TRAC program for youth aging out of foster care gives LGBT young people a second chance to succeed
As of July 1, there were 1,750,000 homeless people in the United States, according to statistics from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Of those, statistics show, 7 percent were unaccompanied minors.
Other studies show that of that 7 percent — or about 122,500 unaccompanied, homeless minors — about 20 percent are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning. Compare that to the generally accepted estimate that about 10 percent of all people are LGBT, and it is painfully obvious that LGBTQ youth are disproportionately represented in the overall population of homeless minors.
And that’s not even counting LGBT — and Q — young people over the age of 18 and no longer considered minors.
Jerry Sullivan, director of the Transition Resource Action Center at CitySquare, said it’s his job to help at least some of these young people find a way off the street and into healthy, productive and safe lives.
Founded by Dallas businessman Jim Sowell in 1988 as the Central Dallas Food Pantry, the organization Sullivan works for was incorporated as a tax-exempt nonprofit in 1990. In 1994, the organization became Central Dallas Ministries. The name changed again in 2010, this time to CitySquare, an organization dedicated to fighting “the root causes of poverty through service, advocacy and friendship.”
TRAC, Sullivan’s branch of CitySquare, focuses on helping young people who are aging out of the state’s foster care system. Many of them, he said, find themselves suddenly left without a family, without a home, without opportunities for furthering their education and without training — or the means to get training — to find a job.
“We are here to help all the youth in this situation, not just the LGBT youth,” Sullivan said. “But it’s important for the LGBT youth coming out of foster care to know that we are there for them, too, and that we will treat them fairly and with respect, no matter who they are.”
Sullivan said that just as with the homeless youth population overall, LGBT young people are “absolutely over-represented” in the population of young people facing homelessness as they age out of foster care. In fact, he said, it seems that LGBT youth are more likely to end up in foster care in the first place, due to abuse or neglect from family members who refuse to accept the youth’s LGBT identity.
And LGBT youth placed in the foster care system, Sullivan continued, are less likely to be adopted or even to find stable, long-term foster care homes.
“Kids who are ‘different’ just have a harder time,” he said. “They are less likely to be reunited with their [biological] families, and less likely to be adopted. It’s even harder to get them placed in foster homes where they are accepted.”
Because they are often shuffled from one foster home to another, LGBT youth in the foster care system often tend to form unhealthy attachments, or perhaps to learn not to develop any attachments at all, Sullivan said. They tend to find it harder to follow the rules, and often run away from their foster homes.
All that means, he added, that when their time in foster care ends, LGBT youth leave the system with fewer ties, fewer protections and fewer resources. Sullivan said that “the earliest someone can age out of foster care is 18,” although some youths can stay in the system until age 22 if they meet specific criteria.
Sullivan said that “about 300 new kids a year” leave the foster care system in Texas. TRAC, he added, works with 800 to 900 young people a year between the ages of 16 and 25 who came out of the foster care system.
He said that there have been some Texas elected officials — Sen. Florence Shapiro, Sen. Jane Nelson and Sen. Royce West among them — who have “been powerful voices for foster youth in general over the years.” But still the system is fraught with flaws.
The purpose of TRAC, Sullivan said, is to help these previous foster children to move beyond the shortcomings of the foster care system and set them on the road to a better life. To do that, TRAC offers its clients case management services, job training, basic life skills training and access to two different housing programs.
One of those two housing programs is “permanent supportive housing” program for young people with a mental or physical disability. The list of qualifying physical disabilities, he said, includes HIV/AIDS.
The second program provides transitional housing, with youth getting to share an apartment, rent free, with other young people in the program for three to six months. During that time, TRAC helps them find a job and develop a housing plan and resources that will allow them to move out and live independently, whether that means living on their own or with a roommate.
Sullivan said that while TRAC does what it can to help homeless and at-risk youth in all situations, what the program can do is limited by funding and funding source rules.
“Our programs are funded through different sources, and each source has its own rules about how the funds can be used,” Sullivan said. “For instance, the work training program is funded through the foster care system, so only the young people coming out of the foster care system are eligible to participate. But one of the housing programs is funded by [the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development]. Their rules are different, so we are able to broaden our reach a little bit there.
“But our goal, ultimately, is to expand our services to a broader population of youth — those coming out of the juvenile justice system, runaways,” he continued. “But to do that, we have to find diversified funding sources that will allow us to serve that broader population.”
There are other resources around the Metroplex for homeless youth, Sullivan noted, adding that TRAC works with those agencies when possible. Those resources include Promise House, which primarily services homeless and runaway teenagers, and Our Friends Place and the Juliette Fowler Homes’ new Ebby’s House, both of which provide housing for homeless girls.
Sullivan said Promise House welcomes LGBT youth and both Our Friends Place and Ebby’s House accept lesbians. He did not know, though, if male-to-female transgender teens are accepted at the two housing programs for girls.
And even though these programs accept LGBT youth, the guidelines and accommodations are not necessarily comfortable for LGBT youth.
“The question is, do our LGBT youth need a separate program just for them, or do they just need the existing programs and resources to be supportive and respectful?” Sullivan said.
“I think there is possibly a need for a small, transitional housing program just for LGBT youth, some place where they could really feel safe and feel like they are respected and understood,” he continued. “I think if there was money available for such a program, there are organizations already in place that could come together to manage it — organizations like TRAC and Resource Center and Youth First.”
(Youth First, formerly Youth First Texas, is a program for LGBT youth people that is part of Dallas’ LGBT community center, Resource Center.)
“The goal, no matter how we do it, is to give these young people a place to live, a chance to work, so they are not living on the streets, turning tricks and getting addicted to drugs,” Sullivan said.
LGBT young people in foster care — and coming out of the foster care system — often start out with the odds stacked against them. But for two young women, TRAC has helped even the playing field.
Sarah Myers, now 23, said she “lived in foster care my whole life.” She spent her first 12 years with a guardian who then rejected her, leaving her to be forced to “jump from one foster care home to another.”
“Because of what happened with my guardian, I ended up with PTSD and some anger issues, and I had a hard time adjusting to new foster families,” Myers said. “Sometimes the foster family wanted me to be moved, and sometimes I asked to be moved because the family was abusive, or because of religious issues.”
At one point, she said, she discovered her biological family in Fort Worth. “But they rejected me, too, because I was gay,” and that just added the stress of her life. She graduated from high school in Athens, Texas, and in August 2010, at age 19, she finally made her way to Dallas.
“I found Youth First, and I was so happy to finally know I wasn’t the only gay person in the world,” Myers said.
That’s also when she found TRAC, and “I finally got the break I needed,” Myers said. “Because they were there for me, because they supported me, I was able to find an apartment. I have lived in my apartment now for two years, and it’s all because of TRAC.
“You know, I suffer from severe depression, too, and I have been through some really bad times,” Myers added. “And the people here at TRAC have been there for me through it all. I don’t think I would have made it this far alive without them.”
Starr Rodriguez, 19, also credits TRAC with pulling her through and giving her a chance at a brighter future.
Rodriguez spent six-and-a-half years in the foster care system without ever finding someplace she could settle down.
“I had always known I was different, all my life. And I was always trying to find myself,” she said. “The foster families didn’t like me because I was different, so I always ran away. I moved around a lot, from Austin to Houston, and then I came here, to Dallas.”
She said she was living on the streets, with “no home and nowhere to go” when someone at Parkland Hospital told her to call TRAC.
“Now, because of TRAC, I have a job. I have a roof over my head. I have connections and resources,” Rodriguez said. “I feel like I’m an actual person now.”
But Rodriguez, who works as a cook and a server for Resource Center’s hot meals program, isn’t satisfied just finding a better life for herself.
She wants to take the opportunities she’s found through TRAC and Resource Center and Promise House and use them to help others young people who are where she used to be.
“I want to be as helpful to other people as the people [at TRAC and Resource Center] have been to me,” Rodriguez said. “I love helping people, especially people like me, trans children like I was. I’d like to be a counselor, and I want to create a shelter for LGBT kids, give them a safe haven like I have found here.
“You know, when you are helping someone else, you have to open your hands,” Rodriguez said. “And blessings can only come to you when your hands are open. I want to bless other people and be blessed myself.”
• For information on volunteering with or donating to CitySquare’s Transition Resource Action Center, contact Jerry Sullivan at 214-370-9300, ext. 3032.
• For information on volunteering with or donating to Youth First at Resource Center, contact Michael Cruz by email at email@example.com.
• For information on Juliette Fowler Communities’ Ebby House, contact Ann McKinley at 214-827-0813, ext. 1336.
• For information on Our Friends Place, contact Sue Hesseltine at 214-520-6268.
• For information on Promise House, call 214-941-8670.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 19, 2014.