Montrose Grace Place provides refuge for LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness

When Moony’s mother kicked her out of the house at 17, she had nowhere to go.

For months, she slept in abandoned cars and apartments.

“Anywhere I could find,” said Moony, 20, whose last name has been withheld to preserve her privacy. “I had no clothes.”

But last February, a friend suggested she visit Montrose Grace Place, a drop-in site that serves as a haven for LGBTQ youth and homeless people in the Houston area.

Housed in the Kindred Church of Montrose, the center welcomed Moony, who identifies as a lesbian – offering companionship, food, clothing and engaging activities, such as poetry writing sessions, which helped to express themselves.

It was life-changing, said Moony, who visits the center weekly.

“It’s a safe place. As soon as you walk through the door, they greet you like you’re already there,” Moony said. “I don’t miss a day.”

Within three months, the Mississippi native secured housing through Grace Place. Now she is looking for a job.

For many young people like Moony, the non-profit association the site has been a refuge – a comfort when there is nowhere to go for the night.

Every Monday and Thursday, dozens of young people between the ages of 13 and 24 flock to Montrose Grace Place to gather, unwind and enjoy its many resources. The ‘youth night’ festivities begin around 6pm, with hot coffee and a hearty family sit-down dinner prepared by volunteers – followed by a smoke break, which often gives way to music and sometimes dancing, said the Chaunteion Hall program director, 25.

“It’s not a party, but it might feel like a party,” Hall said.

Each night also includes an interactive activity, such as arts and crafts or bingo, followed by a peer-led discussion – a chance for young people of all genders and sexualities to connect and feel heard, Hall said.

“They need support and they need people to listen to them,” said chief executive Courtney Sellers, 33. “We tend not to listen to people experiencing homelessness. Often society thinks they know best and that goes doubly for young people.

Resources such as bus passes, toiletries, a monthly legal aid session and a list of shelters are also available.

“If the shelter can’t accommodate them, we provide them with shelter for one night,” Sellers said.

And it’s also time to shop in Tracy’s Closet, a vibrant wardrobe and stocked stash of accessories for almost any scenario. There are women’s and men’s clothing and beauty products – useful for those who have recently started their transition; professional attire for job interviews; natural hair care and hygiene products; and household items like linens and towels for those moving into a new apartment.

“It gives them a chance to get out, get out of the cold, be nurtured, and shop with other people who have come out of homelessness,” Sellers said.

The closet, a testament to why Grace Place exists – to provide a safe place for young people to express themselves as they come into their own – is also a tribute to Tracy Williams, a trans woman black woman who frequented Grace Place before she was murdered in 2019 She was the third trans woman murdered in Texas that year.

“It was our first big loss as a community, as a family. We renamed the closet after her because the closet was her favorite place,” Sellers said, noting that Williams’ best friend Asia Jynaé Harmason-Foster, another black trans woman who frequented Grace Place, was also killed in 2020.

With transgender killings on the rise — the Human Rights Campaign in November reported a record 45 trans murders in 2021 — Grace Place’s promise of safety and privacy to visiting young people is paramount, Sellers and Hall said. This means no one other than staff and volunteers are allowed entry during Grace Place Youth Night – newspapers included.

“We’re protective,” Sellers said. “It’s a promise we’ve made to young people for 10 years, and it’s unbreakable. … No one is breathing down his neck. They come here to escape. It is a place where they are assertive.

Although the nonprofit has no separate religious affiliation, Grace Place was founded in 2009 by members of Grace Lutheran Church, an LGBTQ-affirming church formerly housed in Kindred’s building. The founders had experienced homelessness themselves and wanted to provide a space for young people and LGBTQ people to gather at night, Sellers said. They opened the doors of Grace Place in 2010 to just one person.

Just over a decade later, the site, which is funded by a combination of grants, community donors and corporate sponsorships, has hosted more than 1,500 people, emphasizing fellowship and community. .

In 2020, as the pandemic uprooted everyday life in Houston, Grace Place used grants to distribute $100,000 in cash to young people, helping them pay for housing, food, clothing and emergency-related expenses. And last year, the site served more than 3,000 meals and distributed about $15,000 in transportation assistance, with an average of 25 to 30 people attending each youth night.

While a handful of those who frequent Grace Place are young returnees, there are always a newcomer or two, Sellers said, and regardless, “someone is expecting to see you on Monday and Thursday, and we are happy and hope you walk through the door.”

This can bring relief to many young people fleeing toxic environments, including sex trafficking, abuse, abandonment or homelessness. According to a 2021 report by the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County, 3,055 people were made homeless last year.

The exact number of homeless youth in Houston, however, is difficult to pin down, Sellers said.

The population can be hidden and transient, with some not wanting people to know they are homeless or at risk of being placed in the foster system, Sellers said. Others, including those over 18, might not be sleeping in shelters or on the streets, where most homeless people are counted by organizations. Still, homeless young people are out there, Sellers said.

“They have jobs. They are in the schools,” Sellers said. “There are homeless and housing insecure youth out there that you don’t see. It’s such a large population that needs help, especially queer and trans youth – and there are so many barriers there.

Hall said many young people who visit Montrose Grace Place have been turned away from their families or don’t have a positive connection with loved ones.

They could have escaped. They can be over 18 years old. Some say their home life is toxic or it’s not affirming, and that’s a story we hear on a fairly regular basis,” she said.

Others have experienced a lack of transitional support after aging out of foster care, Hall said, adding that “once you’re 18, you’re really on your own.”

According to the National Foster Institute, approximately 50% of the nation’s homeless population has spent time in foster care, and approximately 20% of young adults in foster care become homeless by the time they are emancipated.

For the LGBTQ community, the statistics are grimmer.

Although LGBTQ youth make up approximately 7% of the population, a 2014 survey of 138 homeless youth social service providers found that 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. Young African Americans and Native Americans were disproportionately represented among this population.

At Montrose Grace Place, 90% of attendees are people of color; 75% are black, 50% identify as LGBTQ, and almost all are homeless or live in housing insecurity, with most noting that they stayed in a shelter, with a friend or on the streets the day before their visit to Grace Place, Sellers said.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development defines homelessness as a family or individual who “lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate night’s residence”, which includes residing at night in a place that is not intended for human habitation and living in a shelter or transitional accommodation. For young people in particular, categories of homelessness include those who stay with friends but cannot stay longer than 14 days, those who are trafficked or exchange sex for accommodation, and those who have left their home due to abuse or threat of abuse and who have no alternative accommodation.

Sellers say Grace Place aims to provide a space without expectations for these youngsters, as well as those who might be couch surfing – moving from place to place – or unsure where their next night will be.

“Here,” Hall said, “they can just exist.”

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