| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Youtube RSS Feed


G-Sync: Let's sticker it to homelessness in GR

The number of teens who experience homelessness is high, and of that number between 20 and 40 percent will originate from one segment of the teen population. During National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen shines a light on what our area agencies are doing as they seek to reduce those numbers.
As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, it's worth pausing for a moment of gratitude and reflecting on how remarkable it is to live in a city where so many grant programs have originated. Not coincidentally, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation has been at the center of many of these acts of generosity for nearly 100 years.
Before GRCF became the large, successful, and impactful foundation we have today, it all began with a very modest $25 donation in 1922 that was applied immediately to the purchasing a file cabinet. As I sat down with Marcia Rapp, vice president of programs of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, I asked her if that cabinet was still around.
She laughed, informing me that it's served it's purpose and has been gone for a very long time. But what has not exited the building is their mission to serve our community as new challenges present themselves over time. From little movements like donations of money and the investments of time have come big changes, and so over the years the impact of our community foundation has grown, exhibiting the flexibility to respond to needs and proving what can be accomplished when we commit ourselves as a society to the solving the challenges in our society.
So it was not surprising this past September when the community foundation launched a new fund based on a $100,000 matching challenge gift from long-time foundation donors Shelley Padnos and Carol Sarosik, who, along with a group of concerned community members, began the Our LGBT Fund.
Almost immediately that fund grew from $1 to $281,000 in an eye-popping amount of time, as everyone from city residents to area businesses contributed to this new fund that allows the foundation to establish a new endowment where the LGBT voice will be addressed. What got most people excited, beyond the rapid rise of the contributions, was the focus of this new fund: to help reduce the risks of our city's LGBT homeless youth.
As I sat down with Macia Rapp and others involved in this issue locally, I sought to explore this important issue. But as I pressed on for answers, I was met with more questions. I felt like I was back in a college English class, as Rilke's urge to "love the questions" from his "Letters to a Young Poet" were not producing the same calm I had felt in my more idealistic years.
In short, I wanted to know how bad it is for our homeless LGBT population in Grand Rapids. It's hard to get a definitive answer, but the best information comes from the people working on the front line of this issue in our city – though I did have some personal experience with the topic.

Personal Story

No, I wasn't a former homeless youth, but in the early 1990s, I, along with my partner at the time, took in a high school senior who had been kicked out of his Jenison home simply because he was gay. And while I did not seek to become involved in this matter, it did present itself on our doorstep so we responded as best we could as kids ourselves, fresh out of college.  
This front-row experience allowed me an opportunity to see what happens to an area youth facing a crisis in housing. I saw first-hand how stressful it was for this teen to lose his home, school, network of friends, and the family stability he once had. In an attempt to protect all parties, this student eventually was enrolled in the Grand Rapids Public Schools, sought emancipation from his parents, and was eventually placed in a more suitable environment. I recognized it would be a better situation than being housed in a twenty-something, post-college apartment environment where working and play on a very limited budget rarely meant adding time for tutoring or packing school lunches.
This, however, was an experience from an era nearly 25 years ago. I wanted to believe that a lot has changed with regards to homelessness but as, I would discover, it's quite the opposite. Grand Rapids has seen its share of people facing a housing crisis, but in the area of youth, particularly our LGBT youth, we see these numbers are still quite high.
It is estimated while youth only make up 5 percent of the overall homeless population of the U.S., that 20-40 percent of that number are identified as LGBT homeless youth. This is a startling statistic indicates the need for more concrete study – a fact backed up by Stand Up For Kids.
Local Movements

One agency in Grand Rapids working with our homeless youth is Arbor Circle, who will be observing National Homeless Youth Awareness month all November with a series of events devoted to engaging our society around this vital topic.
Speaking with Ashley Pattee, supervisor of homeless youth services and street outreach at Arbor Circle, it became very clear that, while plenty of our city's youth are receiving services, within the area of our LGBT youth there is a lot of mystery.
"It has been very difficult to get the data we need to track our local LGBT homeless youth population walking through the door during intake simply because many have experienced rejection based on the identity or revelation of said identity," says Pattee, who is quick to assert that homeless youth face a housing crisis for a host of reasons, ranging from rejection by a parent to physical or sexual abuse within the home.
Pattee reminds me that one reason we have such uneven reporting is quite often because we do not ask the questions. The obvious response upon hearing this information would be to just ask the question, right?
However, as Tami VandenBerg, executive director at Well House, an adult housing facility in the city that is looking at adding LGBT housing, explains, it's not that simple. She says people during an intake often seek to protect themselves, offering what they think you want to hear to gain them the safety of a roof over their head.

The Negative Risks Multiplied
"You may not get the whole truth in the answer they will give you," says VandenBerg. This is especially true for the LGBT youth facing a housing crisis, since they often land in an agency's office as a result of coming out, only to face rejection. It is reported that 1 in 2 LGBT youth experience a negative reaction when coming out. The risk is huge and local agency professionals think it is even greater here.These youth will not take the risk of being rejected again at the housing facility by offering up the very information that placed them on the street.
So does the massive amount of money in the Our LGBT Fund help this problem magically go away? Yes and no.
Yes, Rapp shares that we now have a sizable endowment through which organizations - whether they be service-based or in the business of data collection - are able to apply for grant funds to address these matters in our city.
That's a start. "We definitely need to be addressing the need to collect better data on this population, but we need so much more," says VandenBerg.
And while the foundation always has the opportunity to tap into the funds within the endowment should a urgent crisis present itself, within the first years of any new fund the dollar amounts that go out via grants are relatively small. In this case, Our LGBT Fund will likely grant just $5000 during this first grant period.
Everyone I spoke to agrees this is not a lot of money, but it is often this way at the start, and, like that $25 initial grant that began our GRCF, it will grow with time.
Meanwhile, we have many organizations that already address the topic of homelessness in our community, including the city's first drop-in homeless youth center (not an overnight facility) that will be open this month.
HQ, which is founded by Mars Hill Bible Church, presents a model that other faith groups are beginning to emulate. We must minimize risk and we do this by adding more open and affirming organizations to our options, thus making sure every door a homeless youth walks through is the right door to a solution. Arbor Circle will have a presence at HQ, providing a seasoned voice to help those youth with housing stress connect to services quickly.
As more resources appear to help homeless people at all stages of life secure new housing, may I suggest that Our LGBT Fund grant not just funds to study this area locally, but to support a project that seeks to easily identify those places that are open and affirming before a person walks through the doors of the agency.
Right now if I were to go on the web (and I did), I have to do much searching in order to find that information, but people facing housing stress don't necessarily have the time or resources to do that research as they seek safe shelter.
A Solution That Sticks Out

What we need is a sticker system, ideally a rainbow, so that when homeless youth approach the door, they see immediately that a facility is open and affirming.
And while I understand the rainbow might be problematic for some people within the religious community, I think we can all agree that all our children are worth protecting and saving.

A sticker system is a simple gesture that would not cost a lot of money, would be a good use of the fund, and would help all people feel free to identify honestly as they seek help and as they participate in any studies that will help us measure this population.
These things – funds, stickers, drop-in centers, shelters – all save lives. The truth is that youth, whether LGBT or not, who are experiencing a housing crisis face astronomical risks that youth in stable home environments do not experience.
Statistics on the homeless show us a high dropout rate and a higher-than-average risk of sexual assault. If you are LGBT, your risk of suicide is really truly alarming. A LGBT youth is 62 percent more likely to take their own life than their heterosexual counterparts at 29 percent. They are also roughly 7.4 times more likely to experience acts of sexual violence than heterosexual homeless youth.
So while many of us who read this will not have an opportunity to grant out to a program the funds they might need, if you do decide Our LGBT Fund is something you are interested in, there a few things you can do immediately.
First, you can contribute to the fund or contribute to helping make a study happen. Second, you can educate yourself about vulnerable youth of all backgrounds during National Homeless Youth Awareness Month events. Finally, we can all work to truly become a welcoming and accepting community by the policies that we pass in society. So vote, volunteer, and be a voice of compassion in our community.
What we need as a city is a clear vision of our future, one where at the core we address equity and inclusion, and where we act on our belief that each life is valuable. This month especially, in the area of shoring up the risk of our LGBT youth and other youth in difficult housing situations, it only gets better when we're open and affirming that ...The Future Needs All of Us.
Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor
Please visit G-Sync Events: Let's Do This!
Editor's Note: The images this week are from the documentary The Homestretch that is showing on Thursday, Nov. 13 as a part of Arbor Circle's National Homeless Youth Awareness Month programming.
In addition and in an attempt to disclose my connections to the GRCF's Our LGBT Fund: as of today I have only lent my image to be a part of their campaign but have not made a financial contribution. My holding off of making such a commitment was based on wanting to keep a distance until my editorial research was completed for this piece.

Donors who have contributed to the Our LGBT Fund are invited to attend a special ping-pong event at The Pyramid Scheme on Nov. 22. Details can be found here.

Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts