Jake Grenier was 16 and still identified as a female when he came out for the first time.
“[I came out] as a lesbian because I had no idea that transgender was even a possibility,” he said.
He told his mother first — she was relatively “open-minded,” he said.
His father was another story.
“My father took a little time,” Grenier said. “My father, being raised in a Roman Catholic Connecticut family, didn’t take to it so well and not so kindly asked me to leave the home.”
Grenier then joined the ranks of LGBTQ homeless youth, who make up 40 percent of the homeless population under the age of 17. Kids who identify as LGBTQ are 120 percent more likely to end up homeless than their heterosexual counterparts, and, according to Lambda Legal, they’re physically or sexually victimized by an average of seven more people. They’re at higher risk for mental health issues, sex trafficking and substance abuse. Grenier, who spent a year in college, then another three or four couch-surfing between friends’ homes, found this out when he ended up in New York City in his early 20s.
“I ended up having a fairly awful drug and drinking problem,” he said. “I ended up in New York City during the winter sleeping in my car, sleeping in train or bus stations, or not sleeping at all and just trying to keep warm.”
For two years, Grenier did what he had to in order to survive.
“Not in the philosophical sense, but in the most literal sense,” he said. “There was panhandling, eating out of trash cans, stealing and keeping company with less savory people in order to live and support my drinking and drug habit that formed out of the need for a coping mechanism to handle being disowned by my parents.”
Now, Grenier, 32, who came out as transgender (female-to-male) three years ago, is sober, engaged and living in Syracuse. He has a strained relationship with his parents, who still don’t really accept him. He wonders what things would have been like if there had been a shelter in the area for kids like him after his parents had kicked him out. He says he “absolutely” would have gone there.
“[I wish there had been] some sort of support locally,” Grenier said.
To provide that support, the Rescue Mission Alliance and ACR Health are teaming up to create a shelter for runaway and homeless kids with a specific focus on LGBTQ youth. The 10-bed shelter, which will be staffed with social workers, case managers and family reunification specialists, will house kids ages 12 to 17 for a maximum of 120 days.
“You [don’t] have to identify [as LGBTQ] to access the shelter, but that’s who it’s going to be geared towards,” said Dan Sieburg, chief executive officer of the Rescue Mission Alliance. “When 40 percent of the [homeless] population identifies in a different way than the majority of the [homeless] population, and the LGBT youth are only about 9 percent or 10 percent of the general population, it would indicate that we probably should create something to meet them where they’re at and address some of their needs in a different way.”
According to ACR Health Executive Director Will Murtaugh, not only do LGBTQ kids represent a larger proportion of the homeless population, they’re also more vulnerable, especially in shelters.
“Fifty percent of them report nationwide that they’re experiencing victimization and discrimination because of their gender identity and sexual orientation when they go into a shelter,” Murtaugh said.
He said homeless LGBTQ kids are at higher risk for sex trafficking and STDs.
“Over the last two years here at The Q Center, we’ve had seven-plus transgender male-to-females that have had to go out on the street and do sex work, and they are now HIV positive,” he said. “It’s just terrible to think that these kids are so young and they have to deal with a lifelong chronic illness because they don’t have a safe place to put their head at night.”
While there are specific shelters in Central New York for men, women, women in domestic violence situations and kids, there is nothing that caters to LGBTQ minors, despite the dangers faced by the population. Murtaugh said it’s about time that gap is filled.
“It’s amazing this has not been addressed,” he said. “There is almost no safe housing for kids that identify as LGBTQ in the area.”
The Rescue Mission will handle the logistical functions. ACR Health will take care of services to the residents — support groups, care management, health care, hormone therapy, etc. Kids will still receive instruction from their home schools as required by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987.
“We’re going to tap into the school districts, make sure that kids are engaged with school, make sure that their guidance counselor knows the situation that they’re in,” Sieburg said. “We look at all avenues of this child’s life to wrap them around with supports.”
The state allows kids to remain in a shelter for up to 120 days, but Sieburg said organizers of the LGBTQ shelter hope to keep stays to less than 30 days.
“I think that’s possible with getting family to the table together to discuss things,” he said. “I truly believe that no matter what a family’s perspective on their child’s decisions are, I don’t believe, at their core, anyone wants their children on the street.”
That’s why a primary component of therapy at the shelter will be provided to the homeless child and his or her parents by ACR’s family reunification specialist.
“It’s generally 90 days or more when we have to bring the parents up to speed with what their child’s going through and for them to [accept] their child that may be in the wrong body [in the case of transgender children],” Murtaugh said. “Parents’ eyes are opened up when they meet with other parents that have a child similar to theirs. It really does help as long as the parents are willing to walk into the room.”
Murtaugh acknowledged that there will likely be times where parent-child reunification just isn’t possible.
“Some situations are bad,” he said. “We’re going to try to find any support for them that we can.”
Sieburg said in thoser cases, counselors may turn to other family members.
“Is there an aunt? Is there an uncle? Is there a grandparent?” he said. “Is there someone else in the family that maybe has a different perspective? Can we reunify that child with that family?”
It all comes down to what’s best for the child, which is why this shelter needs to exist in the first place.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to, these are children,” Sieburg said. “They’re very vulnerable. They don’t have a lot of options. If you’re 17 or 18, we can probably get you on a path to full-time employment and paying for your own rent and living on your own. You can’t do that at 12, 13, 14, 15. These kids need support and they need someone covering them, watching out for the negative aspects of life and protecting them from that.”
Add in being gay, bisexual or transgender, and these kids need even more support.
“We don’t want people to be victimized or discriminated against because they’re LGBTQ or they’re homeless for a time,” Murtaugh said. “We want to establish an affirming shelter where they can go into it and make sure they have culturally appropriate, competent services.”
There’s also a pragmatic component to opening the facility: by giving kids a place to go at night, they won’t be as likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, which could result in HIV infections.
“Every child that’s infected with HIV costs the taxpayers a lot of money,” Murtaugh said. “A lot of these kids will be on Medicaid and it will cost the taxpayers dollars.”
At the shelter, they can get started on PrEP, a daily pill that prevents HIV from taking root.
“I just think it’s healthier for the community,” Murtaugh said. “And it’s making our community safer for LGBTQ.”
Organizers are now in the fundraising stage. The coalition is looking for a total of $500,000 to open the shelter — $250,000 to purchase and adapt a facility to its specifications and $250,000 to operate the 24-hour facility for the first year. Officials are looking in the city of Syracuse, possibly the Westcott area, because it’s centrally located, but if they’re offered a house in the suburbs that fits their needs, they’ll take it.
“We’re looking for a neighborhood that’s welcoming, affirming,” Sieburg said. “We have to find a neighborhood where this is going to work.”
And it has to work not only for the kids, but also the neighbors.
“This isn’t just a house with a set of keys and we’re dropping it into kids’ hands,” Sieburg said. “This is staffed 24/7 with some of the best employees in the area… It’s going to be a plus for whatever neighborhood and community we end up in.”
ACR Health and the Rescue Mission will be pooling all donations and funneling them toward the shelter. Sieburg admitted that some donors might disagree with the move.
“I think what we’ve communicated is, if for some reason this piece of our work doesn’t line up with some church’s theology or philosophy, then we would just ask that church to earmark their money to just support our men’s shelter, women’s shelter, our food services, our adult home,” he said. “The dollars don’t have to intermingle.”
However, since the shelter was announced on April 25, Sieburg said the response from churches has been positive. In fact, the largest donation so far — $50,000 — came from Plymouth Congregational Church.
“The Rescue Mission’s part of the church,” Sieburg said. “We do share the Gospel… and the love of God is how you treat people and how you embrace them when everyone else has rejected them.”
He pointed to a quote by Malcolm S. Forbes: “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”
“12-, 13-, 14-, 15-year-old kids, they have nothing to give you,” Sieburg said. “How can we embrace them? How can we support them in their situation, their time of need? Let’s rally around them. Then the fruit comes five, 10 years down the road, when these young people who were helped through that process, they then return that favor to other young people that are experiencing similar situations.”
Murtaugh said the atmosphere at the Mission shelters is different from other organizations with a religious message, so he’s confident kids will feel safe there. He pointed to another joint venture between the Rescue Mission and ACR Health, an LGBTQ shelter for 18- to 24-year-olds.
“The kids that have gone there have felt very affirmed,” he said.
The shelter is expected to be operational in 12 to 18 months. Sieburg said it will take that long to get everything right.
“We want it to feel like a really positive experience that helps them in probably the most difficult time in their life,” he said. “We just have to be that bridge.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.