For Unhoused LGBTQ Youth in San Francisco, a Spare Room Becomes a Lifeline

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Jay Young wears a black hoodie while posing for a photo, as they sit in a park in San Francisco.
Jay Young wears a black hoodie while posing for a photo, as they sit in a park in San Francisco. (Beth LaBerge)

“Every single day, Pendarvis, we get emails from young people, we get referrals, we get people that walk-in, all looking for housing," Karessa Irvin, the Program Manager at the San Francisco LGBT Center stresses to me over the phone. "But unfortunately we’re not always able to meet their need because of the lack of available hosts right now.”

Irvin is the head of the Center's Host Homes program, an initiative aimed at curbing homelessness by pairing people age 18-24 who don't have stable housing and identify as LGBTQ with hosts who have vacant room in their houses.

The program originally started in the UK over three decades ago, and is currently operating in cities around the United States, including Los Angeles, San Jose and Sacramento.

But in San Francisco, where the federally funded program was implemented in 2019, the program takes on some unique circumstances, given the cost of living and price of housing. 

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Nationally, it's been estimated that up to 40% of unsheltered people under the age of 25 identify as LGBT, and in San Francisco that count is nearly 50%, according to a 2017 report from San Francisco's Homeless Unique Youth Count and Survey.

The SF LGBT Center is one of about a dozen organizations listed on the City's website working on the issue. And while elected officials and community groups have taken action, everyday residents can get involved with Host Homes and have some agency in the situation as well.  

Lynn Painter, one of the hosts in the Host Homes program, stands in front of her house in San Francisco.
Lynne Painter, one of the hosts in the Host Homes program, stands in front of her house in San Francisco. (Beth LaBerge)

"I found out about the program through a San Francisco Chronicle article," Lynne Painter tells me, adding that she had also read about City College students sleeping in their cars.

"It kind of broke my heart thinking about that," says Painter, who recalled some of the "crazy places" she lived during college, including a soy bean farm in South Carolina. "I had been lucky finding things like that, and I just wanted to help someone else."

With no children or young people in her life, Painter opened up the doors of her two-bedroom condo to a young person who has since come and gone, and is now living stably in housing of their own.

"The idea of the program isn’t to house them forever in our homes," Painter says, matter-of-factly. "The idea of the program is to help them stabilize their situations."

Even after they're stable, they might come back, as Painter's former resident did—to help Painter celebrate a birthday earlier this year. "I have new friends that are young people, and they didn’t have to worry about safety. It all worked out great," says Painter.

Ron (left) and Erik (right) hold each other, sitting on a couch in their home while posing for a photo.
Ron (left) and Erik (right) hold each other, sitting on a couch in their home while posing for a photo. (Beth LaBerge)

“Ron and I, as a gay couple, had been thinking about starting a family," Erik Green tells me during a chat a few weeks back. "And it’s a little more complicated for gay folks than it is for straight folks, or it can be, let’s say."

So before taking that leap to adopt a child, Ron Frost and Erik Green thought it'd be wise to see how a family dynamic would play out in the short term—and, at the same time, utilize the extra space in their house and "help a LGBT youth get grounded and have secure housing while they look for something more permanent," says Green. 

They were the first hosts in the program to officially have a young person placed in their residence, and it happened just one month prior to 2020's COVID-19 related shelter-in-place mandate came down from the state.

Their new resident moved in and instantly crashed, sleeping for almost 18 hours, Green recalls. He posed the rhetorical question: What's a better sign of feeling safe than falling into a deep sleep?

"Later that week," Frost says, "when they came out of the cave, we all sat down, we cooked together and had a meal." The transition into being a functional household started with "figuring out who is who and what is what."

Erik Green (left) and Ron Frost share a moment on the couch.
Erik Green (left) and Ron Frost share a moment on the couch. (Beth LaBerge)

There were hurdles, like the young person having to gather their stuff from all around town, including a beloved guitar. There were a few days, during the unnerving start of the pandemic, where the young resident had to stay with a close friend.

Also, Frost tells me, "because our youth is not a U.S. citizen, they’re on an eduction visa, and because there was no in-person class, there was there really big question of will they be able to stay in this country or will they be deported?"

Luckily, Green, an educator at City College, connected the young person to the proper resources to get everything straightened out.

Throughout the stay their young resident was supported with gift cards from the SF LGBT Center and check-ins from a case manager. Green and Frost received support for their utilities and were engaged in meetings as well.

After the six-month period was up, the young person transitioned into a stable housing situation with a roommate who was immunocompromised, causing the young person to keep a distance from Green and Frost.

"We had a final dinner on Zoom," Green tells me, mentioning that they still stay in contact to this day. "They keep saying, 'When this is all over I'm going to have you over, I'm going to cook dinner for you, I'm going to show you my place.'"

Reflecting on their experience, Frost says, "It’s so easy, in San Francisco, to look out at all of the homeless population and feel a real sense of despair and helplessness." But he says the program gave he and his partner a tangible way of helping one person, "and sometimes all you can do is help one other person."

Green dispels any notion of a savior mentality. But it reminds him of the parable about two people seeing thousands of starfish washed ashore, and one person picking one up and throwing it back into its ocean home. "Why are you bothering? It’s not going to make any difference, there’s so many," the other person says.

Green tells this story, before answering, "It’ll make a difference for that one."

Jay Young sitting on their skateboard on a park in San Francisco.
Jay Young sits on their skateboard in a park in San Francisco. (Beth LaBerge)

That one starfish is a young person like Jay Young.

When asked where they'd be without this program, Young tells me, "Probably back in a mental hospital." And then they say, "Nah, for real, I don’t think I could’ve handled the pandemic nearly as well as I did."

Young's hosts were Adam and Decima, and their three children. After befriending the youngest one, Young says, the older kids eventually came around. "It's a trip to think about," says Young. "The whole year went by, and those were like my best friends."

Young says they spent time with Adam and Decima too, running errands, cooking or going to the park as a family. The experience overall gave Young a new perspective on what's possible.

"I just felt so stressed at the time I moved in," says Young. "Just feeling like, how am I ever going to be financially ok? In San Francisco, how am I going to find good roommates? Find good anything? And take care of myself without getting super overwhelmed? And it ended up happening."

Young says they now live in a "cool queer house" in Oakland, and are better suited for change. "I’m not super overwhelmed the way I was before," adds Young, who moved out the night of the oldest kid’s birthday dinner.

They had a shared celebration; Karessa Irvin and Young's mother were even in attendance. "The biggest thing for me," says Young, "was for the kids to understand that it’s a 'goodbye,' but it’s not like 'Jay is gone.' It’s just going to be different."

Karessa Irvin says more hosts are needed for Host Homes, and urges people who are interested in contributing to the effort to end homelessness to apply. In doing the work of connecting resources, people and places, she tells me there's a saying she often thinks about: "Homelessness doesn’t start when people run out of money, it starts when people run out of relationships." 

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It's only the second full year of the pilot program at the SF LGBT Center, and only three people have so far completed the process. But the program, and the stories of those involved, show all of the work and resources that it takes to make a difference: government funding, a community center that's actually ingrained in the community, and individuals stepping up to make a change. All of that energy just throw one starfish back into the ocean. But it makes a big difference for that one starfish.