On the afternoon of December 13th, Memphian Deb Word and her husband Steve were scrambling to put the finishing touches on a fund-raising party at their Central Gardens home for the Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center (MGLCC).
Will Batts, director of the MGLCC, showed up a few minutes early with an urgent request. He asked if Deb and Steve would offer their spare bedroom to Tim, a 19-year-old gay youth with no place to call home.
Tim (whose name has been changed for this story) was kicked out of his parents' home in Clarksville, Tennessee, at age 13 after he came out to his mother. Though Tim has lived with his parents off and on since then, the relationship has been rocky.
"He tried to go back and live with them, but there was a blowup in October," Deb Word says. "He tried to kill himself and ended up in a psychiatric ward in Nashville. When it was time to go home, his mom didn't come get him."
Eventually, Tim ended up in Memphis, and by mid-December, he'd run out of couch-crashing options. The Words agreed to let Tim stay for a while, which made them the first host family for a new MGLCC transitional housing program for displaced lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth.
The Youth Empowerment Services (YES) program — which provides food, clothing, and shelter to gay youth ages 18 to 24 — launched at the start of the year, thanks to an anonymous $50,000 grant the center received at Christmas.
The center is still working out the kinks in the transitional housing portion of the program. Currently, the Words' experience is serving as a test case to determine what works and what doesn't work for host families.
"I'm uncomfortable sending these kids to shelters, because we've heard that LGBT people are more vulnerable in those places," Batts says.
Next week, the center is hosting an orientation session for four more host families that have signed up for the program. By this summer, Batts expects to have more hosts prepared to house gay youth who have landed on the streets due to estrangement from their families.
"We've been recruiting host families mostly through LGBT-friendly ministers. The families have to go through background checks and have some screening here at the center," Batts says.
Since the center began working on the YES program last year, Batts has noticed an increase in the number of gay youth needing social services.
"I'm not sure if the problem is growing or if the awareness is growing, but in the past year, we've had a lot more teens coming into the center needing help," Batts says. "Awhile back, there was even a kid asleep on the center's deck when I came into work one day. He slept there because he had no other options."
When Marc Brown began volunteering as an adviser with Queer As Youth — MGLCC's group for kids ages 14 to 19 — he taught simple cooking lessons during the group's bimonthly meetings.
"I tried to teach dorm-room cooking, but I quickly realized that a lot of our kids weren't in a place to do that. If you don't have power, you can't cook in a microwave," Brown says. "That's how we discovered that some of the kids hadn't eaten in a few days. The meal we were making was the only home-cooked meal some of these kids were getting."
Brown and fellow adviser Elokin CaPece were shocked to learn that a handful of their regular participants (attendance ranges from two to 10 kids at the meetings) were either couch-surfing because their parents had kicked them out or living on their own in substandard housing, in some cases with no electricity.
"After a few times when kids would come in with no place to stay, we'd make a bunch of phone calls, and when we couldn't find them anything, we realized that a transitional housing program was the one thing the center didn't have," CaPece said. "We could shove food in them while they were here or get people to donate clothes, but we can't take them home with us."
In the Bible Belt, it's not uncommon for parents to reject children when they come out. Many parents have an initial period of panic before coming to terms with it, but some can't accept that their child is gay. Others attempt to place their kids in ex-gay ministries, like Memphis' controversial Love in Action program. Some kick their children out of the house. In some cases, the teens run away.
"Mostly, we've seen boys, and there are often other issues that develop with drugs, alcohol, or smoking," Batts says. "But the common issue is the youth and their parents have a conflict over the child's sexual orientation. Whether it's a religious base or a family history issue, it's difficult for parents to deal with."
The local volunteer-run Crisis Center, a 24-hour hotline for people in distress, accepts calls on issues ranging from family conflict to suicidal depression. Crisis Center director Mike Labonte says about 1 percent of their monthly calls deal with sexual orientation issues, and some of those calls come from gay youth or parents who don't know how to handle or reconcile the coming-out process.
"One of the more heartbreaking calls that I've gotten came from a gay African-American kid who told me he was an abomination and that he made God sick," Labonte says. "This was the message he'd gotten from his family and his church."
In a 2009 study in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, researchers found that LGBT young adults who reported higher levels of family rejection during adolescence were 8.4 times more likely to report attempted suicide, 5.9 times more likely to report depression, and 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs than their LGBT peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection.
Having raised a gay son of their own, the Words don't understand how families can reject their gay children.
"We have a problem with parents who think their children are disposable," Deb says.
Tim has been living with the couple for over three months now, and he's since found a job. "We're working through the baggage. He's attached to us as though we were his parents, and that scared me to death at first," Deb says. "I don't think he'd been here 10 days before he started calling us Mom and Dad."
Will Batts, Deb Word, and therapist Bob Loos make up the three-person YES committee responsible for recruiting host families and drafting program rules. Batts is an administrator, while Word offers her firsthand knowledge from hosting Tim. Loos will counsel youth who sign up for the program.
In theory, host families are only required to house their guests for three months, but as the Words have learned, young people may need more time to work through personal issues. They're allowing Tim to stay as long as he needs to.
Some housing rules are at the host family's discretion, such as curfew. But all participants are required to pass a drug screen and a background check.
"No arsonists, no ax murderers, no active warrants," Loos says. "If they have a dirty drug screen, we'll have a zero tolerance policy on that. And we will have the option of sending them for random drug screens."
Likewise, host families are required to pass criminal background checks and possibly even credit checks to ensure they're financially able to support an extra person in the house. The MGLCC does not offer financial compensation to the host families.
"There's probably been a little more expense in groceries because Tim eats differently," Word says.
"Steve and I are into whole grains and fruits and vegetables. He's into pizza and chocolate-chip cookies. But I would think a kid could get food from MGLCC's food pantry, if the host family couldn't afford it."
"We do want them to have a separate bedroom for the person and the ability to sit down with the client for at least three meals a week," Loos says. "That's a time to catch up and learn about any problems with the household living arrangements."
As for medical expenses, Loos says participants without health insurance will be referred to low-income clinics, like the Church Health Center.
"We wouldn't ask host families to pay for major medical stuff," Loos says. "We may eventually look at finding doctors who would do pro bono work for us, but we haven't even entertained what would happen if there was a major operation needed."
The housing portion of the YES program cannot accept minors, since the MGLCC isn't set up to deal with children under 18. Homeless gay minors are referred to Youth Villages.
Food and Clothing
Nick and Allen (both asked the Flyer not to reveal their identities) aren't homeless — at least for now. The young men share a Cooper-Young apartment, but they haven't had electricity for months.
"We came close to losing the place recently. Bills are piling up, and I came in here and talked to Will [Batts]. I said I might end up back on the street again, and he said he'd find me somewhere to go," says Nick, an outgoing, bisexual 20-year-old.
Both Nick and Allen have jobs, but neither earns enough to keep up with the bills or buy adequate groceries. They get most of their food through the YES program's food pantry and some of their clothing from the program's free clothes closet. The food and clothing are donated by community center members and local churches.
"We get fruit cups, a lot of ramen, canned ravioli, stuff that's easy to prepare," Nick says.
When he met with this reporter at the MGLCC, Nick said his entire outfit — a trendy, button-down, plaid, Western-style shirt, a printed T-shirt, black dress pants, and black dress shoes — came from the clothes closet.
"There's some cool stuff in the clothes closet, but we only take things when we need them," Nick says.
Batts says gay youth in need often visit the center seeking dress shirts and slacks to wear to job interviews.
Though Allen and Nick only met a couple of years ago, both had tumultuous home lives. Allen, a soft-spoken 18-year-old, came out at age 16, and as a result was tossed back and forth between his mother's and father's homes. He spent a couple of nights sleeping on a park bench.
"My mom cried but didn't really have a problem with it. My dad was very objectionable to it sometimes. Then other times, he'd all of a sudden be okay with it," Allen says. "That's what brought on getting kicked out. I had to flip back and forth between parents."
Nick came out to his adoptive parents when he was 15 or 16, and though his father was accepting, his mother was not.
"She said, 'What are you trying to tell me? That you're a f**king queer?'" Nick says. "My mom kicked me out, and I was out for three months or so."
During that time, Nick spent many nights sleeping under an overpass. Eventually, his parents let him come back home, but not for long.
"My mom started getting pretty violent again and getting in my face," Nick says. "She told me to get out again."
These days, both men have better relationships with their parents. Nick's adoptive mother passed away last May, but his father remains in his life.
Allen says his relationship with his parents is "okay now, but not what I would want it to be."
Nick and Allen met at a Memphis Area Gay Youth meeting a few years ago. The adult-supervised support group for teenagers meets every Friday in a basement room at First Congregational Church.
"We always do a planned discussion or group activity," says adult adviser Mary Park. "We do sex education. But this week, we're having a discussion called So You Think You Know What's in Hot Cheetos? — about what goes into your food."
The core group of attendees ranges from five to 30, depending on the season. More kids show up during the summer. Every other Saturday, some of the same youth show up at the MGLCC's Queer As Youth meetings. There, they share a meal and participate in discussions.
"Oftentimes, I'll bring stuff from Planned Parenthood, and we'll have safe-sex sessions," says Elokin CaPece, who also serves as the education director for Planned Parenthood. "We also talk about racism, classism, and sexual orientation."
Parents coming to terms with gay children find similar support at monthly Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays meetings, held on the first Thursday of each month at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.
"When a child comes out, the parents also have to come out," says PFLAG president Lisa Kurts-Crume. "They're thinking, What do I tell my friends and family when they ask if my boy has a girlfriend?"
Kurts-Crume says some new parents show up at meetings "totally hysterical," but the meetings offer a place for them to gain understanding and support. It's the sort of therapy Crisis Center director Mike Labonte says parents need to help their children work through their tough coming-out period.
"The research supports that what these kids need is acceptance from their families," Labonte says. "When they don't have that, the situation can be devastating. They're already dealing with internalized homophobia because of the messages they're getting from society."
Such has been the case with Tim, who still suffers from his parents' rejection. His host family, the Words, have quickly learned how much baggage comes with gay teens who have been turned away by their families.
"Right now, he still seems to need parents desperately," Deb Word says. "And we don't mind. We think he's a doll."
The 24-hour Crisis Center can be reached at 901-274-7477. For more information on the Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center's housing program for young adults, call 901-278-6422.