Providing safe haven: LGBTQIA+ teens find new home

Out of all homeless youth in America, 40 percent identify as LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex and asexual, amongst others) according to the Williams Institute at UCLA.

Rick Westbrook, one of the founders of the organization Lost-n-Found Youth, is working to change that fact.

Lost-n-Found is comprised of a youth center, two houses for homeless teens and a thrift store. Westbrook founded Lost-n-Found to help LGBTQIA+ teens with everything they could possibly need.

“It’s rough out there,” Westbrook said. “There are shelters in town, but a lot of them are religiously based. Our kids don’t need to go through the trauma of living alone and then hear every night at dinner that they’re going to hell.”

Westbrook created Lost-n-Found to fill a void.

“We realized there was no place like this in Atlanta,” he said.

The organization provides various services, including a 24-hour hotline, temporary housing and assistance with writing resumes.

Due to hardships the teens experience, the workers at Lost-n-Found must be ready for anything.

“We’ve heard horror stories of families in rural areas letting kids who’ve come out live at home, but they have to stay in the metal shed out back,” Westbrook said. “They have to clean the house and mow the yard, and there are no bathroom facilities. Whatever they didn’t eat they gave to the kid.”

hannahUSELost-n-Found started taking donations for clothing, furniture, housewares and other miscellaneous items soon after its establishment . So many donations came in that the workers had to open a drop-off center and thrift store.

“It’s there for the kids if they need it. They need interview clothes, we write them a voucher and they go there and it’s free. Or if a kid moves into a new apartment and they need furniture, the store is there.”

According to Westbrook, support for the LGBTQIA+ community has improved in recent years, which something the people at Lost-n-Found hope to contribute to.

“We’re making lots of [advancements] in the gay community, and that’s wonderful,” Westbrook said. “I remember having to go to the back of a [gay] club with a special knock to get in, because they couldn’t have anything out on the street advertising that it was a club.”

Westbrook is assisted in running Lost-n-Found by various people, including partners Michael Rupert and DeMarc Campbell. They are assistant house managers at the home.

They’re “on-site support” for the teens, and both take the night shift. They share a passion for the efforts of the organization.

“Gay people struggle enough with so many other things in our society,” Rupert said. “If a youth is struggling with homelessness, I want to be the person there who can help them get their life back on track or help them reach a goal, even if that goal is just finding a job.”

According to Campbell, community is the most important part of Lost-n-Found.

“I’ve been where some of these kids are,” Campbell said. “You have to make your own family. You have to make your own support system, and sometimes you have to learn hard lessons very quickly. ”

Out of Campbell’s personal hardships emerged a desire to give back to his community.

“I’ve had people who’ve kept me from stumbling,” he said. “I’ve had people who’ve taught me things that I needed to know that I didn’t know. [Lost-n-Found] is an opportunity to pay it forward.”

Hannah Jones, 25, is a current occupant of the house owned by the organization. Although not a teen, she experienced the positive impacts of it firsthand.

“I was [at the Lost-n-Found house] for eight months, and I ended up getting a job and finding a place to live,” she said. “I was getting ready to get a promotion at the job I was at, but then I was hit by a truck on my walk home.”

The workers at Lost-n-Found were with her for every step of her recovery. “I spent eight months in the hospital, and the whole time I was there, Lost-n-Found was there too,” she said. “My family only came to see me four times in the eight months I was there, and Lost-n-Found was there pretty much every day.”

After nearly five months of recovery time and 20 reconstructive surgeries, she didn’t have a place to go.

She’s lived at the house again since March, and says she’s getting her “physical, mental and emotional stuff back together.” She hopes to be ready to find a job soon.

Jones is using the example set by the people of Lost-n-Found to help those in need.

She created a YouTube channel called “Alphabet Soup” that Jones said is meant to show “everyday life and experiences that youths go through” no matter who they are.

Jones’ hope for the channel is to get people of all walks of life to submit videos dealing with a category for each letter of the alphabet.

She credits the people of Lost-n-Found for giving her the motivation to help those in situations similar and dissimilar to her own.

With a new house for teens in the works and homeless teens still out on the streets, the people at Lost-n-Found are far from done.