“Sign in for me, please.” We’re interrupted once more as a prospective volunteer enters the OUTMemphis building (formerly known as the Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center). Stephanie Reyes, one of only five staff members, is stationed at the front desk. A volunteer orientation is taking place in the main room.
OUTMemphis has been in Memphis since February of 1989 and has recently launched a project to address LGBTQ homelessness in Memphis. Although Stephanie says Metamorphosis will not likely be the name of the facility where the youth are eventually housed, it is the name they’ve given to the project that will make it a reality.
LGBTQ youth homelessness is especially prevalent in the United States. As many as forty percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, despite only up to ten percent of the general youth population identifying as such. While all homeless youth typically experience severe family conflict as the primary reason for their homelessness, LGBT youth are twice as likely to experience sexual abuse before the age of 12. LGBT homeless youth also commit suicide at higher rates (62%) than heterosexual homeless youth (29%).
Stephanie recounts that youth homelessness in Memphis has been an issue from OUTMemphis’s founding and the staff—comprised only of volunteers until Will Batts became the first full-time paid staff member eight years ago–tackled the problem as their limitations would allow. For a time, they passed out hotel vouchers. A few local host families also housed youth with them over the years and over thirty young adults were housed this way. However, a constant influx of young adults over several years can understandably take its toll on volunteer hosts. Neither of these stopgaps were permanent solutions.
Stephanie has been living in Memphis for almost three years and working at center for two of those. She was tasked with two objectives when she was hired: meet kids where they are (schools and libraries) and tackle youth homelessness in Memphis. Stephanie describes the latter objective as “a harder task than it seems,” underestimating, I think, how much people can appreciate what a complicated problem the intersection of housing and social attitudes about queer-identified youth really is.
OUTMemphis organized a youth count in November and plan to improve this process each year in an effort to gauge the scope of the problem. Stephanie also met with representatives of emergency shelters in Memphis about how to make their spaces more inclusive by changing gendered language on intake forms and having open conversations about inclusion with all of the residents and staff at their facilities. Despite inviting representatives from every shelter in the area, only seven people attended. Almost all in attendance were from MIFA, Salvation Army, and Room in the Inn.
Stephanie understands the personal toll of the issue first-hand. She recounted one story in particular about a transgender man who came to center, asking for housing. She called local shelters on his behalf, looking for long-term shelter. After being transferred several times between people who either didn’t understand the situation or refused to address it, she was met with this final response: “Don’t act gay and it will be fine.” Clearly, the problem is much greater than just finding a bed. Stephanie explains that “even if they let you through the door as a transgender man in a women’s shelter, it’s going to be hell.”
The law is an additional problem. If an organization is not receiving certain kinds of federal funding, they are not required to admit transgender men and women to gender-specific shelters and programs. Even sympathetic shelter workers face asking for acceptance from their organizations with no legal backing.
Stephanie describes how difficult it is to have a conversation with a young adult and explain that she doesn’t have a safe space for them to go. Many young people struggling with housing have already had traumatic experiences with specific agencies. Sometimes a young person won’t go back to a specific shelter because they were assaulted—verbally, sexually, or physically. Their chosen names and pronouns were ignored, their belongings were stolen, they were singled out by other clients, staff, or both. Even where the staff and policies of shelters are accommodating, the environments themselves are still hostile.
The basis of the Metamorphosis Project is to convert shipping containers into housing, gradually increasing the number of residents. Phase One of the Metamorphosis project will install four beds and Phase Two will add an additional eight. OUTMemphis purchased five connected properties from the Shelby County Land Bank, focusing their considerations on the community and future tenants. The location, for example, is near a bus stop in order to provide transportation options to youth unlikely to have access to a car. In addition to housing, they also hope they can institute services for their residents and the community, such as résumé workshops, counseling, and community service projects.