Promise House, shelter for homeless youth, kicks off campaign to raise awareness of issues facing young people who live on the streets
On any given night, more than 1,000 Dallas youth are either living on the streets or “sofa-surfing” from home to home, experts say.
And up to 40 percent of them are LGBT youth who’ve been kicked out by their parents because of their sexual orientation.
To make matters worse, homeless LGBT youth are at a higher risk for substance abuse, victimization, mental health issues and risky sexual behavior than their straight counterparts, studies show.
“I think it’s particularly important for everybody in the gay and lesbian community to look out for these teens, because if they don’t, there aren’t very many people who are going to,” said Harriet Boorhem, executive director of Promise House in Oak Cliff.
Promise House is a nonprofit started in 1984 that operates an emergency shelter for homeless youth as well as a transitional living program. Last week, Promise House kicked off “Who’s Sofa Surfing Tonight,” a monthlong awareness campaign held in conjunction with National Runaway Prevention Month that’s designed to bring attention to the city’s homeless youth problem.
Unlike in other major cities, Boorhem said, there is no central gathering place for homeless youth in Dallas, so the problem tends to be somewhat invisible. While many youth may not be living under bridges, they do find themselves in unstable situations, bouncing between the homes of friends and acquaintances.
Sofa surfing appears to be a particular problem among LGBT youth, who may be reluctant to go to shelters for fear of discrimination and who accounted for only 13 percent of Promise House clients last year. As society in general grows more accepting of gays, kids are coming out at younger ages. But that doesn’t mean it’s always OK with their parents.
“They say things like, “‘You’ll grow out of it’ or “‘You’re too young to know that,’ or they way overreact and then the teen ends up sofa surfing or on the street,” Boorhem said.
Bob Ivancic, co-founder of the LGBT social organization Youth First Texas, said the situation often is temporary.
“Parents have a process to go through,” Ivancic said. “Statistically, they come around, but in the meantime, the youth are in crisis.”
Although sofa surfing can provide refuge, it also poses problems, Boorhem and Ivancic said.
Ivancic said LGBT youth who sofa surf typically aren’t in the same place long enough to enroll in school or get regular jobs.
They may even lack things like Social Security cards.
“They end up just kind of being in survival mode instead of being grounded and making plans, and that’s real difficult to break once they’re in that survival mode,” Ivancic said.
Boorhem said all too often for LGBT homeless youth, survival mode includes exchanging sex for things like food, clothing, a place to stay or drugs.
“They’re looking for a place to stay, and they have no money, so they’re highly vulnerable to exploitation by older adults,” Boorhem said. “The longer they’re not in a home, the higher the risk is they will end up doing survival sex.”
Ivancic estimated that 20 percent of those who come to Youth First Texas are on the streets or sofa surfing. He said the organization eventually plans to hire someone to oversee a housing program.
In the meantime, Promise House is doing what it can to fill the void. Youth First Texas has conducted training for Promise House staff, who also do outreach in the Oak Lawn area every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.
But Boorhem is the first to admit it’s not enough.
“There are a lot more gay and lesbian kids out there who need our help than we help,” Boorhem said. “We certainly welcome them and will do everything we can to help them.”
For more information about Promise House and the awareness campaign, go to www.promisehouse.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 9, 2007