Bright Idea: With Training, Host Homes Offer LGBTQ Youth a Safe Harbor
Last year, Francisco Monzon and his colleagues at the Uhlich Children’s Advantage Network, or UCAN, were approached by a woman recently returned from Minneapolis, where she had witnessed that city’s host home programs for its homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth population. Drawing on the help of unpaid volunteers, the programs placed 18- to 24-year-olds in stable, supportive homes with LGBTQ advocates, enabling them to finish school or look for a job. Convinced that such programs could be replicated in Chicago, Monzon began pitching the idea to charitable foundations and past UCAN benefactors, as well as different gay-focused Chicago agencies. Today, UCAN’s fledgling LGBT Host Home Program—still the only initiative of its kind in the city—serves 10 previously homeless sexual minority youth, and is poised to expand.
LGBTQ youth often stay homeless longer than their heterosexual peers, sometimes perceiving shelters and families as homophobic or unsympathetic to their identities. Others may have experienced bullying or intolerance in youth programs. Host home programs designed specifically for these young people overcome those barriers by ensuring that hosts are open to LGBTQ youth and understand their needs. Some extra training and preparation may be necessary to ensure the best possible match between home and participant, but when they’re successful, host homes offer precious stability for youth who have often lacked such “safe spaces” in their lives.
“LGBT youth report feeling unsafe and at times targeted in the shelter systems because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” says Monzon. “A host home model offers them safety and allows for youth and host adult to create their own house rules or courtesy that govern how they will live with one another.”
Raquel Simoes, a program director at Avenues For Homeless Youth, a grantee of the Family and Youth Services Bureau and one of the Minneapolis programs that inspired UCAN’s efforts, says that her organization presents youth with a list of potential hosts and lets them pick their home after visiting the adults' homes. “We don’t use the language of ‘placement’,’’ says Simoes, “since many of our host home youth come out of the child-care system, and they know how it’s failed them. They never really had any say about where they ended up.” Youth often choose a home based on its proximity to their school or work.
Both Avenues and UCAN employ a thorough background-check and training to ensure that each volunteer is prepared for the task of living with a recently homeless youth. Avenues’ training spans 16 hours over two weekend sessions, including therapist-led group discussions about expectations, values, hopes, and how to best communicate with youth. UCAN takes a more gradual, if no less intensive, approach to its training, holding an initial 8-hour session followed by shorter sessions through the home stay. “Some of these youth are not looking to become part of a family,” says Monzon, “So we talk about expectations, child development, and relationship building. We help the participant and the host home agree on a set of rules. We visit the home at least twice a month to talk with the host and the youth, plus we hold regular phone conversations with everyone involved.”
While Simoes knows at least one Avenues youth who was eventually legally adopted by her host, she says that not every host home need be that intensely involved to make a difference in an LGBTQ youth’s life. “Our youth are blown away that there are people in the community willing to open their homes and not get paid for it,” she says, “This is all about the community taking care of itself and its youth.”