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From Their Bridge Over Troubled Waters, LGBT Youth Look For Safe Haven

Joey Palacios
Texas Public Radio
23-year-old Tony Mack stands with 22-year-old Chanel Ramos and two other homeless youth at Travis Park.

A new shelter for LGBT young adults, originally slated to be hosted in a church, is in the works for downtown San Antonio. But there are now discussions to house it as a separate unit within Haven for Hope, a city center that offers services and shelter for the homeless. For San Antonio’s displaced LGBT youth, among the most vulnerable sections of society, there is an urgent need for hope, and safe haven.

There are approximately 1.6 million homeless youth in the United States, and a UCLA law school study states that 40 percent of them are LGBT. That includes 22-year-old Chanel Ramos of San Antonio. She’s been on the streets for five years, since running away from her family in California. “My parents are very Christian, they don’t believe in anything gay or anything like that. My own dad threatened to kill me, so that’s why I ran away,” says Ramos.

Ramos was born a boy but says she has always identified as a girl. “Basically since I was in kindergarten, believe it or not, I never felt like a guy at all.” At nights, Ramos sleeps under a bridge along Interstate 35, with other LGBT youth, including 23-year-old Tony Mack.

Mack is not here because of paternal pressure; he’s here because of economic deprivation. “I actually got in this situation last year when I ended up messing up my knee while dancing. I lost my job, so I was out here busted and homeless at the same time,” says Mack.

On an average day, Ramos and Mack spend most of their time looking for food and walking around the city before going back to the bridge to sleep. “Every day I wake up, I walk to go find breakfast, and I go the library and hang out, and then I’ll go to church or someplace feeding that evening. Once that night’s done, I go back to my spot and go to sleep,” says Mack.

Until now, there haven’t been many options for sleeping indoors. Both Ramos and Mack have tried sleeping at  Haven for Hope, but Ramos says she was harassed because of her sexual identity. “People [are] just standing there watching me take a shower, inappropriately touching themselves while I was in the shower, it got very uncomfortable in there,” she recalls.

Mack claims the guards shouted slurs at him. “They were dropping the F-bomb, and they were also calling me the N-word, which is not my favorite. So those kind of set me off a lot.”

But Haven for Hope says it wants to be part of the solution. Its administrators are talking about providing space for an LGBT shelter that’s being organized by another nonprofit, Thrive Youth Center. Thrive has been working on this for a long time and originally planned to operate the shelter at Travis Park United Methodist Church. But efforts to get the city to grant them a mandatory zoning change delayed the opening.  So talks with Haven for Hope began this month.

Thrive’s Executive Director Sandra Whitley says the goal is a location that will serve 18- to 25-year olds.  “We’re just trying to help the youth have basic shelter and eventually obtain their GED, get their ID, get employment, and encourage them to do so.”

District 1 City Councilmember, Robert Trevino, hopes the two nonprofits can work out the details for a permanent space. “The space that they’re identifying can hold 10-14 beds complete with their own facilities, including a working space for Thrive. This is actually, we think, is a great solution because Haven for Hope is set up for this kind of support and this kind of help.”

Haven’s Director of External Relations, Laura Cauldron, says she can’t comment on the exact discussions but says there is momentum. “We feel very confident that we’re going to come to a good conclusion, a conclusion that’s going to benefit the LGBT community. What we are looking at right now are how can we integrate, how can we coordinate the services that our departments provide.”

Calderon says Haven can offer medical, dental, and vision care along with education training through its 36 onsite partners. As for the earlier complaints about Haven from Ramos and Mack, Calderon says transgendered individuals at Haven are given opportunities to shower alone, but she’s gathering more information from the staff on this.  “We will make special accommodations for them in terms shower usage. If someone comes and lets us know that they are a transgendered individual, we will provide a secure time where they can take a shower in privacy,” says Calderon.

Next week, many of the Haven’s security team will continue sexual orientation sensitivity training, a process that has been on going for a while. Mack says having a place like Thrive, which has already provided some assistance, will be a big help. “We actually have it pretty hard out here, so just the Thrive Youth Center helping out and reaching out to us like this is actually a pretty good thing for us in the future.”

At the moment, it is unknown as to when any plans between Haven and Thrive will be finalized. And in the meantime, all Ramos and Mack can do, is hope.

Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules