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By Seamus Kirst

When Dan Sieburg attended a conference about homelessness in 2014, he was surprised to learn about the disproportionate number of homeless youth in the U.S. that identify as LGBTQ.

“I hadn’t heard specific talk about that demographic before,” said Sieburg, CEO of the Rescue Mission Alliance in Syracuse, New York, a Christian nonprofit serving the community's homeless population.

“When I heard the numbers, it made me realize that locally our shelters weren’t specifically addressing LGBTQ youth homelessness," he added.

Image: Stanley Allen Ayres, Wil Murtaugh and Dan Sieburg
Stanley Allen Ayres, chair of the Mission Giving Taskforce, Wil Murtaugh, executive director of ACR Health, and Dan Sieburg, CEO of the Rescue Mission Alliance.Steve Eckhardt

After the conference, Sieburg reached out to ACR Health, a fellow Syracuse nonprofit that provides support services for people with chronic illnesses, including HIV/AIDS, and operates the Q Center, a supportive space for LGBTQ youth where they and their families can gather, build community and receive health and other support services.

ACR Health's leadership confirmed that the Syracuse-area saw the same youth homelessness trends that Sieburg had learned of at the conference.

“Forty percent of runaway homeless youth in the country identify as LGBTQ, and yet only 7 to 9 percent of the population is LGBTQ," ACR Health Executive Director Wil Murtaugh said, referencing data supported in a study from UCLA's Williams Institute. “The statistic is unbelievable."

Marissa Rice, director of youth services at ACR Health, said family rejection plays a major role in the disproportionate rate of LGBTQ homeless youth in the area.

“Once they come out, they’re getting kicked out of the home,” Rice said. “For our trans youth, that rate is even higher than LGB youth.”

Tyler Gilyard, ACR Health’s housing manager, said mainstream homeless shelters are not always a safe option for LGBTQ youth. Even if shelter staff members are inclusive, he said other residents can pose a risk.

"The staff isn’t always there," he explained. "The youth might get preyed on by other clients or face an increased likelihood of violence based on homophobia or transphobia.”

While there are a handful of shelters across the U.S. specifically for LGBTQ youth, they're primarily located in big cities, like New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“We’ve had clients who have done the circuit and wound up working the thruway down to New York City,” Rice said. “They often get waitlisted at some shelters in the city when they’re full and are put on a bus back to Syracuse."

An emergency shelter and day center run by Rescue Mission Alliance in Syracuse, New York.
An emergency shelter and day center run by Rescue Mission Alliance in Syracuse, New York.Rescue Mission

Instead of young people from Syracuse traveling 300 miles to New York City to find an LGBTQ-affirming shelter, Sieburg and the ACR Health team decided their city should have an LGBTQ youth shelter of its own.

“If someone comes to us homeless, we can then know we can put them into a safe bed that night and keep them out of someone else’s bed,” Murtaugh said, referring to survival sex that many homeless youth turn to make ends meet.

After their initial conversion, the Rescue Mission Alliance and ACR Health began talking about what a collaboration between their organizations might look like, and they eventually formed an LGBTQ Advisory Board to take the next steps.

Finally, after years of conversations, the two organizations announced last month their plans to raise funds to open an emergency 10-bed shelter for runaway and homeless LGBTQ youth, ages 12 – 17. The youth in this upcoming shelter, which they hope to open by 2019, will have access to Q Center programs, including family support groups, tutoring and case management, among other services.

Rice stressed the importance of including the families of LGBTQ youth in the available services.

“When kids come out, they’ve though about it for long time, and sometimes parents are just learning this,” she said. “So we want to catch parents up to speed, because the best case scenario is that kids could go home and have a supporting loving family who affirms who they are.”

The leaders of the Rescue Mission Alliance and ACR Health hope their combined expertise will result in the upcoming shelter being a success.

“The Rescue Mission is the homeless shelter experts,” Murtaugh of ACR Health said. “We are programming experts, and with the collective energy we are going to make this happen.”

Sieburg, however, noted that many people were initially surprised by the partnership — especially since Rescue Mission Alliance is a Christian organization that has not previously done any LGBTQ-specific work in its 131 years of existence.

“We probably weren’t affirming, and we probably were just ignorant for lack of going down that road,” Sieburg said. “But, once we got the information and saw the data, we realized we could help.”

Sieburg said when Rescue Mission Alliance first started the LGBTQ Advisory Board, several people questioned the organization's motivation for getting involved with the issue of LGBTQ youth homelessness.

“I’m sure some people from ACR Health came to the first meetings with their guards up, rightfully so, but over the years we’ve built trust and gone to conferences together and presented together,” he said. “And because we’ve tackled this from a marathon perspective as opposed to a sprint, I think its developed really well.”

The Rescue Mission Alliance is not the only Christian organization helping to make Syracuse's LGBTQ youth shelter a reality.

Plymouth Congregational Church, a self-identified "progressive Christian" church that was one of six churches to found the Rescue Mission Alliance in 1887, has already committed to giving $50,000 toward the creation of shelter.

“That says something powerful in the community,” Sieburg said. “Maybe some Christian organizations haven’t acknowledged the needs of LGBT [people] in the past, so here’s one church that’s stepping up financially to support this right off the bat.”

Sieburg and Murtaugh said they are trying to raise $500,000 for the project in total.

“That breaks down to $250,000 to purchase and renovate a house, which we are looking for, and another $250,000 for the first year of operations,” Sieburg explained.

And while financial contributions are necessary, Sieburg said word of mouth is also imperative.

"Communicating to people that this is actually a need is crucial,” Sieburg said. “I can’t tell you how many people asked if we really need this in our community. We do. It really is a need.”

Both Sieburg and Murtaugh hope the example the Syracuse community is setting by coming together to get this project built will provide inspiration for other cities around the country.