By Ian Morton | Profiles in Advocacy
This has been a rough two weeks, my friends. The Orlando massacre at Pulse nightclub; the individual apprehended at LA Pride; the LGBTQ shootings in Veracruz, Mexico; the responses from homophobes; and the silence of many of our family members and friends has left some heavy hearts.
I, personally, turn to music and the line “I might only have one match, but I can make an explosion,” from Rachel Patten’s “Fight Song” has been anchored in my brain. And I believe it. Those who persevere in lighting the fire of positivity in this world will outshine the ugliness and that’s the reason I celebrate them in this column.
This month I am excited to achieve one of my goals for this column: revisiting an organization at a major shift in their level of advocacy.
In March 2012, I profiled “Street Angels,” a homeless youth outreach program through Missiongathering Church in North Park, which focuses on getting basic supplies to facilitate better health and wellness for youth on the streets of San Diego.
In addition to food, toiletries, socks, blankets and donated clothing, the weekly outings also included EMTs and vets who would provide basic medical care to the youth and their pets.
In the past year, Missiongathering has created a drop-in space for these youth at the church, and as of March 2016, a dream of lead pastor Eric Lovett has come true. “8 West” opened, providing both housing and life skills training for high-risk homeless transitional age youth (TAY), who are 18 to 25 years of age.
With some of the seed money for this project coming from private donations, 8 West was awarded a San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency contract through Behavioral Health Services, which set the wheels in motion. This contract funds services for TAY youth who are homeless (including “couch-surfing”) and those diagnosed with a severe mental illness (SMI).
Included with this contract was funding for a director of housing and social services, Ms. Lindsay Ward, with whom I had a chance to speak. Lindsay was actually an outreach volunteer for Street Angels, and as Eric predicted, “would work with him one day.”
In March 2016, she received the call from Lovett that it was “go time,” and she has served as administrator, prospective resident interviewer, case manager and house mother for the two properties — one male and one female — ever since.
A primary factor that sets 8 West apart from so many other shelters is their intentional willingness to meet young people where they are, regardless of self-identity, LGBTQ or otherwise, which can often be a barrier to trust for homeless youth.
In the opening interviews, Ward makes this a priority in the conversation.
“When I personally screen all of our clients, I make them aware that we are open to everybody,” she said. “We do not discriminate based on religion. We do not discriminate based on identifying as LGBTQ in our house. If a person has a problem with this, if they cannot live with a gay or transgender person, they are not the right fit for this program.”
In addition to being one of the few fully inclusive safe housing spaces, 8 West employs a robust 18-month program to set these young people up for sustained success. Once a resident is settled into their room and the general rhythm of the daily routine, programs such as resume writing, budgeting, and school enrollment are made available.
As of our meeting, Ward was preparing to announce to residents that a partnership had been developed with National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to provide an eight-week computer training program and a free laptop to residents.
While the program is still in its infancy, Ward is cognizant of her duty to “keep one eye on the future” for her residents, who must be prepared to successfully transition out at the end of 18 months. We discussed some of the progress she’s already seen in her March and April-enrolled residents.
“Just getting through the readjustment from living on the street to having a room, food in the refrigerator, hot water and a laundry room can be very overwhelming,” she explained. “Structure and security can be very disorienting, coming off of the streets. Once we relieve some of those daily insecurities, such as whether food, or a place to sleep, will be available from one day to the next, we can develop long-term goals and plans to get there.
“Our residents are coming to understand that they can go to school, or they can get a job,” she continued. “Having an address and a way to be clean can make all the difference in the world.”
I also got to check in with Lovett to discuss his vision for the future. As someone who took individuals into his own home, he couldn’t be more excited as to the continuing development.
“Working with homeless youth on the street, I’ve seen that we need to move beyond the ‘handout’ that meets the immediate need and the job training and skills assistance that accompanies our housing is a natural progression,” he said. “We currently have 14 beds which should increase to 28 by the year’s end, and our five-year goal is to employ and house over 100 TAY youth.”
There are many ways to support the programming and youth at 8 West. Their residents work to create artisan soaps which can be purchased online (as well as a list of retailers who carry the products), you can donate gift cards for groceries and household items, and perhaps most importantly, consider giving your time. Spending some quality time doing social activities or helping mentor these young people can make a world of difference.
To find out more about 8 West, visit 8west.org and to explore ways that you can be a part of transforming lives, email Lindsay Ward at email@example.com.
—Ian D. Morton is the senior program analyst at San Diego Human Dignity Foundation and produces the Y.E.S. San Diego LGBTQ youth conference. To nominate an individual or nonprofit for this column, please email the information to firstname.lastname@example.org.