Get to Know a Grantee: Vita Nova, Inc., of West Palm Beach, Florida (Pride Month)
In celebration of Pride Month this June, the National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families spoke with Runaway and Homeless Youth program grantee Vita Nova, Inc., located in West Palm Beach, Florida. Vita Nova’s work includes providing outreach and transitional housing to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning (LGBTQ) youth experiencing homelessness. Vita Nova (Latin for "new life") began providing housing for former foster care youth over the age of 18 in 2005 and over time expanded its services to include other young adults experiencing homelessness. In 2017, Vita Nova received grant funding from the Family and Youth Services Bureau, (FYSB) Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) program to operate a Transitional Living Program (TLP) for homeless youth aged 18 to 21.
Vita Nova’s Chief Operating Officer, Darlene Williamson, says that Vita Nova is known as a local leader in supporting homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ, who comprise about 20 percent of the homeless youth in Palm Beach County. In 2021, Vita Nova supported 15 youth, housing up to 10 at any given time. About 69 percent of the youth served by the Vita Nova TLP are Black, African American, Hispanic, and/or Latino, and all of the youth in the program identify as LGBTQ. Vita Nova attempts to reconnect youth with their families; however, at times reconciliation is not possible or not safe.
Williamson says that youth who come to Vita Nova’s TLP present with many challenges in addition to homelessness, including food insecurity, trauma, and limited positive familial relationships. “A lack of support from their loved ones is the primary challenge faced by homeless LGBTQ,” Williamson reports. “Some parents simply do not accept them because of their identity. We've had parents drop off their youth, suitcase in hand, at our front door." Williamson also indicated that LGBTQ youth may also be unsafe physically or emotionally with their family, often fueled by alcohol or other substance-abusing family members. Many homeless LGBTQ youth experience depression and anxiety that may be due to trauma, Williamson emphasized.
The Vita Nova TLP focuses on creating a safe and affirming space. That is a place where LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness can feel safe and valued to be who they are, freely express themselves, and learn from their mistakes. Williamson says, "We're trying to model that Vita Nova is a place where we all make mistakes and learn from them. When a staff member makes a mistake, they'll correct it, saying ‘I'm learning,‘ in front of the youth.” She also adds that their staff includes representation of the LGBTQ community. “It is also important for LGBTQ youth to see the successes of Vita Nova adult staff who identify as LGBTQ in their life," she says.
Vita Nova case manager Natali Marrou says that their staff strives to be well educated on human trafficking warning signs. Vita Nova staff participate in continuous education trainings offered by the Human Trafficking Coalition to stay abreast on human trafficking identification, prevention, and best practices and to form a strong network of trusted community partners to connect with when needed. Staff also provide advocacy services for victimized youth in multiple ways, such as assisting them with filing police reports, attending victim services meetings with them, and providing a healthcare coordinator to assist with any medical concerns they may have related to their victimization.
Entrenched in the Palm Beach community, Vita Nova has a broad array of partners to support LGBTQ youth as well as other youth. One of its many successful partnerships is with Compass, Inc., a local nonprofit, who serves LGBTQ clients with a variety of services, including counseling and medical care. Vita Nova also partners with the local Housing and Homeless Alliance, healthcare providers, the Palm Beach County government, and Palm Beach County Public Schools. The school district provides GED classes on site at Vita Nova, usually with intimate class sizes of fewer than 10 students. Many youth at Vita Nova are balancing GED classes with one or two jobs, and may have sessions with the in-house therapist as well. "Our youth are really busy. Sometimes it takes them a while to figure out their path, but once they're on it, they take charge,” says Williamson. Her experience has taught her that building trusting relationships and finding a trusted space where they can be who they are is vital to a client’s ability to find their path.
Vita Nova staff also receive training from Compass on diversity and cultural competency in supporting LGBTQ young people (including respect for pronouns) to help enhance the ability to provide support to TLP youth and other clients. Vita Nova also understands that demonstrating respect for a youth’s ethnic and racial culture enhances the possibility of successful transitions out of the program. For example, at a recent barbecue in honor of those graduating from the program, Vita Nova served food reflective of the clients’ cultural backgrounds—not just hotdogs and hamburgers, but Caribbean fare, such as Jamaican jerk chicken. Also, African American-owned business owners served as guest speakers for a six-week training program on entrepreneurship and starting your own business, in which 17 youth participated. One of the speakers was a caterer who also provided a lunch for the group.
As part of its focus on life skills, the TLP at Vita Nova requires that clients have a mandatory savings account, which is one of Marrou’s "favorite things" for the youth. “We hold financial literacy courses at our drop-in center, the Spot, which help the youth tremendously. These courses cover how to manage credit cards and checking accounts, and how to establish realistic budgets,” says Marrou. Clients are also encouraged to establish attainable financial goals and maintain their budgeting strategies. Marrou indicated the TLP also encourages youth to live in shared housing arrangements, rather than living alone, when leaving the program, for multiple reasons, financial stability being one.
Supporting their clients’ educational goals is a commitment that Vita Nova takes very seriously. Clients who have completed high school may seek to attend local universities and colleges, or may have goals to attend trade schools or academic institutions outside the local area. Recently, a young woman participating in Vita Nova's TLP expressed her goal to attend Spelman College, a private, historically Black, women’s liberal arts college in Atlanta, Georgia. With the help of case managers, she applied to Spelman and was accepted. After exiting the TLP, she moved to Atlanta and enrolled in Spelman, leaving the Palm Beach area with a sense of independence and confidence. Another youth leveraged lessons gained from TLP’s financial courses to save money, graduating from Keiser University in Fort Lauderdale and paying a security deposit on an apartment, which the youth now shares with their partner.
As with many RHY grantees, COVID-19 presented challenges for Vita Nova. Williamson noted that "homelessness is not a virtual activity." Vita Nova's housing remained open, although with new rules, such as keeping the windows open for ventilation, and creative adaptations, like signs in the yard to congratulate graduates and a virtual Taco Tuesday when clients made tacos on their own. Vita Nova may also expand its use of outdoor spaces in the cooler months of the year.
When asked about advice for other organizations working with LGBTQ youth, Marrou offers this suggestion: "Always keep a positive attitude, never stop advocating, never be afraid to learn from youth, immerse yourself, and always be by their side. Go the extra mile and seek to understand. Be where they are and get to know them; that's just another example of learning from them and always being a positive role model in their life."