A box of Huggies sits in the corner. A stuffed toy horse leans against a wood-paneled wall next to a toy cat. On the coffee table is a package of Pampers wipes. And Nashad, 7 months old, wearing a blue onesie, sits in the corner of a threadbare futon playing with an elephant small enough to fit into his tiny hands.
His mother, Alexis Crenshaw, 19, sits next to him and grabs his fingers when he reaches for a nearby notebook. Crenshaw’s girlfriend, Nashara Arnold, 21, sits on the arm of the futon, almost protectively, also playing with the child and retrieving a bottle of milk from the refrigerator when he becomes fussy. She and Crenshaw have been together since shortly before Nashad was born and Crenshaw named him after her girlfriend.
The two are in a stable home for the first time in months, living in a cramped but cozy cottage apartment located in the backyard of a Decatur lesbian couple. The lesbian couple, who asked not to be identified, is helping Crenshaw and Arnold through Saint Lost & Found, a group formed in November to help Atlanta LGBT homeless youth find immediate housing.
Saint Lost & Found was organized by the Atlanta chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a non-profit group that dresses in drag as flamboyant nuns and raises money for various LGBT organizations. The Lloyd E. Russell Foundation donated $1,000 to the group.
Arnold and Crenshaw are the first couple housed by Saint Lost & Found and just two of the more than 20 young people the group has assisted in approximately one month.
The two met online last November. At the time, they were living in separate apartments in College Park. A series of obstacles from losing jobs and apartments put them on the streets and seeking help from various local homeless shelters.
It was through a shelter that they found out about StandUp for Kids, an organization that helps homeless youth find permanent housing while providing resources such as GED training, food, clothes and interaction with others in a healthy environment. But it was a hard road for Arnold and Crenshaw, who has another son, Amir, age 5, who lives in Douglasville with her mother.
“One day I just walked over to her place. She didn’t tell me she was pregnant. I got to the house and was like, ‘Wow!’ What’s going on here?” Arnold remembered with a laugh.
“I thought about it. I was like, I do want kids. Then I found out she was a great loving person. I asked her if she would marry me,” Arnold added. “But I got no way to get an engagement ring.”
“Maybe by my birthday?” Crenshaw asked.
“Your birthday in January!” Arnold said, and the couple laughed.
Their stories are part of an ongoing cycle of poverty although their families, they said, never had problems with them being lesbians.
Sleeping on the streets with an infant
Crenshaw becomes emotional when talking about her mother, who she said shot her father when she was nine but avoided jail after it was determined to be self-defense.
“From nine until I was a teenager I was in and out of DFACS. I felt like I had nobody. I never felt like my mother was a stable influence in my life,” Crenshaw said, crying.
When she was 14, Crenshaw said she got pregnant by a 19 year-old Katrina evacuee.
“He asked me if I was going to have sex with him. I wasn’t thinking about that — I was still playing with baby dolls. I said no, but I felt pressured so I did,” Crenshaw said.
When she was 16, Crenshaw stole her mother’s car and ran away from home. She said her mother called the police and she was arrested and put in a state group home until she was 17. At 18, she said she moved out of her mother’s house.
“It was too late for [her mother] to tell me what to do,” Crenshaw said. “I feel like she wasn’t a mother to me. I was working, paying for my own school clothes and taking care of my child and myself.”
Crenshaw graduated from Douglas County High School and is now enrolled at Westwood College in Midtown pursuing a degree in criminal justice.
Arnold said her mother died in 2006, when Arnold was 16, from complications from gastric bypass surgery she’d had years before.
At the time, the family was living in Adamsville in the west side of Atlanta in section 8 housing.
“She was a welfare mother. My mom, she was there, she was a very, very good momma. I have nothing bad to say about her,” Arnold said.
But in 9th grade, Arnold said she dropped out of Benjamin E. Mays High School. She said she didn’t want to live with her grandmother because of the strict rules and at 18 she was living on the streets. She had been selling and using drugs “to get by” and ended up locked up.
“I turned 18 in prison and when I got out I got my first job at Krystal in Union City and worked there for two or three years,” she said.
Arnold said she turned her life around, found an apartment and even bought a Cadillac.
Arnold said she quit Krystal and found another job at Popeye’s in College Park. After run-ins with management, Arnold left that job, too, and got a job with a temp agency in College Park shortly before meeting Crenshaw.
When times were desperate for money, Arnold admitted she started “doing checks” — writing bad checks for cash. She was arrested again and locked up in the Fulton County Jail for more than two weeks before she said charges were dropped and her record cleared.
For a while, Crenshaw found sanctuary at Tapestry Youth Ministries before she said she got kicked out of the program. Arnold also had no place to stay.
“The first night we was on the streets we slept in an abandoned apartment,” Crenshaw said.
The next day, while sitting at a gas station with Nashad in Crenshaw’s lap and trying to come up with a plan of where to go next, a woman drove up and asked if they were hungry. The woman got them some food and then dropped them off at the Gateway Center, an Atlanta shelter praised by city officials for its work in helping people out of the cycle of homelessness.
Not considered a family because they are gay
But there Arnold and Crenshaw were separated and not considered a family, they said, and they were forced to sleep on mats on the floor until a transitional apartment could be found for Crenshaw. Because Crenshaw is the biological mother of Nashad and a single mother, she was able to get an apartment and had Arnold stay with her.
Arnold found a job going door-to-door in residential neighborhoods and hanging ads of a department store on door knobs for $50 a day. This activity is illegal, they acknowledged, but the money was too good to turn down.
While Arnold was working from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., Crenshaw, who had to be out of the center in the morning, would sit outside in the summer months with Nashad, taking walks downtown, waiting for Arnold to return.
Crenshaw said she ran into more trouble with her case manager at Gateway and the family left the program. They ended up staying at the Peachtree and Pine shelter which houses men but allows women to sleep in chairs in the lobby when they have nowhere else to go. The shelter has long faced threats of being shut down and closure may actually happen next year.
For Crenshaw and Arnold, the place was scary and definitely not safe for an infant. But staying at shelters also meant the family was split up, they said.
“At Gateway … they were trying to separate us. They would tell Nashara, ‘That’s not your baby,’” Crenshaw said.
“They didn’t see us a family,” Arnold said of other homeless shelters. “I would be singled out as a single woman. It really irked me knowing we are a couple and together and not being seen that way.”
Facing a winter of finding a place to stay on the streets, the couple decided to check out StandUp for Kids where they met Art Izzard, a founder of the Queer Justice League who does street outreach for StandUp. Izzard is also a close friend of Rick Westbrook, aka Sister Rapture Divine Cox, a founder of Saint Lost & Found.
Izzard, who also works with Saint Lost & Found, put the family in touch with Westbrook and the other Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The group raised funds to put the couple up at the Stratford Inn in Midtown before relocating them to Decatur two weeks ago.
‘I want them to see they are loved’
Saint Lost & Found was organized last month with a 24-hour emergency hot line and volunteers to help queer youth find immediate housing — to help kids staying in abandoned warehouses or squatting in abandoned apartments get a warm bed immediately, either by staying with a volunteer or being put into the hotel.
Westbrook said plans are in the works to create a non-profit named Lost & Found Inc. and rent a house in Atlanta with six bedrooms and four bathrooms to serve as a group home.
He is also intent on ensuring the youth meet members of Atlanta’s LGBT community and takes some of them to various gay-related events.
“I want them to see they are loved,” Westbrook said.
The group has a former professional social worker and current Realtor, Allen Peebles, who volunteers to conduct mental health evaluations and intake for the young people before they are placed in the hotel or with a “goster,” or gay foster, family.
Currently all the youth Saint Lost & Found is helping are 18 or older. Peebles is openly gay and said he wanted to find a way to give back to the LGBT community. He said the youth are tested for HIV and are referred to proper agencies if they have substance abuse issues.
There are hiccups in the intake systems set up by Saint Lost & Found, however. Arnold and Crenshaw did not reveal Arnold’s criminal past to Westbrook. The Decatur lesbians who are allowing them to stay in their backyard apartment, and who have two young children, were not aware of Arnold’s past drug use.
Crenshaw, Arnold and Nashad will be moving into the group home as soon as it is available, Westbrook said.
Peebles, who is gay, said he will live in the group home when it is opened in coming days.
‘To know I have a family again means the world to me’
For Caleb Rose, 24, Saint Lost & Found is a godsend. Rose is staying at the Stratford Inn after being found living in an abandoned downtown warehouse and trying to stay warm with candles and under 8-12 blankets at night.
“I was staying at the Mission at first, but you’re required to go to a church service to stay but I disagreed with that. I ran into some people who were staying in an abandoned building just trying to make it,” he said.
One of the people referred him to StandUp where Izzard and Westbrook were able to help find Rose, who is gay, a warm bed.
“That night they put me in a room,” Rose said enthusiastically. “And where I’m staying is a lot better than where I was.”
Rose, originally from Illinois, has been living on the streets in Atlanta for just over a month, struggling to find a job as a server in a restaurant. His mother died when he was 17 and he’s not had family support to help him through rough times.
Rose walks to the main branch of the Atlanta library every day to use the computer to fill out job applications.
As part of his intake with Saint Lost & Found, Rose was tested for HIV this week. He tested positive.
“It’s just preliminary so I’m on pins and needles waiting to find out if it’s accurate or a false positive,” he said.
“But I’d rather know than not know so others are not affected,” he said. “I had no idea. I’m not sexually promiscuous. I never thought it would happen to me.”
Being in a safe environment also means being able to stay healthy if he is indeed HIV positive, he said.
“I had no place to do laundry, to get cleaned up. I felt homeless,” he said. “Where I’m staying now is much better. I’m really on fire for this cause. It’s a blessing they found me or I would out there freezing. Where I come from there’s not a gay community. To know I have a family again means the world to me.”
Top photo: Alexis Crenshaw (left) and her girlfriend Nashara Arnold, with their son Nashad, 7 months, are the first family being helped through Saint Lost & Found. (by Dyana Bagby)