Every youth experiencing the possibility of homelessness or considering running away has their own story. During Pride Month this June, the National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families wanted to learn more about the lived experiences of LGBTQIA2S+ youth facing housing instability, and the strategies that youth-serving organizations use to support them. We spoke with the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) Program grantee, United Action for Youth (UAY), which was founded in 1970. Located in Iowa City, Iowa, with a population of 75,000, UAY serves youth from Iowa City and five surrounding rural counties where resources for youth can be limited.
"We like to call ourselves a one-stop shop for all things related to young people,” says UAY's Executive Director, Talia Meidlinger. Among its many programs for youth, UAY serves youth at risk of homelessness or considering running away. Since 2000, UAY has received FYSB’s Transitional Living Program (TLP) funding, providing up to 18 months of housing and supportive services for youth ages 16 to 22 who are experiencing housing instability. Last year, 48 youth completed preplacement assessments, with 21 youth entering the residential program.
All of the youth served by the TLP are considered to be rural; a third are under 18 years old. About 40 percent identify as LGBTQIA2S+. About 71 percent are African American, 14 percent are Latinx, and 14 percent are White. In terms of gender identity, 15 percent are male, 74 percent are female, three percent are nonbinary, four percent are transfeminine, and four percent are transmasculine. In addition, about 14 percent are parenting.
The TLP program provides weekly group meetings that teach life skills, social and community engagement and provides many other support services. It also emphasizes dialectical behavior treatment (DBT). "Teaching self-advocacy skills and conflict resolution is huge," says Hailey Franzen, the TLP Coordinator, who uses the pronouns "she" and "they." Franzen describes DBT as "understanding the dualities of experience, so you can be really upset about something and still have to do it. DBT helps youth manage roommate conflicts and navigate frustrations with school so they can stay in school and graduate. Though other youth also deal with these issues, the consequences can be far more significant for young people without family support,” Franzen adds.
The services provided by the TLP can lead to life-changing results. Franzen tells the story of a young woman who entered the TLP as the result of a severe familial conflict. When she moved into the TLP, she was dealing with trauma, which made her go inward, seeming quiet and disconnected. However, she graduated high school, worked through therapy, and expressed an interest in early childhood education. She decided to explore that interest by working at a preschool. She is now saving money before starting college and has moved into her own apartment. Franzen says, "She also became a peer mentor for new people coming in. As she moved out of our program, it was great to see that change in her."
Since its inception, UAY has always supported LGBTQIA2S+ youth. Franzen noted that LGBTQIA2S+ youth experiencing housing instability are often younger (or may have been younger when they first became homeless). “If they come out in their teens and that doesn't go well, they can be told, 'Either sacrifice who you are or leave.' And then many leave without any kind of resources." UAY instituted policies to particularly respond to this situation - if a youth presents to UAY that has been kicked out of their home due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, they are automatically qualified to receive UAY services.
Being younger can lead to additional issues for youth living on their own. When attempting to lease an apartment, youth under 18 in Iowa require an adult co-signer, even if they are able to afford the rent. Similarly, an adult signature is required for school permission slips and to receive medical care, including gender-affirming care. Underage youth also cannot legally change their name or gender identity without an adult's signature. As a result, younger LGBTQIA2S+ youth experiencing homelessness may need to sign up for programs or services with a gender identity or legal name that they do not use. "It is super anxiety-producing," says Franzen, "because it can put them in a potentially unsafe situation."
From a mental health perspective, Franzen says that LGBTQIA2S+ youth may experience trauma having to do with not being accepted by the people they grew up with. This trauma can affect their ability to trust others, particularly when asking for help in getting services that could improve their current situation. The result of such trauma can also make youth more likely to participate in high-risk activities, like engaging in dangerous conversations online with adults or underage drinking, both of which can lead to other traumas, including human trafficking.
In terms of human trafficking, which is a critical issue for all youth, Meidlinger says that Iowa City is considered a trafficking hub due to its proximity to Interstate I-380, which runs north to south, and Interstate I-80, which runs east to west. She also notes that some UAY staff are trained in identifying and responding to human trafficking victims and employed through a Victims of Crime Assistance (VOCA) grant through the US Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime.
In working with LGBTQIA2S+ youth, UAY staff include their chosen pronouns when introducing themselves and when conducting youth outreach. From that first moment of the relationship, UAY believes this simple gesture reduces fear and anxiety among youth they encounter and conveys that UAY staff will respect the use of the youth's pronouns. UAY considers this a crucial policy in their outreach program. At the TLP, the UAY staff and other youth use a youth's correct name and pronouns, even though the youth’s legal name and gender identity may be different.
UAY employs members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community as staff, which can provide additional support for the youth they serve. "Representation matters," says Meidlinger. "Especially for homeless youth who have been rejected in a number of ways. Identifying with staff who identify as trans or nonbinary may mean 'I can let my guard down; I can be my authentic self.'” Meidlinger understands that to have their clients see themselves represented among UAY staff enhances the youth’s ability to build rapport, resulting in UAY’s ability to connect youth to resources and build community.
The UAY TLP also provides gender-neutral housing (also known by the more recent term "gender-inclusive housing"). "If you’re identifying in as either trans or nonbinary or agender, [this housing] is a space for you to live with other people who also identify that way," says Franzen." That has helped a lot of youth who come to us. We can say, 'You get to be exactly who you are.'" The TLP is a scattered-site program, utilizing two-bedroom apartments located throughout Iowa City, offering male housing, female housing, parenting housing, and gender-inclusive housing. Franzen says, "Everybody has a roommate who shares one of those four demographics with them—male, female, trans or nonbinary, or a parent." This system allows UAY to adjust the number of units available by demographic, which Franzen indicated has successfully enabled them to maintain the program at full capacity and serve higher numbers of youth.
UAY also offers a yearly one-week summer camp for LGBTQIA2S+ youth, and PrideCon, an annual one-day event for LGBTQIA2S+ youth. As its name suggests, PrideCon is organized like a conference, with a choice of programs and other activities offered throughout the day. For several years, PrideCon was held in midwinter, when fewer activities are available for youth in Iowa, with usually about 200 attendees. However, during the height of COVID-19, PrideCon was rescheduled for the spring to allow for more outdoor activities. This proved so popular that PrideCon is now held in the spring.
Similar to many other organizations, UAY faced a host of challenges due to COVID-19. It continued to operate the TLP throughout the pandemic, although most activities shifted from in-person to virtual. Despite what some had expected, the impact of the pandemic on families and at-risk youth did not produce an immediate increase in requests for help. But after almost a year, in early 2021, there was a surge in new admissions. "It was as though the pent-up stress of living together had reached its limit for some households," says Talia Meidlinger. "There was another set of challenges that came after the height of the pandemic, as youth already facing challenges dealt with the rapid return to near normalcy."
After more than 50 years, UAY is deeply ingrained in the community, working closely with other organizations and nonprofits in Iowa City to avoid duplication of services. These organizations include schools, United Way, Rotary Clubs, the police department, county attorney, juvenile court, and other organizations. UAY has forged a strong relationship with both the LGBTQ Health Clinic at the University of Iowa and CommUnity Crisis Services to provide physical and mental health services for their clients.
Franzen notes that UAY has built unique partnerships to leverage the strengths in their community, including the role of agriculture. Field to Family, a food rescue agency that receives food from farmers in numerous Iowa counties, provides the TLP with a weekly produce box, supplemented by lettuce from a local farm. The Houses into Homes project provides furniture for TLP units around the city, and UAY also partners with Habitat for Humanity. Cakes from the Heart, a local bakery, provides cakes and cupcakes for celebrations.
When asked for advice on working with LGBTQIA2S+ youth, Franzen offers two suggestions. First, include a description of proposed services to support LGBTQIA2S+ youth in applications for federal grants, making sure to specify the capacity of the services. Franzen notes that with states now making individual decisions related to support services for LGBTQIA2S+ youth, organizations similar to UAY can empower their programs by being specific about their needs in all of their funding applications. “If you have the ability to write it in, then you're putting your actions where your words are."
Secondly, Franzen advises organizations to listen to the young people, listen to their voices, listen to their experiences, and use that to inform their program’s practice. “If there are things that can be done programmatically to help alleviate the pressure of the larger world, then do them.”