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The Homeward Initiative and Valley Youth House are nearing the launch of their housing collaboration Host Homes. Homeward Initiative founder Brendan Taliaferro hopes to get the program up and running in early March.
Taliaferro created the Homeward Initiative in 2019 after carrying out a senior project wherein he identified gaps in the network of resources accessible to LGBTQ youth facing homelessness or unstable housing. Upon graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 2019, Taliaferro used funds from the $100,000 President’s Engagement Prize to get the initiative up and running. The Attic Youth Center is also lending a hand with youth referrals and recruitment, according to Taliaferro.
“When I first learned about the issue, I was very dismayed but not shocked,” Taliaferro said. “I think it makes sense that a population that is routinely rejected from their families, their communities and their schools would end up homeless in disproportionate numbers. I wanted to do something about it.”
The Pride program at Valley Youth House, which will play a large role in facilitating Host Homes, prioritizes a Rapid Re-Housing model, wherein staffers help young people find apartments, assist with rent and provide “resources [youth] need to reduce ... any kind of recidivism or retraumatization or further experiences with homelessness and housing instability,” said ZC, the Pride program supervisor.
“One of the issues with [the Rapid Re-Housing] model is there are very few shelter beds for youth and young adults, especially when people are in the age gap between 21 and 24,” they said. “A lot of youth end up not going into shelters at all because they’ve had really bad experiences in shelters.”
Taliaferro also highlighted the frequent overflow of the city’s shelters and what that means for young LGBTQ people.
“These young people are relegated to the streets, to couch surfing if they can, or to trading sex for basic resources, all of which are super traumatic, very unstable and make it very hard to exit housing instabilities,” he said.
In order to understand the challenges faced by LGBTQ young people, Valley Youth House created the Pride Task Force, consisting of young queer and trans people, some of whom are currently experiencing housing instability. The members meet with Pride staff members on a regular basis to discuss their experiences and potential changes to housing resources. Host Homes was one of the solutions for which they expressed a need, ZC said.
“At the root of this, they’re saying they don’t have a safety net, and Host Homes was one of the things to address that,” they said. “Without the safety net, a lot of things including Rapid Re-Housing can be a Band-Aid. When young people don’t have others that they can depend on, they end up in a cycle of poverty and homelessness.”
The Host Homes program initially began in the late 1980s with the U.K. initiative Nightstop, which provides “emergency overnight accommodations for young homeless people who are facing a night on the streets.” In 1997, members of the Minneapolis LGBTQ youth homelessness organization Avenues for Homeless Youth created the first Host Homes model, which branched out to other cities including Baltimore and Los Angeles.
In the lead-up to the launch of Philadelphia’s Host Homes, Taliaferro and Pride staff are seeking and interviewing potential host families and individuals to provide housing for LGBTQ youth for one to six months.
During their stay with hosts, young people will be connected with a certified peer specialist who is similar in age and who has also navigated the world of housing insecurity. The peer specialist will help them gain self-sufficiency.
“The idea that these families or individuals are really affirming and allow the youth to truly express who they are and be themselves — that is something that many of our youth struggle with because they weren’t allowed to do that, or they were kicked out of their home for being themselves,” Joe Lynch, vice president of development and marketing at Valley Youth House.
“Having that bit of freedom to... understand who they are, makes a tremendous difference [when you] look at a trauma-informed model of care.”
While potential host candidates come from a variety of backgrounds, some are members of the LGBTQ community, Taliaferro said.
“One thing we’re really trying to harness is the long-standing community ethic in the LGBTQ community,” he said. “In the last half-century since the dawn of public gay identity, LGBTQ people have taken each other in. We’re really trying to build off that.”
The organization True Colors United reported that LGBTQ youth account for 40 percent of the country’s youth population experiencing homelessness but comprise just 7 percent of the overall population.
A 2018 study by Chapin Hall of the University of Chicago indicated that LGBTQ-identified young adults are more than twice as likely to experience homelessness than their straight and/or cisgender peers. The same study showed that LGBTQ youth are at higher risk of encountering assault, trading sex for basic resources and even facing fatal scenarios.
Philadelphia’s 2017 Voices of Youth Count study showed that 31 percent of youth experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia County identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning or asexual.
Valley Youth House and the Homeward Initiative will be relying on excess community housing resources, and as such will be able to provide young people with housing at less than 50 percent of the cost of housing services provided by a homeless shelter.
“It will alleviate the burden on the shelter system; it will alleviate the danger that comes with couch-surfing or street homelessness,” Lynch said. “It really can divert youth from being in the system and ultimately be a more cost-effective, faster and flexible opportunity for them so they are able to get to where they need to be.”
Lynch pointed out that homelessness is a stage in one’s life, not a defining characteristic.
“How do we take this blip on the radar, so to speak, and make it quicker,” Lynch said. “The idea that this could bypass the systematic issues will free up opportunities in that system for others. Ultimately, it’s all a win. This seems like something that should have been done years ago.”