Ashley was 18 years old and still finishing high school when she was kicked out of the house by her parents after she told them she was gay. With nowhere to turn, Ashley began living in her car with her girlfriend. For a while, she was scared to tell anyone what had happened. But eventually, she let a guidance counselor at school know what was going on.
Ashley, whose name we’ve changed in this story for her privacy, was referred to Lighthouse Youth & Family Services.
There she found Safe and Supported, a program with the goal of preventing and ending homelessness for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ) teens and young adults. The program is a new investment for United Way this year.
“If we’re going to move the needle for children and families in poverty, we have to tackle this community challenge from every angle,” said Ross Meyer, United Way of Greater Cincinnati’s senior vice president & chief impact officer. “If we can help step in for a child or teen at such a pivotal time in their lives, we are more likely to help that child succeed long term.”
Part of the program is an organized effort that connects young adults with volunteer hosts who provide housing, food and mentorship. The onboarding process for the program required meetings between Ashley and her new host family.
When Ashley had to miss a meeting with her host family to attend her high school graduation, her new host mom showed up with a cake and balloons to celebrate.
Ashley lived with her host family for a year. She started college in January and recently moved into her own apartment. In addition to going to school, she’s also working fulltime. Despite moving out of her host home, Ashley still goes over there for dinner several nights a week.
“I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Ashley’s host dad walked her down the aisle if she were to ever get married – that’s how strong her bond is to the family,” said Melissa Meyer, director of the Safe and Supported program at Lighthouse Youth & Family Services.
The mission of Lighthouse Youth & Family Services is to advance the dignity and well-being of children, youth and families in need, with the goal of ending youth homelessness in Greater Cincinnati. After a lot of research, Lighthouse found that LGBTQ youth were at the forefront.
“We know that LGBTQ youth make up 7-10% of youth population in general, but up to 40% of homeless youth population, and new research says that LGBTQ youth are 2.2 times more likely to become homeless than their peers,” said Melissa. “Because LGBTQ youth are so overrepresented among homeless youth populations, Safe and Supported was a great fit to begin to address the disparities there.”
Safe and Supported is implementing strategies to make sure every LGBTQ youth has the housing, resources and connections to thrive.
“We estimate there are up to 700-800 LGBTQ youth living in Greater Cincinnati that experience homelessness every year, which doesn’t really count youth who are couch surfing or unstably housed. This is just a piece, but an important piece of Lighthouse’s overall work to address homelessness for youth in our community,” said Melissa.
Safe and Supported also helps keep families intact, and a major portion of that work is outreach and awareness. Safe and Supported has developed a comprehensive Resource Guide to help youth-serving professionals and parents find appropriate resources for LGBTQ-identified youth. The Resource Guide includes: medical and mental health services, support/social groups, crisis hotlines, housing and shelter options, inclusive camps for children and resources on campus at local colleges and universities. Approximately 3,000 full Resource Guides and 6,000 pocket resource guide cards have been distributed throughout the community.
“This is an issue that any young person is vulnerable to, and our goal is to think about families with children under 18 still living at home, and preserving those relationships, but also having the capacity to intervene and support families that have 18-24-year-olds that are also coming out and can be vulnerable at that time as well,” said Melissa.
That intervention has helped many young people like Ashley in our community. Initially she was devastated by what had happened with her family, but once she was connected with her host family, it changed her life.
“That’s the importance of building connections for young people. Whether they’re able to have a relationship with their family or not, to have some adults that are caring for them or looking out for them is incredibly important and often key to that person’s success.”