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UCAN confronts LGBT homelessness
by Joe Franco
2011-11-09

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On the streets of Chicago tonight, there will be more than 2,000 homeless youth. ( a youth being between the ages of 18-24 ) . Of those 2,000, an estimated 20-42 percent of them identify as LGBTQ. With conservative estimates, that places over 400 LGBTQ on our streets and at-risk.

Certainly, there are shelters. However, as Bonnie Wade, the associate director of UCAN's ( Uhlich Children's Advantage Network's ) LGBTQ Host Home Program, pointed out, "There are currently 189 youth shelter beds for more than 2,000 homeless youth. Just do the math." With the annual expense of up to $40,000 per bed of running youth-friendly and youth-secure shelters, Wade and others like her found a novel approach to combating the epidemic of LGBTQ youth homelessness here in Chicago.

The LGBTQ Host Home Program looks to adults—private volunteers all—to help provide a stable but, more importantly, a safe, living space. "Shelter systems can be very unsafe for LGBTQ youth," said Wade. "While they have support staff, that staff cannot be everywhere at every moment of the night. Oftentimes the youth are victims of homophobic violence."

"Sometimes the youth could be at a bar, picking someone up and 'cuddling' with them one night and then out on the street hustling the next," said Wade. Such an itinerant lifestyle infrequently fosters a sense of community and does not vest any interest in the stability, safety or sanitation of a given neighborhood.

The involvement of each host home volunteer can vary as much as the LGBTQ youth placed in the home. Sometimes a volunteer host may be asked to listen or talk or provide some support and guidance to a youth. Sometimes, the youth are more self-sufficient and require little more than a safe space. "The program is about developing relationships. Remember, its people not social workers, who provide the support," said Wade. "These are real relationships with real problems. Things do come up. There is going to be some real interaction." Each host home must develop a set of "house courtesies". The LGBTQ youth and their host home volunteer draft the courtesies themselves. "Who better to set the guidelines for a household than those who actually live there," said Wade.

The adult volunteer goes through a two-to-three-month process involving an application, two interviews, 16 hours of training, a background check and a drug screening before they are even considered as candidates. "The interview process is revolutionary," said Wade. "We have a community advisory council comprised of both formerly homeless LGBTQ youth and adult representatives, like me."

Wade pointed out that no one member has a clearer voice, more clout or a greater vote: "This is youth and adults working together to solve a common issue." If a volunteer host is accepted, they are paired with a homeless LGBTQ youth who has undergone a similar process. "We look at the background of the youth in context," said Wade.

She noted that, often, LGBTQ youth are targets for the police and can have a disproportionately larger list of public offenses. "But a two or three year old offense for stealing to feed yourself because you are starving should properly be looked at in context," Wade said. However, she stressed that violent youth, those who have shot or stabbed or have beaten others are screened from the program.

The host volunteer is expected to write a letter to the youth explaining who they are and what to expect in their home. The youth then reads these letters and a face-to-face meeting is arranged. Each party is encouraged to wait a full day before making any decisions. "Sometimes it's at instant match and sometimes they meet four or more times to be sure. Each match is different", said Wade. "This process is for the advancement of the physical and emotional safety for both the youth and the host volunteer."

"This is an intergenerational framework," said Wade. "Our organization has youth and adults working together." Wade pointed out "when people can choose where, with whom and how they live together, this is transformational healing." Wade said, "Trauma has happened to all of us. It is our reactions to what has triggered the trauma that we need to deal with." The host home is not an island unto itself. Wade noted numerous support services provided both the youth and the host while the match is in effect. There are monthly check-ins, quarterly community brunches and a 24-hour crisis line.

"Host home volunteers commit to a minimum of one year with as much as two years," said Wade. When compared with the $40,000 it costs to run a shelter bed, the $8,100.it costs to host a youth for a year seems more than a civic bargain.

Wade said, "Out of the original youth who were matched some have actually moved out, gotten good jobs with benefits and are living on their own! The youth are doing their part. They do not want handouts. A self-sufficient life—that is the goal of this program."

She added, "This is a chance to look at which resources we can share with one another so that people can grow and be healed. It is our responsibility to see to it that these youth become adults. This is our opportunity to move them beyond life on the streets."

On Nov. 3, UCAN's LGBTQ Host Home Program hosted a wine-and-cheese fundraiser with raffles and a silent auction to benefit the program. ABC7 news reporter Jason Knowles was on hand to open the remarks.

Wade stressed that UCAN's host home program was "not about bricks and mortar" but rather "about creating a community. The highlight of the evening was a speech from a youth graduate of the program. He said that there are oftentimes misconceptions about homeless youth: "People think that homeless youth are hoodlums, lazy and uneducated. But what if there were those who valued an education and weren't lazy or hoodlums?"

After being literally locked out of his own home after coming out, he moved from "place to place, basement to living room and couch to floor." The UCAN LGBT Host Home graduate spent 15 months in his host home while he finished his associate's degree at Harold Washington College, earning top grades. He said, "I needed stability. I knew I could do better but just needed that little extra help, and UCAN provided that." Currently, he is completely self-sufficient and attending the Illinois Institute of Technology with a major in computer engineering.

Windy City Times spoke with the graduate prior to his speech. He also spoke about the conditions in the community where he grew up: "People were living in the streets. They were surrounded by bad influences. It only took one person to scare everyone else in the neighborhood to think and act like him."

When asked what compelled him to resist, he responded, "I'm not sure. I always saw something better than what was in front of me. I just could not bring myself to go with what I believed was wrong. Even if I have to run every day, I cannot conform." He also said he hoped "to bridge the gap" and act as a catalyst for communication across racial and socio-economic lines. "It's these perceived differences that keep society behind, this fighting each other over our differences. We need to learn to live together."

For more information on UCAN's LGBTQ Host Home Program or to apply to become a candidate host home or youth, please see the organization's website at www.ucanchicago.org/host-home or call Wade at 773-738-5966.

More pics from the Nov. 3 event are online at www.WindyCityMediaGroup.com .


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