At some point in their lives, 30 percent of transgender people will experience homelessness, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. This is a heightened problem for young adults, who might turn eighteen in an economically unstable environment, age out of foster care, or get booted from their homes after coming out to their family. 

Regardless of the circumstances, they often have few safe places to turn: 70 percent of the survey’s homeless respondents who had stayed in shelters reported experiencing mistreatment, including harassment, sexual and physical abuse, and ejection. 

“Before having a formal name for it, our community has had to take in folks and create family as a way to fill some gaps,” says Helena Cragg, program director of the LGBTQ Center of Durham. She saw sympathetic Facebook threads and watched residents try to make space for homeless queer youth, but she didn’t know whether these makeshift solutions were making an impact. The Center received requests to host young people in need, but it lacked the capacity to take them all in. 

“It felt like it was time for us to move into that gap we felt in the community,” Cragg says.

In June, the Center launched the Host Home Program, which seeks to assist individuals between eighteen and twenty-four years old who are suffering from housing instability, with a focus on people who are of color and/or LGBTQ. (The latter constitutes roughly 40 percent of homeless youth nationwide.) The model pairs those with immediate short-term housing needs with vetted hosts. 

Durham’s program, which has so far worked with ten young adults and housed six of them, also offers participants job training and access to supportive mental health providers. 

Finding the proper match requires flexibility and diligence. To recruit hosts, Cragg and HHP coordinator KC Buchanan have spoken at churches, Durham County Department of Health meetings, and Durham Bulls games on Pride Night. They’ve also advertised at Bull City Roller Derby bouts and begun to discuss partnership opportunities with the League of Upper Extremity Wrestling Women of Durham, a women’s arm-wrestling league that raises funds for organizations supporting the city’s women, femmes, and non-binary residents.

All hosts must go through a background check and a home visit before approval. But the actual process of marching hosts to those in need often starts with a letter written to prospective tenants that outlines the host’s life story. The Center ensures, through preliminary boundary-setting and a two-week trial period, that the host won’t be re-traumatized by hosting someone navigating issues they’ve previously dealt with.

Often, the most effective host is someone who knows the struggles a young person might be facing—and who can appreciate the value of a guiding hand at a precarious point. 

“It may be that [if] someone is sober, they’re the perfect host for someone who’s trying to find their way to sobriety,” says Cragg. “It may be that someone who’s done sex work is the only person who isn’t corny enough to have a real conversation with them about that.”

Funding for the program comes from the state’s Department of Health and Human Services Division of Mental Health—which makes sense, given that, according to a 2012 survey, half of LGBTQ homeless youth have worse overall physical and mental health than their homeless peers. 

All HHP participants regularly interact with therapists, and the program brings in three mental health providers to meet with them at either the Center or their host home. 

“We were realizing we couldn’t just send young, vulnerable queer youth of color in particular to any mental health provider, especially knowing the high levels of trauma they were bringing in,” Buchanan says. They stress the importance of finding health professionals who can “mirror” their clients’ realities and understand their stories.

Buchanan mostly interacts with the hosts. Amber Esters, the HHP case manager, works with the young adults directly, driving them to appointments, assisting them with goal plans, making connections with providers, and ensuring that they’re in a good place. 

During the program’s pilot phase over the next three years, the aim is to create avenues for volunteers to contribute beyond hosting, from making birthday cakes for the participants to teaching classes to offering workshops for résumés and polishing college applications.

That growth will be crucial as national threats begin to encroach. In May, the Trump administration proposed a rule that would roll back protections for homeless transgender people and allow shelters to deny individuals access on the basis of religious beliefs. (That change is under review.) The HHP provides a counterweight, an effort to break the cycle of those who need assistance but are least likely to seek it.  

Of the ten people the Center has worked with thus far, all are queer, half are transgender, and all but one are people of color.  

“It is both surprising and not surprising that one hundred percent of the youth have been exactly the two populations that we most want to support,” Cragg says. “But that feels important because there’s so little data about these communities locally. It feels empowering to be able to name something that we’ve known is truly in existence.”

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