OUT on the street

Homeless LGBT youth in Dallas often turn to drugs, prostitution if social workers don’t find them first — and advocates say they need the community’s help


DAVID WEBB  |  Contributing Writer

Every weekend a hunt takes place on the streets of Dallas for some of society’s most vulnerable members, and their fate often depends upon who finds them first, according to social workers who note that LGBT youth are homeless at twice the rate of the general youth population.

The homeless young people under pursuit by both social workers and others whose motives are suspect — often sinister — tend to blend into the scene.

That makes the youths, who typically dress like average teenagers, difficult to identify and to engage in conversation, which is the first step in gaining their confidence and initiating sustained contact.

The young homeless population differs substantially from their older counterparts because they are unlikely to be found sleeping in homeless shelters, under bridges, in parks and the like. Their youth often affords them the opportunity to spend the night with relatives, friends and acquaintances, which is why “sofa surfing” has become popular to describe their nomadic lifestyle.

HUNTING THE HOMELESS | Promise House case managers Benjamin Williams, center, and Jessica Amspoker talk to Terry Fisher, a homeless man, on Cedar Springs last month. Promise House provides temporary emergency shelter for young homeless people, and Amspoker and Williams say older homeless people are often the best source of information about where to find youths on the streets. (David Webb/Dallas Voice)

HUNTING THE HOMELESS | Promise House case managers Benjamin Williams, center, and Jessica Amspoker talk to Terry Fisher, a homeless man, on Cedar Springs last month. Promise House provides temporary emergency shelter for young homeless people, and Amspoker and Williams say older homeless people are often the best source of information about where to find youths on the streets. (David Webb/Dallas Voice)

The youths often are distrustful of older people who approach them on the street because they quickly learn there are criminal-minded individuals circulating, whose motives sometimes mirror the real life horrors of primetime television crime dramas. Dallas is a city of beautiful skyscrapers with bright colorful lights beckoning visitors, but it also has a vast, ugly underbelly harboring drug trafficking, prostitution, pornography productions and every other type of vice imaginable to which young people can become prey.

Amie McNamara, interim director at Youth First Texas in Dallas, said her organization provides a safe place for all LGBT youths to meet and receive counseling and reliable support from peers. It also works to counteract the harmful influences homeless young people encounter when they leave their homes, she said.

“Gay, lesbian and transgender youths have a much harder time,” McNamara said. “They tend to get kicked out more.”

Sometimes, they leave home on their own because the conditions there are deplorable or abusive, according to social workers.

Once away from the protection of responsible adults, homeless youths face big challenges to survive, and if they are LGBT the challenges often are greater because of anti-gay discrimination and feelings of inferiority, McNamara said. They often make bad choices because of the absence of authority figures to guide them, she added.

“They feel they sometimes have no choice but to get involved in the sex trade,” McNamara said. “Their need is so great it is easy for them to get involved with an adult who has ulterior motives.”

Often the adult simply offers to allow the homeless youth a meal and a sofa to sleep on, but the youth soon learns there are “strings attached,” said McNamara, adding she could think of a dozen who are depending on the generosity of friends or others for shelter. If the youth is at least 17, no laws apparently are being broken in the sex-for-shelter scenario because that is the age of legal consent, and presumably some people are sincere in their offers to help, without expectations of something in return.

Youth First Texas arranged a telephone interview with one youth who is homeless and 18. His name is being withheld because of his age and vulnerability, and the name Ricky is being used to protect his identity. He offered to allow the use of his name, which may be reflective of immature thinking that fails to take into account that he might feel differently about such public exposure when he’s older.

Ricky has been homeless since he was 15, when his mother kicked him out of the house because he declared he was gay. His mother threatened to kick him out in a text message while he was at school, and when he arrived home he found the locks had been changed.

“She was like, ‘If you are not going to abide by rules, get out,’” Ricky said. “I thought she was joking. I didn’t know where to go or who to call. All I could do was sit there and cry.”

Ricky said his mother wanted him to hide his sexual orientation rather than coming out. Had he dropped the subject and remained closeted, he could have stayed, he said.

“She wanted to pretend like it never happened,” said Ricky, who noted he couldn’t accept those terms. “It’s my life.”

Since then Ricky, whose father is a truck driver who has no permanent residence because he is on the road all the time, has alternated living with friends and other relatives. He now lives with a sister, and his father pays Ricky’s share of the rent so he can go to high school, where he’s a junior.

Ricky said homelessness disrupted his life, causing him to get involved with alcohol, drugs and prostitution while he was staying with a female friend who had older friends. Those older friends introduced him to behavior he now regrets, said Ricky, who also got a tattoo and a face-piercing during that period of apparent rebellion.

Ricky failed a grade in high school because of the situation, and he is now a year behind in graduating.

“I bounced around from home to home after I was kicked out,” said Ricky, who hopes to get a part-time job, graduate from high school, go to college and become a high school teacher specializing in theater. “It has ripped a hole in my family.”

Ironically, Ricky’s mother has come out as a lesbian and lives with another woman. He now suspects her fears about her own sexual orientation caused her to be unreasonably harsh with him.

“I wouldn’t want to live with her now, but she hasn’t offered to let me,” said Ricky, who notes he considers the leaders and other youth at Youth First Texas to be his family now.

Ricky’s plight has become all too common in today’s society, which seems to be mostly unaware of the problems. Every year a new generation of ages out of foster care and the juvenile justice system, and an estimated 50 percent wind up homeless within six months because they aren’t prepared for independent living.

GETTING THEM BACK ON TRAC | Jerry Sullivan, assistant director for the Transition Resource Action Center, which provides transitional housing, said at one point in the last year two-thirds of the youth TRAC was serving were LGBT. (John Wright/Dallas Voice)

GETTING THEM BACK ON TRAC | Jerry Sullivan, assistant director for the Transition Resource Action Center, which provides transitional housing, said at one point in the last year two-thirds of the youth TRAC was serving were LGBT. (John Wright/Dallas Voice)

The nation’s estimated 1.7 million homeless and runaway youths come from all socio-economic backgrounds and cultures, and it is estimated that 20 percent of them are LGBT, according to statistics compiled by the National Coalition for the Homeless. In comparison, the number of LGBT youths in the general youth population is estimated at only 10 percent, according to the Washington, D.C.-based group.

“If you are an LGBT youth, you are twice as likely to be homeless as teens in the general population,” said Mike Faenza, president and CEO of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance.  “Anything that causes additional challenges to individuals — stress, stigma, discrimination and other psychological factors — also impact and present barriers to stability within the family.”

Faenza noted that all homeless people tend tobecome victims of crime at higher rates, but young people who don’t have the guidance of concerned adults are especially vulnerable.

“They are exposed to people preying on them and exploiting them,” Faenza said. “They come into contact with people offering to help them, but they actually are just using them sexually. There are serious risks to kids who are homeless, and it is escalated for kids that have challenges or are traumatized because they are struggling to come out.”

Ricky represents the type of youth that social workers such as Benjamin Williams and Jessica Amspoker want to meet and help before they get involved in self-destructive lifestyles. They are case managers involved in street outreach for Dallas-based Promise House.

Williams and Amspoker hit the streets on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights looking for youth who need help. The pair regularly visits the Cedar Springs entertainment district in Oak Lawn, as well as places like the Greyhound and DART stations in downtown Dallas.

On the streets Williams and Amspoker offer youths protection at Promise House, which provides temporary emergency shelter for young homeless people to help them get back in school, get jobs or even join the military.  The social workers travel as a team because the work can be dangerous in that the youths they approach might be under observation by pimps or drug traffickers.

Amspoker said young people who are homeless and need help are difficult to track and approach. Most don’t realize there are resources such as Youth First Texas and other homeless assistance programs available to help them, she said.

“Every day is different,” Amspoker said. “We’re talking about a transient community. It’s a lifestyle where they have to stay on the move. Where they are staying last week may not be where they are this week.”

Williams said homeless youths are often deceptively average looking because they “don’t look homeless.”

“These young people are still going to want to be presentable and impress people,” Williams said. “They understand appearances are everything.”

Many still have cell phones because their parents will continue to pay the bills so they can remain in contact with them, Williams said. Curiously, the parents say they are comforted to know their children are “still alive,” apparently unmindful of the other hazards of life on the street, he said.

Williams said they make many of their connections with young people by handing out cards with information about Promise House to everyone they see. Older homeless people will sometimes tip them to where they can locate homeless young people, he said.

“We try to build a reputation by being at places at regular times,” Williams said. “They eventually learn they can trust us.”

Once contact is made with homeless youths, emergency shelter is provided at Promise House if they want it. Sometimes, a homeless youth will call them later to say they have decided to take advantage of the help being offered them.

COUNTING THE KIDS | Mike Faenza, president and CEO of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, said there’s never been a good count of the homeless young people in Dallas, but he hopes results from a survey in January will remedy that. (David Webb/Dallas Voice)

COUNTING THE KIDS | Mike Faenza, president and CEO of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, said there’s never been a good count of the homeless young people in Dallas, but he hopes results from a survey in January will remedy that. (David Webb/Dallas Voice)

If the homeless youths are LGBT, Williams and Amspoker will refer them to Youth First Texas for counseling and support.

When a youth enters Promise House, which can temporarily house 20 people ages 10 to 17 and eight people ages 18 to 21 at a time, every individual is first offered a meal and a shower, said Sonja Parkhill, an outreach manager. The staff has worked with a transgender individual more than once who has wanted help finding a place to live, she noted.

“Some of them wind up on the streets again,” Parkhill said. “They go to another place, and they don’t make it there and go back on the streets. Sometimes, they call us and ask if they can come back. Unless they’ve done something that prevents it, they can come back.”

One of the resources for homeless young people is the City Square Transition Resource Action Center, or TRAC, which provides transitional housing for homeless people struggling to become stable. In one program, individuals of the same sex who are moving toward employment or full-time schooling are temporarily provided a private bedroom in a three-bedroom apartment and food. In another program the individual is provided with their own one-bedroom apartment for which a Section 8 voucher temporarily pays for a portion of the rent based on their income. The organization also manages a permanent housing program for disabled people.

Jerry Sullivan, assistant director for TRAC, said the organization is a safe place for minorities, including LGBT people. He also noted that the majority of young people becoming homeless appear to be those who are aging out of foster care.

“In the youth we see on a daily basis that identify as LGBT I do think the national statistics play out locally,” Sullivan said. “At one point in the last year we noticed that two-thirds of the youth we were serving were LGBT, but that’s not always the case.”

Sullivan noted he met with Resource Center Dallas officials recently to share information about what resources his organization has available for homeless LGBT youth. Referrals are welcome, he said.
“There’s a fair amount of resources,” said Sullivan.

Cece Cox, executive director and CEO of Resource Center Dallas, said it’s clear that the number of homeless LGBT youth is disproportionate to the general population of youth, and the organization is dedicated to working with TRAC, Promise House, Youth First Texas and Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance to address the issue. More attention needs to be raised about the problem of homelessness among LGBT youth, she said.

Over the years Resource Center Dallas leaders have provided cultural competency training to law enforcement personnel, Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission agents and others who might come into contact with homeless LGBT youth, Cox said. But there needs to be more education about LGBT youth and their increased risks of becoming homeless, she said.

“There hasn’t been a voice in the past, and we’re bringing that issue to the table,” Cox said. “If Dallas is addressing homelessness, they certainly need to include the issue of LGBT youth.”

Faenza, of Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, said there has never before been a good count of the homeless young people in Dallas, but he hopes the one that occurred in late January will remedy that. The documentation is needed to get more resources dedicated to young people, he said.

“We’re trying to develop political will,” said Faenza, who has been involved in social work for more than three decades. “We need to do more for kids.”

Faenza said there are many ways that the LGBT community can get involved in helping homeless LGBT youth. Anyone who is aware of a homeless LGBT youth should refer them to any of the agencies working with homeless youths.

People can also get involved by becoming educated about the issue and volunteering to help with advocacy, Faenza said. Speakers are available to attend gatherings such as small receptions to discuss the issue, he said.
For people who have the room and time to give, temporary housing is also needed for youths, Faenza said.

“We need help,” Faenza said. “We need people to get involved. That would be wonderful, and there is a world of things that can be done. We would love to talk with anyone who is interested in helping.”

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Homeless youth resources

• Youth First Texas
214-879-0400
www.youthfirsttexas.org

• Promise House
214-941-8578
www.promisehouse.org

• City Square TRAC
214-370-9300
www.citysquare.org/TRAC

• Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance
972-638-5600
www.mdhadallas.org

• North Texas Youth Connection
800-568-7776
www.ntxyouthconnection.org

• City House, Plano
972-424-4626
www.cityhouse.org

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This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 17, 2012.

—  Michael Stephens

Local briefs • 11.25.11

Blanket collection drive set

As part of the weekly Breakfast at Cathedral of Hope — called BACH — program that provides a meal for homeless people, Denise Shoemaker is spearheading a drive, in honor of the late Windy Churitch, to collect blankets to be distributed to the homeless as colder weather approaches.

Shoemaker said this week that blanket donations will be collected during the December Chick Happy Hour on Thursday, Dec. 1, beginning at 6 p.m. at Kinki Lounge, 3606 Greenville Ave.

Blankets can also be delivered to The Brick/Joe’s, 2525 Wycliff Ave., on Saturday, Dec. 3, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Shoemaker explained that BACH volunteers last year began a program to provide “something extra, besides the breakfast” for homeless people during the holiday season. She said the blanket drive is being held in honor of Churitch, a longtime Dallas-area resident who died unexpectedly in October.

“Windy was a really good person and a good friend, and we thought that this would be a great way to honor her memory,” Shoemaker said.
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O&E elects officers

Jeffrey Gorczynski with Citi was chosen as affiliate chair of the Out and Equal DFW Regional Affiliate on Saturday, Nov. 19, when the organization elected its officers for 2012.

Other officers are Chair Emeritus Paul von Wupperfield with Texas Instruments, Community Outreach Chair Ted Vantrabert, Secretary Samantha Seelbach with American Airlines and Treasurer Brandon Aldrich with KPMG.

Gorczynski is a vice president at Citi and has been an active leader and officer of the Out & Equal DFW Regional Affiliate for several years. He played a major role in planning for the Out & Equal Workplace Summit, held in Dallas in October.

Gorczynski said the organization plans to “leverage the success of the summit to start some new initiatives right here in Dallas/Fort Worth. Our ultimate goal is to make the workplace a better place for everyone.”

Von Wupperfeld, who was the first chair of the Out & Equal DFW Regional Affiliate when it was formed five years ago, said he was “particularly pleased we were able to engage so much of our community in those events [during the summit] and show the summit attendees what an exciting place Dallas can be to live and work.”

Out & Equal is a national, non-profit organization headquartered in San Francisco that champions safe and equitable workplaces for LGBT people. In addition to holding its annual workplace summit, the organization has a “Building Bridges” program offering LGBT diversity training for all workplace settings.

For more information, go online to OutAndEqual.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 25, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Query • 12.24.10

Have you done any special giving project for the holidays?

Ivana Tramp Gomez — “Following a tradition my late uncle started in the 1980s, I try as often as I can to drive around downtown Dallas handing out jackets that I have collected from family and friends to homeless people.”

Cindy Noble Cole — “Gathered coats for the 24 Hour Club, a wonderful rehab/home for alcoholics and drug addicts. Also my daughter’s job sponsored a military family this Christmas — a single father with a 13-year-old son.”

Ty Larson — “Every year, my family goes to all of our friends and collects clothing, toys and food for families in need in Grand Prairie, where my mother works as a kindergarten teacher.”

Jason A Walker  — “The husband of a teacher at the school where I work is dying of lung cancer. They had no Christmas decorations up and she didn’t have time or energy to put them out. I got a group of students together and we went to their home and put their decorations out for them.”

Have a suggestion for a question you’d like us to ask?
E-mail it to nash@dallasvoice.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 24, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

YFT plans fundraiser to kick off Pride celebrations

Event intended to help make up shortfall in youth group’s budget caused by economic downturn

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer taffet@dallasvoice.com

Sam Wilkes
Sam Wilkes

Youth First Texas kicks off Pride with a fundraising party at the home of Jo Bess Jackson and Joanne Martin on Sept. 11.

“It’s a great way for those in our community who want to celebrate Pride and support a great organization,” said Youth First Texas Director of Development and Administration Sam Wilkes.

Advisory board member Renee Baker put out a call to members of the Women’s Business Network to help raise money for the center after it moved to its new location. Jackson and Martin responded.

While no admission to the party will be charged, Wilkes said they will showcase the services the organization offers and hope the community will be generous with its financial support.

“We’ll probably have a short presentation. A youth or two will make an appeal,” said board member Chris Hendrix.

He said the group was looking for monthly donors who will make a multi-year commitment and challenge appeals.

Wilkes said that their Collin County group recently lost its space and is currently meeting at an office owned by Big Brothers/Big Sisters. The group is looking for a space of its own.

“We need a smaller, more secure spot,” he said. “YFT Collin County is a more intimate group. We have a couple of things in the works and are looking for what will be the best fit.”

The main Dallas center moved earlier this year to a new location on Harry Hines Boulevard.

Baker said the old space on Maple Avenue leaked, had air conditioning problems, was located near a meth clinic and had homeless people hanging out on the property. The new, more modern facility is safer and has attracted more youth.

“As of last month, we served 1,300 individuals so far this year,” Baker said.

That’s about a 25 percent increase in the number accessing services, and with the safer location some attend more often.

YFT is gearing up for another increase later this year when DART’s Green Line opens in December.

Market Center Station is across the street from their new building, making the facility even more accessible.

Jackson said she and her partner were delighted to open their house to help the organization continue to offer a variety of services.

“I’m a cheerleader for them,” Jackson said. “What they do is not duplicated by anyone else.”

She was referring to the way YFT integrates social activities with group and individual counseling.

“We offer community dinners to develop peer groups not based on drugs and alcohol,” Wilkes said.

Baker said she’s participated in movie nights, arts and crafts activities and cooking classes.

Twice a month, a gender identity group helps transgender youth gain self-acceptance. Lawyers work with the group pro bono to explain the steps needed to change legal papers, and counselors help them with a variety of questions and help them deal with pent up anxiety.

A six-week coming out series helps youth cope with family, friends and school.

YFT provides additional, unlimited free individual counseling as well. They partner with AIDS Arms and Resource Center Dallas to provide free HIV testing.

Wilkes said the agency works with a number of youth who are living on their own and struggling.

“Our food pantry is cleaned out and restocked each week,” he said.

Jackson and Martin have opened their North Dallas home to other groups many times, Jackson said. She is an estate-planning attorney who works with a number of transitioning people and with same-sex couples and single gays and lesbians.

“We have to protect ourselves even when the law doesn’t,” Jackson said. “We have to be creative.”

She said that’s exactly what YFT does that for LGBT youth and hoped the community would offer its support.

Sept. 11. 6 p.m.-8:30 p.m. at a private residence in North Dallas. To RSVP and attend the Youth First Texas party, e-mail Sam Wilkes at samw@youthfirsttexas.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 27, 2010

—  Kevin Thomas