Providing a Safe Home for High-Risk and Homeless LGBTQ Youth

My friend and interviewer David Perry didn’t seem to get it when he asked me on his LGBT-focused 10 Percent television program in San Francisco about the runaway cow heroine of my children’s book Wilhelmina Goes Wandering

No, I explained, she did not want to be a deer like her traveling companions. She was happy being a cow.

Although at first she envied her friends’ sleek legs and felt self-conscious about her 800-pound heft, Wilhelmina comes to realize the deer accept her as she is. Betty, the kind Scottish farmer lady who eventually adopts Wilhelmina, recognizes her own ancestral feistiness in the black Angus, and welcomes the bovine to her sanctuary-farm in Connecticut.

Source: Katie Runde, used with permission.

Once Wilhelmina understands that she is free to be herself, the open gate in her pasture doesn’t tempt her to run away again. Love and acceptance liberate Wilhelmina to love and accept her free-spirited self. At peace within herself, even the “wild one” has finally found her true home where she can live out her days knowing she is right where she needs to be.

As the tagline for the book’s promotional poster puts it, “Sometimes we have to leave our familiar pasture to find our true home.”

But what of boys and girls, young men and women, whose family rejects them and forces them out of their home for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or simply questioning their sexuality—in short, for being true to themselves? 

What happens when there is no Betty to reassure these young people that they are accepted and loved as they are?

Upwards of 40 percent of runaway and homeless youth in America are LGBTQ.

Clearly these youth are at great risk for much harm—from others, and from themselves. Clearly they need support in developing the resilience it takes not just to survive their traumas, but to develop the motivation required to build a healthy and productive life for themselves. 

Founded in 1979, the Hetrick-Martin Institute is the nation’s oldest and largest LGBTQ youth services organization, annually serving more than 2,000 young people between ages 13 and 24, from 38 states across the country. It supports them with programming focused on arts and culture, health and wellness, counseling, education, and job readiness.

In its main New York City location at 2 Astor Place in Manhattan, Hetrick-Martin also serves more than 11,000 hot meals a year; 81 percent of HMI youth members (as they are called) cite the need for food as their main reason for coming to HMI. The institute founded and hosts the Harvey Milk High School, a four-year, fully accredited transfer public high school operated by the New York City Department of Education. The most vulnerable youth can find acceptance here, and learn without the threat of physical violence and emotional harm they likely experienced at their former schools.

Thomas Krever, Hetrick-Martin’s CEO, told me in an interview at his office that every young person coming to HMI starts with a mental health intake. The way HMI frames the young people’s stories to engage their resiliency distinguishes its approach to marginalized, traumatized, vulnerable youth. Krever called it a “positive youth development” model. Instead of a “deficit” model in which trauma is the touchstone (“the ‘woe is me’ poverty factor,” as he put it), the PYD approach builds on the young person’s resilience.

“It’s about believing in a young person’s strength, even when they don’t believe in it yet,” said Krever. “There would be a very different feel in this conversation,” he said of our interview, “if we were talking about a deficit model rather than strength. And [the young people] feel that and pick up on that. Young people vote with their feet. Which organization would you go to—one that says ‘It’s okay, honey, you’ll be okay,’ or the one that says ‘That’s okay. You’re gonna do it anyway. You got through the doors, let’s start with that.’”

It comes down to choosing either a victim mentality or the opportunity to own something, said Krever. “The very nature of PYD is the opposite of victimization; it says these things happen, but despite them you’re going to succeed because you’re here when you could have chosen not to be here.” That choice alone offers much to work with. Said Krever, “It already means the young people are coming to us with a modicum of what I say is a level of heroic resilience.”

The Ali Forney Center is the largest agency in the country dedicated to LGBTQ homeless youth. Carl Siciliano founded AFC in 2002, to protect LGBTQ youths from the harms of homelessness and empower them with the tools they need to live independently. The organization’s namesake, Ali Forney, was a gender nonconforming teen who fled home at 13, bounced around the foster care system, was beaten, and ended up living on the streets. Before he was murdered in 1997, Ali was dedicated to helping other young people and advocated for the safety of homeless LGBTQ youth. The Manhattan-based agency today serves nearly 1400 youth each year through 10 housing sites and a multipurpose drop-in center. President Obama in 2012 named Siciliano a White House “Champion of Change,” noting the widespread recognition of the Ali Forney Center’s high-quality and innovative programming.

Siciliano told me in an interview at his office that he’s thought about resilience throughout his career of youth work. He said that when young people come to AFC, “they’re often in desperate situations.” First things first: stabilize them, help them get IDs, access medical benefits, and find housing. AFC offers two types of housing, emergency and transitional, which can last up to two years. “Everything we’re doing is about building resilience,” said Siciliano. 

In his decade of work with homeless adults before starting the Ali Forney Center, Siciliano encountered many people who had lost hope. Something he likes about working with the youth is “they haven’t given up on themselves.” But that doesn’t mean the young people are easy on themselves—or one another. “Something I see very strongly when kids come to us is self-hatred projected out to each other,” said Siciliano. It shows when they “throw shade” at others, publicly trash talking and disrespecting them. “We don’t encourage shade, or threats,” he said. “We really try to build and support resilience.”

Siciliano said the key to building resilience in the young people who come to Ali Forney—or any youth, really—is “having an adult show you that you are precious and loved.”

Wilhelmina the black Angus cow shows in a pleasant and prettily illustrated fable how acceptance and love can tame even a free spirit. But on the hard streets of New York, and cities everywhere, even free spirits need a home where the gate is open for them to be their true selves, and love is strong enough to keep them there.


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