Local nonprofit opens transitional housing to meet growing demand among LGBTQ youth
Keith Pollard, the deputy director of youth housing programs at SMYAL (pronounced “smile”), knows just what it’s like to come face to face with discrimination.
He began his advocacy work with the organization in 2015 because he “always wanted to be the example” by helping provide what he did not have “growing up as a gay, Black boy in this world.”
Having been raised in a part of West Virginia he describes as very religious, Pollard said he remembers “going to church and hearing the scriptures and the preaching of homosexuality being an ‘abomination’ and being wrong and being sin and so on and so forth.”
For a time, the anti-gay propaganda caused Pollard to worry about the consequences of revealing his true self to those around him. “I, at a younger age, had a fear of being kicked out and being homeless,” he said.
However, he was fortunate enough to have “two parents who were supportive and amazing,” and he never had to experience being rejected by his immediate family.
Pollard says not everyone has this kind of critical support, which is one of the many reasons that SMYAL (Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders) exists to empower LGBTQ youth.
SMYAL, which was formed by advocates who began meeting in 1984, opened its first youth housing facility in 2017. A few weeks ago, the D.C.-based nonprofit opened its third youth home to meet the growing demand for transitional housing for LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness.
[Read more: SMYAL opened its second youth home in 2019 ]
Many of the young people who participate in SMYAL programs do so after experiencing homelessness, and many have also experienced rejection from their families because of their sexual and gender identities.
This kind of rejection can lead to “severe mental health challenges” that create additional obstacles for young people seeking to become independent, according to Pollard.
Research published by San Francisco State University found that gay and transgender youth who have been rejected by their families are more than eight times as likely to die by suicide. They are also nearly six times as likely to suffer from depression, three times as likely to use illegal drugs, and three times as likely to contract STDs.
Research also shows that LGBTQ-identifying people experience homelessness at disproportionately high rates, which makes the work SMYAL does all the more important.
In a weeklong survey conducted in 2019, the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness (TCP), a nonprofit contracted by the Department of Human Services to collect data on youth homelessness, found 1,306 people aged 18-24 experiencing homelessness throughout the city. By contrast, TCP’s 2020 survey found 651 homeless youth throughout the city but stated that COVID-19 had impacted its ability to collect information safely from service providers, likely resulting in the lower count.
Generally speaking, youth homelessness is far less visible and harder to quantify than among other age groups, with people and providers often viewing it as distinct from “chronic homelessness” because young adults are in a period of transition.
In TCP’s 2019 survey, more than a third of the single youth identified as LGBTQ+, as did 13% of youth heads of households. Additionally, 42% of all the youth surveyed indicated they experienced domestic violence as a result of their housing situations. And 85% of singles and 94% of heads of households identified as Black or African American.
The newly opened extended transitional housing program, known as Roman’s House, consists of two apartment buildings and provides youth aged 18-24 not only with stable housing but also with the kind of support Pollard says is invaluable to people at this stage of their lives. Youth may stay there for up to six years, depending on the age they enter, while SMYAL’s other two programs allow for up to two years of stay.
Roman, the namesake for SMYAL’s two latest apartment buildings, was a positive, upbeat young member of the SMYAL community who loved music and was learning how to play the guitar and the piano. Roman also enjoyed nature, had a special connection to animals, and struggled with substance abuse. Their unexpected death last October came as a shock to those within the SMYAL community.
“We named Roman’s House in honor of that youth, for the impact that they had on us while they were with us, and [just] the light that they shined in the world,” Pollard said.
SMYAL requested not to share Roman’s full name out of respect for their privacy.
Given the demand for this kind of housing, the newly opened Roman’s House is already close to its 12-person capacity. As for SMYAL’s other two youth houses, one is at capacity while the other is close, according to Pollard. While Roman’s House opened formally in early June, two residents had moved in back in March through the city’s youth “coordinated entry” system. Youth housing programs across the country are generally capped at age 24, which some advocates argue is an unfair practice.
The Roman’s House residents each have access to a bedroom of their own and share a common space that includes a bathroom and a kitchen.
SMYAL’s housing programs all feature a clinical on-site case manager who helps to guide youth struggling with mental health and provides them the support they need to gain confidence in themselves and become more independent.
While the participating youth are all given a safe, supportive place to sleep and live, their day-to-day experiences differ depending on the individual.
“We have community health care workers, we have food service workers, we have customer service and retail workers, we have some entrepreneurs,” Pollard said of the residents.
Not only do the participants have diverse interests and backgrounds, they also each come with their own needs, some of them universal and others unique.
“[We tailor] our services to the individuals that we have, making sure that our houses feel like home, making sure that they’re safe spaces, making sure that there is 24-hour staff to address their needs no matter what it is,” Pollard said.
For example, Pollard explained, someone experiencing an anxiety attack in the middle of the night can rely on someone from SMYAL’s staff to help them through it.
In Pollard’s view, it’s the combination of housing and programming that contributes to SMYAL’s success. Recently, he said, three program participants who were graduating the same day all searched for, applied for, and moved into an apartment together.
“We’ve [also] had people come in and graduate with their GED. We’ve had people come in and enroll in college. We have several of our trans women in a workforce development program through us … that are thriving [and] building careers for themselves,” Pollard added.
For Pollard, there’s one overarching aspect that makes his work at SMYAL so rewarding. “My proudest moments are when the youth that I work with are proud of themselves,” he said.
This article was co-published with The DC Line.
Will Schick covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. Year one of this joint position was made possible by the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship, The Nash Foundation, and individual contributors.