When I was growing up, my family was a bit unorthodox, on multiple levels. At the same time it was the best of what a family can be.
The love was unconditional.
I have been thinking about that word a lot this year. As I delve deep into the issues of homeless LGBTQ youth, I often hear the youth say that what they are most missing are consistent adults in their lives, ones who can provide a safety net -- and unconditional support.
When I returned from college at age 21, I moved back home while I looked for a job. Many of my friends did this in 1984, and a large percentage of the population still does this in 2014.
My parents -- my mom, my stepdad and my bio dad -- always showed me unconditional love and support. When I came out as lesbian at age 17, I had their support (though my mom struggled, mainly because she didn't want me to suffer). My mom is the one who told me about a job opening at GayLife newspaper in 1984. When I co-founded Windy City Times in 1985, they were supportive. And when I started my own papers (Outlines, BLACKlines, etc.), they pushed me to do my best. They even gave me a $1,000 loan, 20 years before a bank would.
What I see in this next generation of LGBTQ youth is that, for many of them, their hierarchy of needs has been so neglected that they have no trust that anyone will catch them when they fall. And most young adults do fall at some point.
There are thousands of good people and dozens of agencies trying to help on the issue of homeless youth in Chicago. But it is clearly not enough. We must, as a community, do better.
As a result of the Windy City Times youth summit in May, and the subsequent 70-page report, we have been trying to fill in the gaps where youth asked for support. This includes a storage task force being headed by Lara Brooks and funded by the Pierce Family Foundation and the Polk Bros Foundation; the 750 Club Apartment Adoption Project I am spearheading with fiscal sponsor AIDS Foundation of Chicago; a task force on transit costs we are working on with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless; a job fair we co-hosted with local agencies, including Chicago House, Center on Halsted, Affinity and TransTech; an upcoming entrepreneurial training with StartOut, MB Financial Bank and the Center; a laundry project we hope to launch in 2015; and prevention efforts, foster-care outreach, a push to have colleges better serve their homeless populations, and much more.
The Apartment Adoption Project is what I am most focused on right now. The city and other groups are trying for a "housing first" model of support, since people can't hold down jobs, go to school, care for their own children, or lead physically and mentally healthy lives without consistent shelter. The apartments will all be managed by existing housing agencies, not individuals. Team captains commit to getting their friends together to raise enough for one apartment for two years. I am hoping this leads to mentorships and other longer-term relationships with youth, ones that can create stability and connection for long-term success. How about each major corporation's LGBT employee group, and each welcoming religious institution, sponsors its own apartment? Or our sports organizations, political groups and social clubs? (See this link for how this works.)
I am not naive, though I am optimistic. The problem of youth homelessness is large, but Chicago is a city of big shoulders and big solutions.
However, it is going to take many more people, companies, foundations, churches, schools, politicians and nonprofits stepping up to the plate to solve the complex issues that lead to homelessness, including poverty, racism, educational and criminal-justice inequities. LGBTQ issues are really just part of the puzzle.
People often help out once a year around the holidays, putting in volunteer time, donating toys and coats, and giving good cheer. But these youth need to eat 365 days a year, they need a bed 365 nights a year, and they need consistent, unconditional support, 365 days a year.