National data shows up to 40 percent of homeless teens who knock on shelter doors are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning their identity. As a result, one Fort Worth shelter has recently transformed itself from a place gay and lesbian kids had shunned.
The mission of Fort Worth’s ACH Child and Family Services is straightforward: to protect children from abuse, neglect and family separation. The nonprofit’s been at it for a century.
ACH, which changed its name from All Church Home five years ago, was the focus of a recent KERA series about redesigning foster care. Recently, it’s been redesigning its approach to homeless kids, too. Sean Allen, with ACH, explained why so many homeless children are LGBT.
“They’ve been found out or they come out to their family,” explained Allen. “They’re facing high levels of rejection, and they either get kicked out of the house or choose to leave the house and begin couchsurfing and that’s their entry into homelessness.”
Research showed these kids were staying away from ACH’s shelter for several reasons. One reason: LGBT kids saw it as a church shelter, where some devout staffers rejected those who are LGBT. ACH Vice President Alan Schonborn says many shelter workers saw it as a haven for straights only.
“They are both in our population and not disclosing who they are, or choosing to not come to services available to them because they don’t trust the providers to understand their needs or to keep them safe," Schonborn said.
Remember, Schonborn and Allen thought they knew all about serving families and kids in need.
“So that’s some heartbreaking feedback for us, that kids feel safer on the streets than they do in our shelter," Allen said.
He explained to a roomful of North Texas nonprofits on Friday that ACH realized it had to change. It launched an internal, top-to-bottom scrub, revisiting its mission, donors, and employees.
“When we started this work we did not have a single staff person who was out of the closet,” Allen said. “So what was it about our culture that was behind that? Why was it?”
Allen says the biggest takeaway, more than a year into the process?
“The focus of that training is on the message of eliminating ‘rejecting behaviors. It’s been a successful training, It’s changed a lot of hearts and minds,” Allen said.
More hearts and minds need to change, says Nell Gaither, president and founder of the nonprofit Transpride Initiative. Gaither knows about shelters that act the way ACH used to. Just this week, she talked to a sheltered person who "came out" as transgender.
“People started accusing them of making advances to another person in the shelter, romantic advances to another person in the shelter," Gaither said. "They said 'you’re trying to get with this person.' That only happened after they came out as trans.”
As a result, Gaither says the transgender resident was kicked out for breaking shelter rules. It’s happened before. Gaither says ACH’s move to change an atmosphere that rejects people is a good first step.
“But then you have to find an affirming perspective to where you’re actually supporting the validity of a person’s identity or orientation," Gaither says. "They're still human.”
That’s what Sean Allen says ACH now strives for every day. He says ACH kept its donors. It changed its name in 2010 from All Church Home to just ACH. Some employees thought twice about leaving, but changed their minds. And he says he lost count of employees who are now open and secure about their sexual identity or orientation.