LGBTQ youth homelessness in South Florida


Experts agree that LGBTQ homeless youth in South Florida are invisible, which makes them a particularly vulnerable segment of the population. They aren’t standing on the side of the road with hand-painted signs, they rarely congregate among homeless adults, and they learn to stay off the streets during the day to avoid the authorities. Many simply spend most of their days securing a place to sleep in the evenings.

The Trials of Life

Suarez’ situation is not uncommon. National studies estimate that up to 40 percent of all people under age 24 experiencing homelessness in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ. Because this population is often undetectable, it has been difficult to count and to track the numbers in South Florida, making local statistics hard to come by.

According to a 2015 study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, family rejection is the most common reason providers cite for homelessness among queer youth. Some are forced out of their homes, while others run away from the humiliation and emotional or physical abuse. Substance abuse and domestic violence are the second most frequently cited causes, followed by aging out of the foster care system with no proper support network.

In South Florida, the high cost of living is a significant factor. “For an 18-year-old with a minimum wage job, it is impossible to afford to live in a one-bedroom or studio apartment without assistance,” says Mandi Hawke, director of youth services at SunServe, a social services agency for Broward’s LGBTQ community. “Many LGBTQ young people — and especially our trans youth — often struggle to find affirming employment.”

Once on the streets or housed in emergency shelters, queer youth face myriad obstacles that further threaten their chances of becoming independent. According to a 2016 report by True Colors Fund, a leading organization working to end LGBTQ youth homelessness, these young people struggle with harsher realities in the foster care, school and juvenile justice systems. They are also disproportionately affected by HIV, sexual assault, violence and inadequate access to behavioral and mental health resources, especially if they are of color or come from low-income backgrounds.

Michael Alexander-Luz is the co-coordinator of an LBT support group at Lotus House in Miami, a women’s shelter for all ages, including those with children. Too often he sees the long-term impacts of these struggles. “There [are] a lot of mental health diagnoses present; a lot of substance use history and suicidal ideation. Oftentimes, when they are not here, they are getting hormones off the black market that aren’t safe.”
A Dearth of Resources

In spite of the high rates of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness, there are few shelters in South Florida specifically designed with them in mind. Miami Bridge Youth & Family Services provides shelter for children and teens through age 17, but there is no shelter in Miami-Dade specifically for individuals ages 18-24. In Broward, Fort Lauderdale’s Covenant House is the only emergency shelter for youth through age 20.

David Raymond, former executive director of Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, notes that local policies for addressing homelessness focus primarily on housing people who are chronically homeless first. But that’s part of the cycle, as he is quick to mention that the key to stopping someone from becoming chronically homeless is to get them out of homelessness within the first year. Even in the local adult shelter system, it can take weeks to find a bed, and there are no protections in place to keep young people from being targeted or discriminated when they attempt to access these services.

Many LGBTQ youth report having poor experiences in general population shelters, says Landon “LJ” Woolston, homeless youth programs and services manager at Pridelines. “Oftentimes, they don’t want to go back to shelters because they have been bullied by staff or other adult clients,” he says. “For trans and gender non-conforming youth, it is even harder, because they are more likely to encounter systemic violence in the shelter system and to be housed inappropriately based on the sex they were assigned at birth rather than their gender identity.”

An Oasis of Support

In partnership with other South Florida groups such as Aqua Foundation and The Alliance for GLBTQ Youth, Pridelines has helped over 150 young people in less than four years.

The 9,000-square-foot community center that opened in 2016 was built in part to expand services for this population. Free case management and advocacy, warm meals, snacks, showers, washer and dryer, and clothing and hygiene products are all available there. The organization also runs an array of programs for LGBTQ youth and adults, including HIV support groups, educational lectures, holistic therapies and a lending library.

This summer, the nonprofit celebrates 35 years of service improving lives through safety, guidance and unconditional acceptance.

Among them is La’Ruben Dixon, a 20-year-old gay student from a religious home, where homosexuality was considered sinful. At age 15, his mother kicked him out, so he spent the next several years on the streets, “couch-surfing” with friends or at emergency shelters, such as Camillus House.

“It’s stressful; it’s a hard adjustment. But it gave me motivation for wanting to improve my own life,” says Dixon, who is now studying dance at Santa Fe College in Gainesville.
Bright Prospects

It was only after a great deal of pain that Kassidy Suarez, too, obtained services when she received a referral to Lotus House. After she stabilized, she was offered a position there, too. When her mother became homeless, she was in a position to help, and with support and education, her mom began to accept her for who she is. They rebuilt their relationship and they now live together in permanent housing in Overtown.

Filled with gratitude, Suarez wants to share her story with vulnerable gay and transgender youth. “Stay focused, stay in school, just don’t let go of you,” she says. “There are so many speed bumps — and so many hurtful ones — but don’t let barriers bury you. A person can upgrade rather than self-deteriorate.”



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OUT50 Broward: Mandi Hawke – The LGBT Teens Advocate

If there is one safe space for LGBTQ youth, it’s SunServe. If there’s one person who leads them, it’s Mandi Hawke.

Hawke, SunServe’s Director of Youth Services, leads a team that gives LGBT teens a safe space in the community. They have weekly youth groups, an annual Youth Prom, Summer Field Days, Movie Nights and have a Youth Leadership Council. Even with how much SunServe offers, Hawke believes there could always be more help from the community.

“I believe there could always be more support: financially, emotionally and physically through volunteering and activism,” Hawke said. “However, over the years I have seen the culture shift in a significant way for the better. I only hope that will continue!”

It’s young people that face some big challenges with affordable housing, steady income and employment. In the future, though, Hawke thinks it can and will get better.

“Despite the unfriendly political climate we are entering I believe the LGBTQ community has passed the threshold of no return and will continue to become stronger and more united,” Hawke said. “I could not be more proud to be part of a community who has overcome so much!”

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DCF Under Fire Over LGBT Conversion Therapy Rule Change

DCF IMAGETALLAHASSEE (NSF) – The Florida Department of Children and Families is under fire for backing off of part a proposal that would protect LGBT kids who live in group homes from discrimination — including so-called “conversion therapy” aimed at changing their sexual orientation.

The language is part of a wide-ranging draft rule that deals with group care for foster youths and has been in the works for months.

Last fall, when DCF Secretary Mike Carroll approved provisions protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, advocates celebrated. At that point, the draft rule banned staffers at group homes from “(a)ttempt(ing) to change or discourage a child’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”

However, that language was opposed by the Florida Baptist Children’s Home and the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, and by late January, it was gone.

At a Friday hearing on the proposed rule, dozens of speakers — foster youths, advocates and child-welfare professionals — asked DCF to reinstate it.

“Deletion of this language is worse than never having addressed it,” said Hannah Willard, the Orlando-based outreach coordinator for the advocacy group Equality Florida. “Arguably, removing this prohibition implies the department endorses the use of conversion therapy. And the fact that the department removed this language at the request of faith-based providersis particularly disturbing, given that many children are subjected to these practices by unlicensed pastors in churches or other faith-based institutions.”

Carroll, who did not attend the hearing, said in a statement that DCF does not and will not tolerate any discrimination or bullying against any vulnerable child for any reason.

He also deplored the politicization of child welfare, which he said requires “everyone under the tent” to contribute, and noted that many faith-based groups are among the best providers of foster and group care in the state system.

“I don’t want to get bogged down for the next two years arguing over words on a political document when really, I need to be talking about practice, I need to be talking about training, I need to be talking about developing adequate resources to serve these kids so that they’re better served from the outset in places where they’ll flourish,” Carroll told The News Service of Florida.

The Florida Baptist Children’s Homes and the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops submitted their written comments in January, but did not participate in Friday’s hearing.

“Zero tolerance is expected by staff regarding any type of discriminatory, harassment, or bullying behaviors regarding residents or other employees,” the Florida Baptist Children’s Homes wrote in January. “Faith based milieus allow for spiritual guidance that respect(s) the differences among God’s creations and can do so in a safe, non-judgmental manner. Therefore, a special designation for sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression is unwarranted.”

“The definition of ‘sexual orientation’ could encompass sexual conduct outside of marriage, thus legally affirming and specially protecting that conduct,” cautioned Michael Sheedy of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Clearly, every child should be safe from bullying and harassment in the care of state of Florida. An expectation of abstinence for school-aged children from sexual activity should be established.”

But Willard and others warned Friday that although discrimination and bullying for reasons such as race are banned, they occur nonetheless. For example, they said, in some group homes the straight boys are allowed to date, but not the gay ones.

Advocates also noted that LGBT youths were afraid to submit comments for the rule hearing.

“The children are so scared of retaliation, losing placement and feeling even less accepted,” wrote Amanda Williams and Deena Ruth, a lesbian couple in Gainesville who specialize in fostering LGBT kids. “Of the 10 children whose stories I asked to share or asked to write a letter, they ALL declined out of fear and even asked that I not give their specific examples. If the element of fear that LGBTQ youth face isn’t enough of a statistic, I don’t know what is,” said the comment, using an acronym that also includes children “questioning” their sexual identity.

Carroll said he would take another look at the language addressing conversion therapy. And he said DCF needs to do “a better job of identifying these children” and matching them with parents and providers who will accept them as they are.

But Mandi Hawke of SunServe, a Broward-based agency that provides services for LGBT youth, said the department has a long way to go.

“We have sat open for months at a time without placement, because people are afraid to discuss LGBT status with young people,” Hawke said. “With the number of LGBT youth we know that are in care, this is horrific that we are told repeatedly how many foster youth need homes, and yet the proper matches are not being made.”

Advocates suggested that Gov. Rick Scott had overruled Carroll on the draft language. Asked to respond, Scott spokesman John Tupps said: “The governor’s office collaborates with all state agencies and we are fully aware of rulemaking going on at DCF. We encourage all parties to provide their input during this process.”

The Department of Children and Families will accept public comment on the draft rule until April 15.

The News Service of Florida’s Margie Menzel contributed to this report.

DCF Under Fire Over LGBT Rule Change


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Lost Opportunity or a Wake-Up Call?

wayne-dyer-divorcevv-5da35There are many people who have inspired my path of personal growth, but none as profoundly as Dr. Wayne Dyer. When I first discovered my passion and purpose in life it was connected to words of wisdom and inspiration spoken by Dr. Dyer. For over ten years I have listened to audio recordings, watched videos of his seminars, read his books and even was honored to receive a gift to attend one of his seminars here in Ft. Lauderdale. I’ve had a plan in the back of my mind to see him again and walk up, shake his hand, thank him for his profound authenticity and vulnerable sharing of himself to the world and give him a copy of my book, PROUD.

Several years after I began following his work, I found out I went to school with a few of his daughters, while I was not close to them I remember their names, Skye and Serena. My uncle told me he and his family used to attend the church we grew up attending.

In many of his books and speaking engagements he shared about his experience as a child growing up in the foster care system and how he never let it hold him back. His stories of struggle and overcoming were part of what inspired me to become a foster parent.

When I found out that he passed away today from my friend who gifted me the tickets to see him several years ago, my initial reaction was one of devastation and sorrow, tears instantly welled up in my eyes. This person, whom I never even had the opportunity to physically talk to had somehow managed to touch my soul and inspire me to be a better person. So much so that I wanted to model my life after his, I wanted to be able to touch, move and inspire people with my words and the vulnerable sharing of my life. At that moment I felt like I had lost my opportunity to say thank you, I waited too long because I needed to have just the right time to finish my book, gather up the courage to put myself out there and I allowed my fear to win.

As tears stung my eyes and I gazed upon the Florida sky, the reality of the impermanence of this physical life sat heavy in my heart. Time does not stand still for anyone, regardless of their impact on the world. Dr. Dyer at 75 lived a tremendous life, inspired millions, enjoyed the pleasure of self-made abundance and spoke constantly of the love for his family. I know he died with peace in his heart.

I have a passion and purpose to inspire others aching to get out yet there are also mountains of excuses that seem to always get in my way. Today, in my grief I remembered why Dr. Wayne Dyer inspired me so much, he never let his excuses get in his way, he could have let his circumstances hold him back yet he did not. He pushed through his resistance and with a truth and braveness few have he then wrote about it as a way to share his growth with others.

Dr. Dyer, thank you for everything you were strong enough to share, allowing us to learn through and with you. Today I lit a candle for you and while I was not able to say thank you in person I am sure your spirit knows, you have inspired my life in so many ways. Namaste.

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#LoveWins An amazing day today! :)

marriage-equality-red-3Today the Supreme Court rules in favor of #love. All 50 states have marriage equality now! Big Win for America!

I was pleased to see as well that the next big movement will be employment equality! 🙂

Read More Below:–310069401.html?_osource=SocialFlowFB_MIBrand

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The Day I Stopped Dancing

I hesitated on writing this blog post because part of me is embarrassed and part of me doesn’t want to give the influencing people the satisfaction to know they hurt me. However, I am writing anyway because I am not the only person who has changed themselves because of another and looking back I wish I hadn’t

On the day I stopped dancing we were out at a club, having fun, dancing in a big group and laughing. After a little time I went outside to cool down and talk to some friends, then it happened, the snicker and laugh from the person I was dating at the time “haha, you dance like a white girl.” Like this was the worst thing you could do, indicating they felt I had horrible and atrocious dancing skills. This wasn’t the first time I had heard this before, some other people I called friends had told me that before too. Mind you, the friends that told me this were not dancing themselves, they sat on the sidelines watching others have fun. That day I let my spirit and freedom die a little bit, I turned down my self-expression, I changed myself and I stopped dancing.

Today my partner and I were playing around, dancing and he remarked “you dance so downloadmuch more now than we first got together.” I realized I was allowing myself to be free again, slowly unpacking my stifled self-expression and I was feeling safer. In reflection I regret the countless times I could have danced and opted to stand, the times I tapped my toes instead of sway my hips, the times i felt the music inside but kept my physical body in chains. Dancing is freedom, it is beautiful, it is fluid, it is exactly as its supposed to be. If I could do it over again, instead of changing myself I’d encourage her to come dance too, maybe she felt the need to drag me down because she was afraid of her own self-expression.

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Foster Care and Adoption a challenging but rewarding journey


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November 22, 2014 · 10:13 pm