Recently I had the pleasure both of heart and mind to organize and write a short story that centered around homeless gay teens and how they dealt with coming out to their families. As many of you know that anthology is titled: Lost and Found and ten authors took part of that amazing event and each of them along with the editor donated all the proceeds of the anthology to a charity by the same name. One who helps the gay teens get off the streets and one who gives them a second chance at life without having to resort to drugs and prostitution.
Shortly after that, a close friend of mine told me he was part of an organization called: GLBT Advocacy & Youth Services, Inc, which is located in Huntsville, Alabama.
Huntsville is the second-largest city in Alabama. The city is nicknamed “The Rocket City” for its close history with U.S. space missions. Huntsville’s main economic influence is derived from aerospace and military technology. Redstone Arsenal, Cummings Research Park (CRP), and NASA‘s Marshall Space Flight Center comprise the main hubs for the area’s technology-driven economy.
It’s within that lovely city surrounded by its people who love it regardless of the humidity, lies the GLBT Advocacy & Youth Services center which has been named Our Space.
Our Space was founded by James Robinson some four years ago. He wanted to give the GLBT community a safe haven to meet one another without the fear of being bullied and with the comfort knowing they were free to talk about themselves. He wanted to give the youth hope for their future and a place for them to go and ask whatever questions they didn’t feel they could ask anyone else.
Our Space is the only support group of its type in Huntsville and it’s growing very fast. It’s run solely by volunteers, and has been since its start. Prior to Our Space there wasn’t an organization in Huntsville for the GLBT community. What fascinates me the most, is that Our Space is run entirely by its volunteers. There are social workers, transgender people, gay men and women, and women with cancer are some of the biggest supporters. James has a huge list of volunteers who are just nipping at the bit to help out in any way they can. Most of them put in more hours than a regular full time job requires and they don’t get paid a single cent. The last time James looked his group of volunteers put in over seven thousand unpaid hours over the past seven months.
Members on staff range from young adult volunteers to licensed social workers. One of James’ right hand friends drives two hours each Monday to attend the weekly youth meeting. That’s what I call dedication. In fact, his team of volunteers are truly outstanding. They give of themselves without question, without expecting a single thing. But what they gain at the end of the day is the knowledge that they were able to help other people and do all they could within their powers to be sure each person who needed help, got it. Though they can’t help by ways of financial needs, their giving of their free time shows downright commitment.
Sadly, Our Space does not offer housing for teens who have been tossed out by their un-accepting family members, though at some point they hope to offer that. As of today there are two homeless shelters , however they are not located within Huntsville and the public transportation is almost non-existent. There are two day drop in centers one in Huntsville, one in Birmingham. In Birmingham, Alabama there is talk of opening a night shelter. But it’s just talk at the moment and I hope it becomes a reality for the teens who find themselves without a place to go through no fault of their own. Being gay is not a reason to be homeless.
If a teen calls Our Space who happens to be without a place to go, James makes sure s/he is okay and either he or one of his volunteers will drive that person to a shelter for a place to eat and sleep at least for that night. Sadly the public transit system is lacking and the homeless shelters are some distance outside of Huntsville.
It’s wonderful there are day drop in shelters and centers but neither can do anything for the kids who find themselves without a place to stay. Begging friends to sleep on their couches or in sheds or floors can only go on for so long. Now think about it, more often than not their friends live at home and their parents won’t allow for it to go on long. They don’t want trouble with the law, or the kids family. So, the teen ends up on the street and eventually find their way outside of Alabama. Most of them end up in big cities. Like New York. Once in New York they blend in with the crowds, turn to prostitution, drugs, thieves, and most end up dead.
I learned something new from James when I spoke to him. I asked him about a program he has listed on the Our Space website. Huntsville Host Home Program (HHHP)-one placement.
Here is how it’s explained on the website:
“The program and the people behind it share a deep commitment to our communities, our youth and social change — not just through the sharing of resources, but through a transformative and intimate process of sharing our homes and our lives. Youth in the program will have had the chance to build trusting relationships and create stronger communities.” The article does go on and if you’d like to read more about it, please follow this link: Huntsville Home Host Program
This unique and wonderful idea came from the GLBT in Minneapolis, Minnesota to help homeless youth. James met with the directors there, he was given a sum of money to go to Minneapolis and receive training from the team there. He wanted to incorporate that same idea for Our Space but he found out he’d likely run into legal issues by helping the kids in need. As of today, there are only five or six programs in the country set up to take in homeless kids and place them with foster families.
When I asked James how many kids he was able to place and he told me and I frowned and then smiled. A young adult who was nineteen at the time was placed with a host family. ONE. But at least that one person received help from the host family. When I asked why not more? There are so many young adults who would benefit off this program. It’s almost like foster care if you will. His response will stun you as it did me.
It all comes down to the parental legal rights over their child, regardless of how that child ended up homeless. In Alabama a parent can file charges against anyone who steps up to the plate to help their unwanted kid. File charges! Apparently according to the law in many states it is illegal to help the youth by bringing them home. Can you even believe that? Those so called parents have the power to step in to make the kids life even more miserable even if they aren’t wanted at home due to their sexuality. I expect Child Social Services steps in and the teen ends up in a group foster home until s/he is of age. In Alabama, since it’s somewhat smaller than Minnesota, the parent will step in and will do what they can to make their kids lives miserable. People who help can face very big legal issues to take in thrown away kids. That law keeps others from taking them in no matter how their heart breaks for them. In Minnesota no one checks on the kids that are tossed away and the foster care program does work. I expect it’s due to the size of the city.
So, let me get back to Our Space. Over the past three years James has done over fifty interviews on TV, newspapers, magazines and such. His agency is a huge success and there’s a misconception there as well. All you see is this: Our Space is a huge success in helping the GLBT community. You smile, and you think nothing more of it. Why? Because of the “huge success.” Just because something is a huge success does not necessarily mean they are financially well off. Nine times out of ten that agency is struggling to make the simplest ends meet each month.
Yes, success is a great word and it’s awesome to see, but Our Space needs money. Plain and simple Our Space needs financial help to keep going. It takes two thousand dollars a month to meet the rent and utilities and other small things the center requires. Now, let me mention here that James does not have a job outside of his work with the community. I’m not just speaking about his role at Our Space either. He’s on the PFLAG board, he speaks at schools about anti-bullying, he speaks up at the community meetings and not just about GLBT related issues. He’s a speaker for rights for all.
In order to keep that center open and running to help the Huntsville community they need you. They need help. Think this. Those young adults need help. And get this. Our Space is looking at opening a thrift store to help with the money they need, however in order to do that, they need money to keep the building that houses Our Space. Once they can be sure those bills will be met, then James plans on focusing on opening a thrift store to further help themselves.
I asked James how he spreads the word as far as who and what Our Space is and does. I have to say, I’d love to have him as my marketer. He does not pay a single person to get the word out there yet he won the social media contest! And he’s an introvert! I have to say he’s an amazing human being and he’s truly one of God’s sweet Angel’s.
So, what can we do to help them? There are a few ways we can. And because we care about our youth and what happens to them, we will, right? We can mail in donations, we can use Paypal to donate, we can go to Our Space’s Amazon wish list and get them a couple things they need. OR you can volunteer! How? Even if you don’t live in Alabama, there are ways you can help virtually. Here’s a small list of people James needs.
A Personal Assistant – must live in Huntsville
A website designer
Needs a treasurer – must live in Huntsville
Needs an attorney for civil rights- must live in Alabama or know the laws in Alabama
Needs references for legal questions
To volunteer I’ve put all links you need below.
Our Space needs help. Keep that thought in mind. On the battlegrounds, Alabama is behind the times and financial help for Our Space from Alabama is nil.
James was seen as THE gay advocate. He stepped out and became an activist. He puts the center and its needs first. He is a hero among the community and they thank him to no end. He brings a sense of community to Huntsville. James told me it’s an amazing experience and he’s proud that they were able to help over fifty kids to date.
What James wants for the future?
A place that offers the homeless youth a home, He wants to offer a new program geared to the young adults to do social gatherings at Our Space. He wants what we all want. Acceptance and understanding.
It takes funding though. The local PFLAG chapter in Huntsville is very small and they donate when they can. James said he’s also received donations from foreign countries, but it’s not enough.
Alabama has been rated 50th in the nation as a bad place for homeless youth.
The organization does not advise kids to come out as a GLBT youth due to the fact that it is personal and when they do come out as underage adults, James and his team will tell them what can happen to them if they do. The volunteers share their coming out experiences with the teens and if they still want to come out, Our Space will be there as much as they can be for them. Our Space wants the kids to think before they act.
Think before you act. That’s a life lesson for everyone, not just the youth who are struggling with their sexuality and who to tell and who not to. Sure, some can keep it a secret until they move out on their own, but some get caught and their whole world changes right before their eyes. And Our Space is there and ready to help each and all.
Our Space has a motto:
What can we do to help you?
James and his volunteers, as well as the people they help, are thrilled and excited that Alabama has a community center for all. There is a true community feeling being built within Our Space community center. There has never been a place for everyone, regardless of anything. All are welcome.
Links of interest and to help:
http://www.glbtays.org/index.html Our Space’s website
Amazon Wish List
You can send donations to:
GLBT Advocacy & Youth Services, Inc.
P.O. Box 3443
Huntsville, Alabama 35810