The idea of emergency housing for LGBTQ youth in the Rio Grande Valley was introduced by community member Sarah Chavez in 2015. Chavez had just lost a close friend, a young LGBTQ+ Dreamer, after he committed suicide. The tragic loss moved Chavez to see the urgency to provide temporary housing for others in similar positions as her late friend.
She began planning the remodeling of a family home to temporarily house LGBTQ+ youth. A committee was formed to develop a mission statement and goals, and events were hosted to raise awareness and funds for what would eventually be known as “Pride Home.”
The project quickly caught on throughout the community as the issue of homelessness was recognized by virtually all LGBTQ advocacy organizations in the region. For LGBTQ community organizers in the RGV, they were all too familiar with phone calls and messages, many times late at night, from LGBTQ individuals who had no place to go or who had just been kicked out of their homes after coming out.
That same year Pride Home was founded, I attended a movie screening at Cine El Rey hosted by Aquí Estamos RGV, a youth-led queer and trans people of color organization, of the film Mosquita y Mari, an apt choice to complement the new housing project in the region. The 2012 film directed by Aurora Herrero is, “a coming of age story that focuses on a tender friendship between two young Chicanas.” It is no doubt a must see. As the story unravels, one is moved and taken aback by the difficult situations the characters navigate through. In the film, Mari and her family are in a transient housing cycle, starting the film by moving into a new neighborhood and school. As the story progresses, the inability to afford rent becomes clear and displacement and the risk of homelessness develop into some of the main plot points for the character of Mari. In addition to being a teenage queer Latina, this protagonist is dealing with a dragging deficit educational experience and various other socioeconomic factors like belonging to an immigrant family in a single-parent household.
The film was especially meaningful to me as a member of the queer community and as a fair housing advocate since it highlights the unique intersectional experiences that might arise from the combination of both themes. The film shows how being a person of color and identifying as queer can translate to everyday struggles. It also shows that homelessness brings an immeasurable amount of hardships and that even just life as a teenager can be a daunting task.
But what is the experience when all these struggles are faced simultaneously? The film Mosquita y Mari reiterates the notion that individuals do not have the privilege and choice of silo-ing off their problems. It is a reminder that while struggles differ in urgency they must be faced in all its aspects because addressing each is key in uprooting inequality.
When addressing intersecting issues like LGBTQ+ youth homelessness, for example, a multifaceted approach is necessary to be impactful, successful, and reach the target population. As the United States Interagency on Homelessness explains, “Youth homelessness is a problem that doesn’t fit neatly into a box.” The problem is substantial because according to the LGBTQ Homeless Youth in Focus Report produced by said agency, “twenty to forty percent of youth experiencing homelessness self-identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ), which is disproportionate to the percentage of LGBTQ youth in the general youth population.” Several resources, organizations and national coalitions are currently making great strides in tackling the problem via best practices and policy-oriented solutions including the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the National Coalition for the Homeless, and the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce. Emergency shelters and supportive housing programs that cater specifically to LGBTQ+ youth, however, are few but extremely important in addressing immediate needs of the population.
In larger cities, several assistance programs have been successful in serving and focusing on the unique issues affecting LGBTQ+ youth by providing niche-housing solutions. For example, in Philadelphia, the Valley Youth House’s Pride program provides housing and supportive services for 25 homeless LGBTQ+ individuals between the ages of 18 to 23. Youth are provided a safe place via scattered site private-market units and supportive services that allow youth to “gain support to make the typical transitions that occur during late adolescence and early adulthood.” Another successful LGBTQ+ youth re-housing effort is the True Colors Residence (TCR), which opened its doors in Central Harlem in 2011 and was the first of its kind in New York City to provide “permanent, safe, and supportive housing to 30 formerly homeless Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) young adults.” The TCR is a model program that provides affordable housing based on income as well as voluntary case management, HIV/AIDS counseling and education, job readiness and placement assistance services to residents referred by local community organizations and city agencies. The project is co-lead by artist Dolly Parton. This has helped with its success as a second TCR location opened in the Bronx in 2015, and the True Colors Fund was created to push for systemic solutions through policy advocacy, youth collaboration, training, and education.
In the state of Texas, the focus on LGBTQ+ homeless youth specific programs have started to catch on. The Thrive Youth Center in downtown San Antonio opened in 2015 to provide a safe and supportive center for homeless LGBTQ+ youth. The 18-bed shelter is a partnership with Haven for Hope, a city-funded group home. In Oakcliff, the Promise House opened an LGBTQ+ specific home in 2016 with room for four individuals. Most recently, in April, the City of Dallas LGBT Task Force set a goal of “dramatically reducing homelessness among LGBTQ+IA youth by 2020” and created Outlast Youth, a coalition of stakeholders whose mission is on finding housing, counseling, health care, and job training for youth living on the streets and independently. A similar initiative called NEST is beginning implementation in Houston is coordinated by the Montrose Center/Hatch Youth, and led by Coalition for the Homeless Houston/Harris County with the guidance of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The Rio Grande Valley has had more difficulty putting a number on the need for re-housing services since the federal tool used to count homeless populations and subpopulations called the Continuum of Care Homeless Assistance Program (COC) has not differentiated the RGV homeless population from the general balance of the state since 2005. Cities and counties like El Paso and Dallas have annual region-specific reports that provide homelessness data from the federal government. The reports showcase the need and can be used to demand solutions from local, state and federal agencies, but Valley specific information is not included. This leaves local counties, cities and service groups to meet the need. The latest county data that is available is youth specific and is provided in the Youth Homelessness in Texas 2016 Report. The results show that Cameron and Hidalgo County had a combined total of 3,743 homeless youth in the 2015 – 2016 school year, 740 of which were unaccompanied. While comprehensive data on homelessness in the RGV might be lacking, situations and personal testimonies that arise make the problem difficult to ignore.
The Pride Home sparked efforts to recognize the urgent need for LGBTQ emergency housing in the RGV, although the project has run into several operational issues. A non-profit status was filed and the home was scheduled to open in May 2016, but it failed to take off for several reasons, including the lack of transparency in finances and funding sources, safety concerns with the home, and the lack of professional capacity to provide the support services needed. The endeavor to house LGBTQ+ youth in the RGV is noble and a definite need, but the Pride Home quickly found that a project of this magnitude requires careful planning, accountability, and the collaboration of various stakeholders including fair housing, LGBTQ+ youth advocates, and local service providers.
The opening of the Pride Home is currently on hold until the project has the adequate resources needed and leadership has shifted to help address the issues that has kept it from opening its doors. The group is working on a community needs and assessment survey to better understand what the needs and how the organization can change its mission to serve them now and in the future. The new volunteer board members and board president have learned from previous setbacks and are developing a more comprehensive plan that will build a stronger base for such a large, but much needed, undertaking.
Building a stronger support system will not only be needed to address local issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community, but with the notable anti-LGBTQ 85th Texas Legislature, it is evident that LGBTQ+ Texans, their families, and loved ones will have to come together now more than ever to resist state-sanctioned homophobia and discrimination. Advocacy organizations all over the state have pushed against anti-LGBTQ+ legislation such as Senate Bill 6 (Bathroom Bill) and championed equality in housing through House Bill 192 by Representative Bernal (San Antonio). While both efforts proved an uphill battle for the queer and trans community, they allowed housers and LGBTQ+ advocates to work together on a mutual goal.
It was similar to when the Supreme Court provided housers and LGBTQ+ activists with a tool to fight inequality through the equal marriage ruling that now makes it possible for legally married same-sex couples to apply and be eligible for housing assistance if they are in a low-income household. That was a win that both housers and the queer community celebrated together. It is urgent that statewide housing and LGBTQ+ advocates come together to create more of these communal victories that address systemic inequity in both aspects on the same level. This is especially true with populations that personify intersections of both or more issues such as the homeless LGBTQ+ youth community.
If you or someone you now is at risk of homelessness, contact:
Family Crisis Center in Harlingen
616 W Taylor Ave, Harlingen, TX 78550
656 N Minnesota Ave, Brownsville, TX 78521
Josue Ramirez is Co-Director at Texas Low Income Housing Information Service and a staff writer at Neta.