The Do-Over: How A Focus on LGBTQ Youth Helped Improve Residents’ Futures

ACH Child and Family Services is a North Texas-area agency that helps homeless, foster, and struggling youth build stability and independence. A few years ago, they realized a major challenge to their effectiveness: They had little to no programming specifically designed to help lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth, a relatively large portion of their clientele. LGBTQ youth often face discrimination when they attempt to get services and housing. They may also have difficulty reuniting with family if their family members reject them because of their sexual identity. So culturally relevant services are key to their ability to leave homelessness.

NCFY spoke with Sean Allen, ACH’s chief analytics officer, who spearheaded the agency’s three-year effort to make their work and space as LGBTQ-friendly as possible, based on the latest research and program recommendations. Allen says ACH is now in a better position than ever to serve every young person who enters their centers and shelters, and that the gains carry over into their ability to find better housing solutions.

NCFY: When did ACH realize that LGBTQ-friendliness was an essential organizational goal? What prompted this change?

Sean Allen: We know from national statistics that a large number (as much as 25 percent to 40 percent) of youth in our target population identify as LGBTQ, and that these youth face unique challenges and significantly elevated risks.

In 2012, our organization formed a task force to improve the effectiveness of our programs and services for LGBTQ youth. The members of that task force were selected very carefully – a combination of volunteers and some who had to be recruited in order to balance out the group. For six months we reviewed the scientific literature and scoured the many excellent best-practice documents. And the next six months we spent on reflection, dialogue, and the development of specific recommendations for the organization to implement in order to improve outcomes for LGBTQ youth and their families. At the end of the year, we were successful in coming to consensus on eight actionable recommendations.

NCFY: How did the program decide on the changes and improvements to make? Was there a key consultant or existing blueprint?

Allen: Our team kept coming back to the research out of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, under the direction of Dr. Caitlyn Ryan. These studies show that the way a parent or other caregiver responds to a child's LGBTQ identity is probably the single most important factor in that child's long-term outcomes. Well-meaning caregivers who engage in LGBTQ-rejecting behaviors (such as denying the child's identity, blocking access to resources, or religious condemnation) are actually increasing risks of suicide, drug abuse, and other very bad outcomes. Whereas caregivers who engage in LGBTQ-accepting behaviors have children whose risk for these bad outcomes is about the same as their non-LGBTQ peers.

With this in mind, we set a goal for our organization to eliminate LGBTQ-rejecting behaviors from all our programs. It's a simple message, easily understood in terms of concrete behaviors which are not allowed in our programs. We provide in-depth training to reinforce this message with all our staff.

NCFY: How does the new focus help achieve housing or residential outcomes?

Allen: First and foremost, providing an LGBTQ-friendly environment increases the likelihood of LGBTQ youth choosing to come to the shelter in the first place. Given the choice between [our shelter] and the streets or couch surfing or trading sex for a place to live, young people must see our shelter as a better alternative. Often LGBTQ youth in particular are hesitant to come to a shelter, given the pervasive discrimination and ill treatment they may have received from other institutions.

Once youth overcome the barrier of being willing to come into our shelter, then we must demonstrate to them that we accept them for who they are. When they enter a new environment, LGBTQ youth tend to scan the environment and pick up subtle cues from staff and other youth, trying to ascertain if this is a safe place to be “out.” They pay attention to use of language and look for LGBTQ symbols in making this determination.

It is our goal to create an environment where all youth feel welcome in our shelter and where LGBTQ youth in particular know they will find acceptance. Otherwise they will not walk in the front door, they will not engage in a meaningful way with staff, they are more likely to run away from the shelter, and they are likely to tell other youth about their experiences at the shelter. As we have taken steps to focus on the LGBTQ population, word has definitely gotten around, and we have seen a positive change in how our shelter and other services are perceived by LGBTQ people.