lowers her heavy backpack to the sidewalk and pulls out a green bag with a drawstring. It’s filled with nonperishable food, some hygiene products, and information on Lost-N-Found Youth.
He tells Kaitlin and the other Lost-N-Found volunteer, Joan Coles, that he has a meeting with Covenant House administrators to see if he can back in if he promises to abide by the rules.
He’s originally from Virginia. He has an older iPhone in his pocket, but he just listens to music on it, he says. He can’t record phone numbers of anyone who might help him, so Commiskey and Coles rustle up some paper and a pen to write them down.
After talking with him a few minutes more, it’s time to move on. He begins his long trek toward somewhere, anywhere, and we move along to try to locate other homeless LGBT youth and offer any help possible.
Commiskey says they met this guy in the winter months, on the street, just walking. He once dated someone living at the Lost-N-Found homeless shelter, but the organization lost track of him several weeks ago. Commiskey says she is glad he has a meeting with Covenant House. She scribbles some notes in a small notebook.
Lost-N-Found is currently the only organization in metro Atlanta providing emergency shelter to homeless LGBT youth ages 18–25. A shelter with approximately six beds is in the West End, but there is a constant waiting list. Plans are underway to renovate a Victorian house on Juniper Street in Midtown that will have 18 beds and a more central location to serve clients.
It is at this house on Juniper Street where I meet Commiskey, 29, and Coles, 25, the two primary street outreach volunteers for Lost-N-Found Youth. Joining them, besides me, is Brandon Attell, 25, a Ph.D. student at Georgia State University who is participating in a program to count Atlanta’s homeless youth.
From Juniper we make our way to Peachtree Street and then to the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, known more commonly as Peachtree and Pine. Commiskey looks for a particular group of LGBT young people. She has seen them there in the past, but had heard at least one was kicked out of the shelter for wearing her hair too long. Trans women are not allowed to stay at Peachtree & Pine unless they ditch all feminine clothes, hair and makeup and present only as male.
We hike up and down the crowded sidewalk where men, and a few women, stand, many of them smoking. The gutters are filled with empty mini bottles of all kinds of booze. There is loud laughing and talking. We step inside an open area of the homeless shelter and Commiskey asks to post a Lost-N-Found card on a bulletin board. The guard agrees with a nod.
Another security guard wearing a badge around his neck stops us and asks about the hotline. He knew a person who needed Lost-N-Found’s help, and wanted to make sure their 24/7 hotline was up and running. He’s told it is, and to keep calling, or even to text, if he doesn’t get an answer immediately.
After we leave Peachtree and Pine, we head over to the Salvation Army homeless shelter on Luckie Street. This is when we meet up with the 20-year-old man hoping to be accepted back into Covenant House. At the Salvation Army, also Christian, Commiskey asks a man sitting at a desk if there are any young people staying there that she could speak to. A woman comes over to address our group. People walk in through a metal detector that appears not to be working; others sit outside in the heat on a large patio. A thin stray black cat maneuvers among people’s legs.
No, there aren’t any young people in their teens or early 20s staying there right now, the two administrators tell us. They keep several Lost-N-Found cards with phone numbers and other information.
From there, we head to Centennial Park. The smell of beef wafts from a high-end restaurant just a block down the street from the Salvation Army homeless shelter. We make our way past the Georgia Aquarium, the Center for Human and Civil Rights and the World of Coca-Cola. A photographer snaps photos of a happy couple as we make our way into Centennial Park.
The park is filled with happy children playing in the Fountain of Springs, and families and couples enjoying the sunny weather. A quick look around and we move on to Woodruff Park.
The park is crowded with people and Commiskey quickly spots a young woman and a child she’s seen before and hands them a bottle of water. Minutes later, a trans woman approaches and asks for a bag of food and other items. She talks with Commiskey, Coles and Attell. She wears tight jeans, dirty socks and black, toeless sandals, perhaps the kind you’d wear in the shower. Her fake eyelashes are thick, her hair pulled back into a limp bun. Her eyes are tired. She is 18.
She is with another trans woman, age 22, on crutches, and a young man, 20. Commiskey knows the two women and says she always sees them together. This is her first time meeting the young man. They all get bags and bottled water. They say “thank you” and smile.
Commiskey says for trans people living on the street, especially, “life is definitely complicated.”
At Lost-N-Found, however, trans youth are readily helped and housed—when there is room.
“I thought this would be a good way to meet the kids we are serving,” Commiskey says when asked why she began volunteering one year ago. She scribbles more notes in her notebook.
She and other volunteers will hit the streets again in less than 24 hours.
More volunteers are needed for street outreach. Lost-N-Found provides training monthly. For more information, visit www.lnfy.org.