Almost a year and a half ago, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) invited Cincinnati’s Hamilton County and Houston, Texas’ Harris County to participate in a pilot initiative to end LGBTQ youth homelessness. Lighthouse Youth Services and Strategies to End Homelessness accepted the invitation here in Cincy and created Safe and Supported, a program that has partnered with local and national organizations like GLSEN and the Human Rights Campaign to facilitate greater local collaboration, to improve the quality of inventions and to provide new resources to homeless youth. Currently spearheading the initiative is Lighthouse Youth Services Director Meredith Hicks. CityBeat caught up with Hicks to learn more about the organization, queer homelessness in Cincinnati and how far they have come since 2014.
CityBeat: What has Safe and Supported accomplished so far?
Meredith Hicks: A couple things I am really proud of. So, first, this is a pilot initiative. We didn’t know how the community was going to respond. One of the events we held with Cincinnati Public Schools had over 100 people attend to learn more, to contribute, to sign up for our subcommittees to participate. We had young people there, we had providers, we had educators. It really was this incredible group of community members coming together. That, to me — seeing the standing room only, seeing the parents, seeing the young people — really showed me we could do this as a community and there was the interest, there was the passion, there was the drive, and people recognized the incredible need of our LGBT youth — to be able to support them an have them not experience homelessness.
CB: I bet that was a great feeling. What other accomplishments are you proud of?
MH: After the planning phase, there’s really two that stick out to me. The first one is that one of our strategies was supporting foster youth. We were able to bring in the All Children - All Families training
to our communities. Lighthouse Foster Care and Adoption completed these 10 benchmarks of improving our practices with LGBT foster youth and LGBT foster families. We also went through three days of intensive staff training and invited community partners to attend. We even had allies across the river in Kentucky that came over because they were interested in improving their work with LGBT youth as well. And actually, Lighthouse just earned the seal of recognition from the Human Rights Campaign for completing the All Children - All Families program within our foster care.
This invitation from HUD was completely unfunded, so it didn’t come with any money to do this work or actually to implement our strategies, so we really are relying on the generosity of our community, individual donors and foundations to help us with the capacity and funds to do our strategies. We held a funders briefing and we are excited that we have committed funds to support and hire a full-time director to really take this collaboration to the next level. That is what it’s going to take because we are working across multiple systems. We’re looking at education, child welfare, homelessness, juvenile justice. All of these systems have things that they can do to support LGBT youth. The director is going to be really invested in all these areas.
CB: You mentioned staff training. What kind of curriculum is involved to properly train staff members?
MH: We have six different subcommittees that also involve different community members that are also participating with their organizations or volunteering. One of those subcommittees is the cultural competency committee. They are identifying different curriculum, different resources, a structure for how organizations can improve their cultural competency. We’re looking to be able to offer that to the community in the fall, but coming up with a standardized way of doing that and then being able to offer support to organizations, or systems, or churches or whatever that want to develop a higher level of competency service LGBT youth and families.
CB: How would you describe cultural competency and why is it important in this process?
MH: Cultural competency is developing the knowledge and the skills to be able to understand somebody’s lived experience and identities and be able to respond in a supportive way. Cultural competency is a learning process you never reach or say, “OK, I’m completely competent.” It’s about developing a way of listening, understanding, learning and then an appropriate way of responding, and that’s a skill.
CB: A homelessness initiative that caught a lot of national attention was Miley Cyrus’ Happy Hippie Foundation, which is for homeless youth with an emphasis on queer youth. Can you weigh in on the foundation and celebrity-driven organizations?
MH: Yeah! So I think that any national attention, positive celebrity attention is a good thing. With Miley Cyrus, I think part of her mission is purchasing food and supplies for homeless shelters in California. I think that her actions demonstrate the need we have on a local level. Every year, Lighthouse serves over 500 youth in our street outreach team and in our homeless shelter, [ages] 18-24, that are facing homelessness. We know that up to 40 percent of them self-identify as LGBT. We have the same needs from folks that contribute food, that contribute hygiene products or socks and underwear, clothing. I hope that people look at [Cyrus’ Happy Hippie Foundation] and say, “What can I contribute in my community?” I want people to know that it’s just not just happening in New York or L.A. This is a problem in our community. It’s happening in Cincinnati, and we have committed community members that are dedicated to solving them.
CB: What are your plans for the future? What do you hope to accomplish or where do you hope to be in maybe five, 10 years with Safe and Supported?
MH: Our goal is to end youth homelessness in Cincinnati by the year 2020. I hope in five years we’ve been successful in ending youth homelessness. My vision is that this is a community collaboration between all these agencies. I hope it flourishes, we gain new partners and the structure develops and communication develops across sectors. We also have some great things coming down the pipe related to developing resource guides to help LGBT youth and providers. We’re still looking at what that format will look like — it could be a mobile application, a paper guide, a website — but one of our short-term goals is having the resources available for young people in a guide format.