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Changing the narrative of LGBTQ homeless youth


LJ

Graduate student Landon “LJ” Woolston knows what he’s getting himself into. He’s been on the frontlines. He’s had the tough conversations. He’s helped his clients go from depending on the streets for survival to shelter and stability in about a month.

Some students might not know exactly what they’re getting themselves into with a career in social work. I’m not just talking about oppression, disenfranchisement, poverty, homelessness, I’m seeing it every single day.

Woolston is the homeless service liaison for the countywide LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) homeless youth initiative launched in September 2013, and he’s a master’s student in the Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work.

“I never lose sight of the young person,” says Woolston. Through two agencies that deal directly with LGBTQ youth – the Alliance for GLBTQ Youth in North Miami and Pridelines in Miami Shores – he offers affirming, inclusive and holistic support to LGBTQ  youth who are homeless and often marginalized by the homeless system of care. The program is known as Project SAFE.

Woolston, a transgender man, is based at Pridelines – a non-profit, drop-in center that provides services to LGBTQ youth. The organization works in a peer-led/adult-facilitated youth group model, and is often a safe haven for the community.

Experts estimate nearly 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ. Many families offer little to no support, forcing the youth out of their homes and on to the streets. Many leave the shelter system because they are bullied. Some drop out of school. And others become involved in sex work to survive.

“It’s a common narrative,” the FIU social work student says. “I’ve been working with a 17-year-old (now 18) who had spent almost a year moving from place to place. After being referred to the program, I helped place him in stable and affirming housing. We talk at least three times a week. Without our program, he may not be college-bound like he is now.”

Holistic care

Woolston describes his role as one of a care coordinator who provides ongoing advocacy for his clients. He speaks frequently with the youth so that any issue that comes up can be addressed immediately, holistically.

“The concern with these youth is that they have been largely disenfranchised by the very system that should be supporting them,” he says. “No one there [at the shelter] is going to speak their language.”

Woolston and his Project SAFE colleagues want to change that by also addressing the systemic problems associated with homeless LGBTQ youth. “We are not only providing direct services to the youth, but we are also seeking to engage the system of homeless care in South Florida.”

The initiative has been able to make some measurable differences in a short period of time. Many homeless care professionals have already committed to quarterly training.

Project SAFE’s first client Christian says things are falling into place for him. “I’m grateful to LJ for backing me up,” he says. “He’s always there to talk to me, help with the stress.”

Christian has been on his own since he was 16. His mom died when he was five and he could no longer live with his father. After briefly meeting his mom’s family, he moved from New Jersey to Florida to live with his aunt. He was kicked out after he told her he was gay. Through it all, Christian worked (first at Taco Bell and then at Starbucks) and kept his GPA above 4.0.

With the help of Woolston and Project SAFE, Christian received a college tuition waiver. He hopes to attend FIU in the fall – working with Britney Jane, senior academic bridge advisor, and the Fostering Panther Pride program throughout the application process. The Panther Pride program was launched in 2013 to provide former foster care and homeless students with additional support during their college careers.

“I relate”

Woolston relates to the community he’s serving; he speaks their language. In 2008, he began his transition from female to male. He told the Miami Herald he has felt emotionally homeless at times.

“There’s a lot my mom doesn’t understand. My transition has definitely caused a rift between us. She’s trying, but she has had to let go of many of the dreams she had for her daughter. It’s all a process.”

But he adds, “I have a strong, and vast chosen family.” His commitment to that family keeps him on track and motivated, working a full-time job and pursuing his master’s degree in social work.

“LJ is very committed , a very passionate advocate,” says Carla Silva, executive director for The Alliance and Woolston’s supervisor. “His excitement is important because this can be a overwhelming task. You need to pace yourself.” But she emphasizes, “He is up to the task.”

Recently, Woolston presented to more than 300 Miami-Dade County homeless liaisons. Silva says she considers getting the word out there “a huge success.” “They [LGBTQ youth] are becoming visible.”

Can’t connect with a book

The benefits have far outweighed the juggling act. Woolston received straight A’s in the Fall, taking 10 credits. And he says the practical knowledge he has acquired is invaluable.

“You can’t connect with a book,” he says. “It’s really amazing to see theory and history come to life daily.

“Some students might not know exactly what they’re getting themselves into with a career in social work,” Woolston says. “I’m not just talking about oppression, disenfranchisement, poverty, homelessness, I’m seeing it every single day.”

At the initiative, Woolston is currently working with approximately 10 LGBTQ  youth, and another 15 who are at risk for homelessness.

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