It snowed last weekend, and I was like Pee-Wee Herman, shouting “It’s sno-ho-hoing!” on the phone to family and friends. (If you haven’t seen his special, it’s the gayest Christmas has ever been. I’m talking Grace Jones in a breastplate singing “The Little Drummer Boy.” But I digress … ) I love to see my backyard blanketed in white and hear kids outside giggling as they slide about. I invited some neighbors over and we kicked back and watched the snow fall outside my front door as we sipped mulled wine. Unfortunately, for many LGBT young people, the snow and cold are not such happy occasions. It is a taste of tough times to come as they seek shelter and warmth as the weather dips down.
One of the organizations working to solve the problem is the Valley Youth House. Its Pride Program is the longest-running housing program for LGBT youth in Philadelphia and it needs our help. One of the things I like about VYH is that it doesn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach. The organization has services for drop-in kids, helps find long-term housing and teaches basic skills like how to open a bank account or pay your rent. Young people get customized, personal service to best suit their needs through these programs.
We spoke to the coordinator of the Pride Program, Eran Sargent.
PGN: What part of the country do you hail from?
ES: I’m originally from Cincinnati, Ohio — a great place to grow up.
PGN: Interesting, you don’t have a Midwestern accent.
ES: Really? Typically, people seem to notice it instantly. They peg me right away, or sometimes, they think I sound Southern.
PGN: Now, that I can hear a little.
ES: Yeah, so I went to high school in Cincinnati and then to college in Oxford, Ohio, which is a rural college town about 45 minutes away. I attended Miami University for my undergrad and graduate degree.
PGN: So you were in Florida as well?
ES: No, the Miami University of Ohio. It was awesome, but definitely not Florida. No sun and sand.
PGN: I’m assuming you know the show WKRP in Cincinnati?
ES: [Giggles] No, sorry, that was before my time.
PGN: [Laughs] Ouch! So what were some of the things that made it such a great place to grow up?
ES: Cincinnati is a place where … hmmm, how can I describe it? It’s just home for me, I didn’t know anyplace else and I love Cincinnati chili, I love the Bingles … I love the …
PGN: Wait, what are they?
ES: The football team there.
PGN: [Laughs] Oh, the Bengals. OK, that time your accent was strong. I thought you were saying “Bingles.”
ES: Ha! I told you I had an accent! So yes, I love the Bengals and my family and neighbors and all the things that give that feeling of home.
PGN: Tell me about the family.
ES: We’re very close-knit. I have four brothers. My mom raised us as a single parent. I’m the second-oldest and we always spent a lot of family time together. And there were always a lot of friends around.
PGN: What does your mom do?
ES: She’s a medical assistant by trade.
PGN: With five rambunctious kids, that must have come in handy. What was your biggest scrape?
ES: I broke a finger and I’m allergic to pain! I don’t like being in pain. Some people may tolerate it well but not me. And if you ask my friends or family, they might tell you that I can be a just little dramatic at times. I was used to 10 working fingers so when I broke one, I was through. I don’t even remember how I broke it, I just remember the trauma.
PGN: What’s a favorite holiday?
ES: Hands down, Thanksgiving. First of all, I love to eat and I love to cook. I have great memories of my mom, myself and my aunt in the kitchen, laughing, talking and preparing the meal. Even the night before was wonderful, all of us going to one person’s house to do all the prep, spending time while we got everything together, everybody having a good time. For us, it was the lead-up to the holiday season.
PGN: What’s your signature dish?
ES: To make: My specialty is homemade cheesecakes. I love to make desserts. To eat: My favorite thing is dressing. I love, love, love some cornbread dressing with the giblets and turkey juice and all that good stuff. Turkey and a good dressing, I love it, love it.
PGN: What was your favorite Christmas gift?
ES: Well, my birthday is Dec. 30 so birthday and Christmas gifts tend to run together. It’s unfair but I’m used to it. And I will say, I’m not a big gift person — either giving or receiving — so it’s hard to recall anything that stands out.
PGN: I love getting gifts for people, it’s all about the hunt and finding something unusual or special for each person. I still even do stockings for the whole family.
ES: Really? Not me, I’m not lazy but I’m always afraid of not getting the right thing, so I’d rather just let people pick their own presents. I’m a gift-card girl.
PGN: What did you study in school?
ES: For undergrad, I studied family studies and human development and I have a master’s in social work.
PGN: What made you want to go into that field?
ES: I initially entered college as an education major but I was unsure of what exactly I wanted to do. But when it came to finalizing my major, I naturally fell into it. I took one family-studies class and loved it. I could really relate to it and it was easy for me to tie the concepts we learned in the classroom to my life. That kept me engaged and wanting to know more and to dig deeper into that field of study.
PGN: What was it and what was so relatable?
ES: Family studies and human development is kind of broad; it runs from child and adolescent development to adults, couples’ relationships, family violence and how to understand the relationships between schools, families, communities and how they tie together. Taking the micro, macro and mezzo pieces and making sense of them.
PGN: And what was the takeaway that related to your family?
ES: That all families are dysfunctional and that’s actually normal. And how to sit with that and be OK with it, because I’m naturally a fixer. I want to come up with solutions to things if I see a problem, but I learned through books and theories that oftentimes dysfunction has a purpose and actually makes sense, it’s functional dysfunction — if that makes sense.
PGN: What did you do after college before moving to our fair city?
ES: Well, while I was in college, I was working in HIV/AIDS education and prevention and I continued that for about six months after graduation. I was doing peer-health education and talking to students about PrEP and safer sex practices and assertive and effective communication, that sort of thing. I did that from underground to grad school and then for a short while afterwards.
PGN: Was there a client that stands out?
ES: Yes. Early in my career as a medical case manager, I worked for the only AIDS-service organization in the city; it was a small organization and there wasn’t much diversity. Although many of our clients were young African-American males, that was not reflected in our staff. One of my first clients was a young person and they were having difficulty connecting with their case manager. As a result, they weren’t doing good medically, they were out of care and not going to the doctor. As a result, their health was declining. After meeting with them, I was able to connect with that young person on a human level as someone whom they could relate to. Because of the common experiences we had, the client was more receptive to me and because I spoke to them as a fellow human just asking how they were and what they needed, instead of telling them, they were then receptive to receiving information and getting the care they needed. It wasn’t a power-driven conversation about what I could do or telling someone what they needed to do. It was a conversation from someone who valued their life experiences. And I realized that sometimes it’s really important to have someone that looks or sounds like you that you can relate to that makes all the difference. That lesson has stuck with me throughout my career.
PGN: What was coming out like for you?
ES: Oh my goodness. It was interesting. Throughout my life, I never felt the need to come out. I always knew something was different. I knew the things weren’t quite aligned correctly but I didn’t have the knowledge or terminology to do anything about it. From early on, I always felt exceptional or unique, and always tried to assess how aware others were of me and that inner self. In November 2012, there was a scary situation that was life-changing. I was robbed at gunpoint and could have easily been killed. I saw my life flash before my eyes and that prompted me to think about what would have happened if I died. It made me start critically thinking, OK, what is going on with my sexual orientation, gender, etc.? I decided I didn’t want to have died without my parents knowing who I really was. So I first came out to them as gay. That was sort of the first stop. And for a little bit, that felt OK but it still didn’t feel authentic. Then three years ago, right after I completed my master’s, I had a close friend pass away unexpectedly and his death made me really think about my own life. It was another wake-up call to really examine my life and whether or not I was being true to myself. And if not, what could I do to live in my truth? I decided not to hide who I was anymore and I told my mom and my dad and all my brothers that I was trans and ready to live as my authentic self.
PGN: You said you weren’t going to hide anymore. Had you explored that side of yourself before?
ES: In my freshman year of college, I started to experiment a little. Oxford was 45 minutes from home so it was perfect because it was close enough that I could go home often, but far enough away that I didn’t have to worry about people just popping up! So that first year, I tried wearing makeup and hair and dressing in women’s clothing for the first time. I explored presenting myself comfortably out in the world that way. I did it for about a month and then decided that I needed to suppress it because I couldn’t see myself actually living as a woman while trying to make it through college. It was more important for me to finish my degree without distraction. I’m a first-generation college student. So I didn’t have any examples to show me what to do and how to navigate the education system, and all the facets and factors that you face, or anyone to help build my confidence and to help me uncover my own abilities to make it through. I was at a campus with mostly upper-middle-class white folks, so it was very overwhelming.
PGN: It’s funny, most gay people I know came out in increments by telling people we were bisexual first and it seems most trans people I know tried to soften the blow by coming out as gay first. We all have our little stepping stones.
ES: Yeah, true.
PGN: Tell me about your work here at Valley House.
ES: I am the coordinator of the Pride Program, which is the rapid rehousing program for young adults 18-24 who self-identify as LGBTQ. I’ve always been passionate about this type of work, and it aligns with my personal mission so it’s a perfect job for me. Prior to this, I was at the Mazzoni Center.
PGN: It seems like there’s a hidden culture of homeless youth in Philadelphia.
ES: Absolutely; most people aren’t aware of it, and oftentimes the kids themselves don’t really realize it. Many of them live with friends or are couch-surfing and they’re technically homeless but they may not see it as so. Part of the problem is even being able to define the problem. Recognizing what it means not to have stable housing.
PGN: And what are some of the ways that VYH helps?
ES: We have our Synergy Project, which is a street-outreach program for kids under 21. They offer survival supplies — food, clothing, sleeping bags, tents and even basic hygienic products. They also offer peer support, informal counseling, survival skills and referral services and assistance to get off the streets if that’s what the kids want. The folks in that program are the ones on the streets doing outreach. Oftentimes, they refer the youth to our program and we help assess what they’re going through and what they need and then work on reaching those goals, whether it’s jobs or housing.
PGN: So what can we do to help?
ES: There’s so much need right now, certainly more need than services we can provide. Big needs are donations of household goods. Often, we can get the people into housing but we don’t have the funding to help them furnish the apartments. All the things you think you might need — from pots and pans to bedding. Food donations are always needed. If someone comes in here hungry, it’s good to have snacks here to help them or food for our youth who are in homes now. Gift cards are always helpful and of course monetary donations are always appreciated.
PGN: I looked at the website and saw what a difference a little bit can make. As little as $4 can provide tokens for transportation to office visits, wellness and medical appointments and employment or job interviews. And $15 can provide one week’s worth of hygiene items like soap, shampoo, toothbrush and toothpaste and other sanitary products and $100 can cover basic utilities like water, gas and electric for one month.
ES: Yes, and we have a lot of young adults going into units right now who need a lot of stuff. Everything helps.
PGN: OK people, let’s get the holiday spirit and make a difference in a young person’s life.
For more information about Valley Youth House, visit www.valleyyouthhouse.org.