KANSAS CITY, Kan. — While houselessness has been at the forefront of discussions in the Kansas City area recently, one group feels left behind: LGBTQ youth.
That's where Lion House comes in.
A Safe Space
The new housing resource just opened its doors in July. It aims to provide a safe space for houseless LGBTQ youth who have been overlooked by other housing providers.
T.J. George was one of the first residents at Lion House's new transitional home. George, who identifies as gender fluid and uses the pronouns "they/them," entered foster care at age 17. They became houseless once they aged out of the foster care system.
"I've been through a lot of different shelters, and they haven't been the best situations," they said. "I didn't have a sense of family like I do here."
George's story is fairly common among young people who identify as LGBTQ.
According to a study from the University of Chicago, LGBTQ youth are 120 percent more likely to experience houselessness than their non-LGBTQ peers.
Nationally, up to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, according to government statistics.
Starzette Palmer, executive director of Lion House, says that percentage is actually closer to 50 percent in the Kansas City area.
The numbers are even higher for people of color, she said.
"We still have service providers that will screen out folks based on how they identify," Palmer said. "We decided to stop fighting other service providers and provide our own space."
Along with Mel Winter, Palmer created Lion House under the umbrella of another organization, called Our Spot KC. It touts itself as a "hub for resources that support, advance and equip LGBTQ+ individuals to ensure sustainability and improvement in and of the community."
Lion House is the housing branch of that resource tree.
"We know that there's power in having a space where you are seen, where you can walk in and see someone who looks like you or identifies similar to how you identify," Palmer said. "That's not often the case with housing providers."
There are several variables that put LGBTQ youth at higher risk for houselessness. One of the most common reasons they become houseless is due to a lack of acceptance from families or guardians.
Palmer knows that struggle on a personal level.
"I have lived experience in homelessness, being ostracized from family and friends, and all of that, because of who I was," she said. "When you're young, it's very hard to navigate the world alone. And so I wanted to be someone who was a trusted partner, trusted neighbor, trusted friend that folks can go to and act as a conduit of resources."
Lion House consists of two different housing programs: the rapid re-housing program and the transitional housing program.
Rapid re-housing is for those who may have access to housing but need help with the cost of it.
Transitional housing is for those who need a place to stay while they get back on their feet.
These are resources which many LGBTQ youths have not been able to find through other housing providers.
"Oftentimes, people say that, you know, 'we're open to all,' but then community members will try to access services and will be screened out, based on how they identify, based on how they look," Palmer said.
The idea of a housing program centered specifically on the LGBTQ community has not been without criticism, even from those within the housing advocate community.
"Folks just don't understand. They're like, 'Well, it's exclusive.' So why are you here?," said Winter, who serves as the housing navigator for Lion House.
She said there needs to be more attention given to the specific challenges LGBTQ people face in finding housing.
"We're dramatically over-represented in the homeless population," she said. "There should be more conversation about what we do in our community."
At the core of the Lion House philosophy is the idea that people experiencing houselessness should be included in the conversations about how to fix the issue.
"You can't have an organization where folks are making decisions for communities that they don't identify with, without having those people there," Palmer said.
She has been involved in Kansas City, Missouri's houseless task force, which was established by the city council in January with the goal of developing long-term policies and solutions related to houselessness.
Lion House also follows that philosophy within its transitional houses, holding weekly house meetings so the residents can voice their concerns and ideas.
"It's really an opportunity to have those conversations and really learn like, 'Ok, that didn't work, what would work better?'," Winter said.
"We want them to help mold what the program looks like," Palmer added.
George says Lion House has empowered them to set goals. They hope to finish their education and become a massage therapist.
"Now as an adult, a 21-year-old, I've learned a lot from the mistakes I've made, that maybe I didn't make the best decisions. But now I can make better decisions for myself," George said.
That's the ultimate goal for anyone coming through Lion House.
"It's really awesome to get to see a young person really get to take the time to find their footing and develop themselves," Winter said.
Palmer added, "Seeing the transformation in people when they have someone who believes in them, who trusts them, who understands them...to see that transformation is a beautiful thing, it's more than money can buy."
More information about how to access Lion House's resources or volunteer for the organization can be found on its website.
This is the third part of a series about houselessness in Kansas City. Part one takes a look at the issue of houselessness through the eyes of those experiencing it, and part two addresses how housing providers are trying to find solutions.
Two Americas is part of a KSHB and Scripps signature issue to help introduce our community to the America you know and the America you might not know. Our role as the media is to share the news of the day, but we also seek to give a voice to people we don't hear from often.
Of course, there are many parts that make up our community, so we’re not just showing you two and we’re not pitting two sides against each other. Instead, we’re hoping to highlight solutions and showcase different perspectives to help us all better understand our area's culture, our area's past, and why our community feels the way it does today.