Providing a place of refuge
By Cindy Novak
Members of Trinity Lutheran Church of Manhattan, an ELCA congregation in New York City, wanted to help but didn't know how.
Through a local newspaper article, they and their pastor, Heidi Neumark, learned about the shortage of space at shelters for the thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth and young adults living homeless in New York City -- a population that often experiences abuse and trauma in shelters and on the streets.
"Our church felt very moved and angry about the situation, and convicted that this problem can sometimes be caused by church teachings," Heidi says. "A large number of gay youth are kicked out of their homes for religious reasons. We felt concerned but didn't know what we could do. We didn't have the resources to do anything. We felt helpless."
Their feeling of helplessness changed to hope in late 2005 after a local social service agency called out to churches, synagogues and other religious institutions to open their doors during the coldest months of the year and shelter seven homeless LGTBQ youth for seven nights.
"That seemed like a very do-able thing," Heidi recalls. So for three weeks, the church's undercroft was transformed into a place of refuge. Trinity's seminary intern at that time coordinated the project and "…did a really excellent job -- it went really well," Heidi says.
So well, in fact, that the agency asked if Trinity could run a shelter full-time. And after a discernment process, the congregation responded with a resounding yes.
Since June 2006, Trinity Place Shelter has been providing LGBTQ youth and young adults with shelter year-round. The non-sectarian, 10-bed shelter provides a safe place to sleep, eat and store belongings. It also provides comprehensive health services, case management, education, career counseling, art classes and mental health services.
"We provide concrete services so residents can move forward with their lives," Heidi says.
Like one former resident who, after receiving a wide range of services at Trinity Place, got accepted into a prestigious college. "During his first semester, a professor wrote an evaluation of him, describing his work as 'absolutely exceptional,'" Heidi said. "He was really proud and wanted to share that with us."
Another former resident visited Heidi after getting a job in the field of cosmetology. "He showed me his cosmetology kit and told me about what he was doing," she said. "He kept talking and talking. He was so proud of what he had accomplished."
"One of the nice things about working with youth is if you get them early, the chances are better for reintegration, compared with homeless clients over the age of 30," says Nathan Miller, volunteer coordinator for Trinity Place. "I can't guarantee that any of the residents will go on to become a CEO or the next Steve Jobs, but their chances are significantly better just because they are young, energetic and creative."
Trinity Place Shelter has come a long way since beginning as a “bare-bones” operation, Heidi says, thanks to the "huge range of people and supporters that have made it possible." Like a congregation from Wisconsin that donates gift cards for Christmas stocking stuffers; an artist who holds fundraisers at gallery showings; an opera singer who performs and raises money; school children who collect toiletries; a knitting group that creates warm hats, scarves and gloves for residents; and volunteers who prepare and serve nourishing, hot meals each week.
And Trinity Place Shelter could not have become a reality without the willingness of the congregation to take a risk, Heidi says. "There were many other churches that had larger, nicer space than we had. But our congregation said, 'This is the space that we have, and we are willing to share it in this way. As followers of Jesus, we should use our space for the sake of helping.' I was very proud of our church for catching that vision and actually embodying it, not just talking about it."
Did you know…
- 20 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ. In comparison, the general youth population is only 10 percent LGBTQ.
- While homeless youth typically experience severe family conflict as the primary reason for their homelessness, LGBTQ youth are twice as likely to experience sexual abuse before the age of 12.
- LGBTQ youth, once homeless, are at higher risk for victimization, mental health problems, and unsafe sexual practices; 58.7 percent of LGBTQ homeless youth have been sexually victimized compared to 33.4 percent of heterosexual homeless youth.
- LGBTQ youth are roughly 7.4 times more likely to experience acts of sexual violence than heterosexual homeless youth.
- LGBTQ homeless youth commit suicide at higher rates 62 percent than heterosexual homeless youth 29 percent.
Source: National Coalition for the Homeless
Cindy Novak is a member of Our Saviour's Lutheran Church in Naperville, Ill. She lives in Lisle, Ill., with her husband, David, and her children, Sam and Emily.
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