A few years ago, Dexter Komakaru was stuck. The 18-year-old freelance illustrator and customer service rep, a transman who is not living with HIV, was living in the Columbus, Ohio, area with a grandmother who did not accept his gender status. “She wouldn’t use my preferred pronouns, and would go out of her way to disrespect me and make me uncomfortable,” Komakaru recalls. He was working a minimum-wage job, unable to save money, and spending all his free time at the Kaleidoscope Youth Center (KYC), a safe space for LGBTQ young people.
“Being 15 and having to figure out who I was in an unaccepting household wasn’t helpful for my mental health at all,” he says.
Then KYC started a program to give rental assistance to young LGBTQ clients. Komakaru was living by then with his sister, who was somewhat more accepting than his grandmother, but he was still hungry to have his own place. KYC took him on as one of the program’s first recipients, helping him pay the security deposit and first three months of rent on a two-bedroom apartment that he shares with a roommate in Columbus’ Blacklick area—a total of $1,500 in support. The financial boost helped him save up and spend more time looking for better-paying employment until he found his current job, at the startup incubator space Idea Foundry. That in turn leaves more time for his illustration work and his activism with places like KYC and Mozaic, a community center for transgender and nonbinary people of color.
“It was a domino effect,” he says. “I don’t know if I would’ve been able to move out otherwise.”
Broadening the Safety Net
The help that Komakaru received from KYC reflects a broader pattern around the country: Increasingly, HIV-related nonprofits and LGBTQ centers that once provided housing assistance only for people living with HIV—largely because that’s whom federal housing dollars were set up to support, via such programs as the Ryan White CARE Act and HOPWA (Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS)—are now beginning to realize that stable and non-abusive housing is also crucial for the physical and mental health of those most at risk of getting HIV. And foremost in that group are low-income and/or of-color LGBTQ young people who, often because of family conflict or outright rejection, are more likely to be in foster care, unstably housed (couch-surfing) or living on the streets.
A recent large survey in California found that LGBTQ young people were disproportionately represented in foster care and unstable housing, and reported poorer school performance and mental health, plus higher rates of substance use and fights in school, than stably housed LGBTQ youth or non-LGBTQ youth in foster care. The survey reflected previous findings nationwide in recent years, such as research revealing that unstably housed transgender women are at higher risk of getting HIV.
KYC started its housing assistance program last year because the issue of stable housing for LGBTQ youth “is a huge problem,” says Erin Upchurch, the group’s executive director. “We know that LGBTQ youth are 120% more likely to be homeless according to national data. Here in Columbus, we have a little more than 7,000 young people between the ages of 14 and 24 who are homeless or at risk of being homeless—and per national numbers, LGBTQ people make up about 40% of them. They’re the most vulnerable. It’s an epidemic.”
Of the eight young people KYC is currently supporting—via assistance with individual apartments, group apartment settings and a program where community members will host young people either on a per-night emergency basis or for up to 12 months—half are African American, 20% are white, 20% are multiracial and 10% are Middle Eastern, says Upchurch. Three of them are transgender or nonbinary, and one does not identify as LGBTQ at all. (“We don’t police identities,” she says.)
KYC also hopes to open an “intentional communal living” site this year to house up to another five young people.
According to Upchurch, getting into the program is “extremely low-barrier. We don’t take money from HUD [the federal Housing and Urban Development agency] because they have rigid barriers around the definition of homelessness,” she says—whereas in fact, many unstably housed LGBTQ youth “are typically couch-surfing.” Instead, she says, funding comes mostly from a combination of the Ohio attorney general’s crime victims unit and the LGBTQ-supporting Legacy Fund of The Columbus Foundation.
“I see the program as HIV prevention,” says Upchurch, adding that going on PrEP (the HIV prevention pill, or pre-exposure prophylaxis) is not a prerequisite. “We center the housing-first model,” then help young people with wellness goals that can include PrEP, “if it makes the most sense for them,” she says.
Upchurch tells the story of another program recipient: “She’s transgender and was working a job where they were misgendering her [refusing to use someone’s correct name or pronoun]. She was homeless, living on the street, and would often sleep in the parking lot or the bathroom at her job. Once we got her housed, she found a job that was affirming to her, better for her mental health. She’s also now able to see her life with more self-esteem.
“If we help people meet their basic needs, then everything else is open to them,” Upchurch says; “but if they’re struggling to find their next meal, how can they do anything besides that?”
According to Upchurch, KYC’s program, which currently has a waiting list of 10, is modeled after such programs as Ruth’s House in Detroit and Avenues for Youth in Minneapolis.
Support in Texas—And Beyond
AIDS Services of Austin (ASA) is another agency that, last year, started giving housing assistance to vulnerable people who are not living with HIV. Says Mamadou Balde, ASA’s director of housing services, “We noticed that we started having some clients who were HIV negative but also homeless or couch-surfing coming in because they’d heard from others that we provided housing, but not knowing that they had to be HIV positive.”
So the agency, funded by a $2 million city program that lets people access just one nonprofit for all their support needs, set up a housing assistance program for them. “We knew that a lack of access to stable housing would lead to higher risk of HIV exposure for them [because without stable housing they might stop taking their PrEP],” says Balde. “It’s easier for someone who is housed to keep up with their care providers.”
According to Balde, the program, which currently services 10 to 15 people but can scale up to 35, not only helps such clients locate housing but then assists with security deposits and utilities, plus rental support for up to 12 months—with an individual support cap of $6,000 in checks written directly from ASA to the landlord. The average rent among those in the program for a one-bedroom apartment is a little more than $1,000. “We try to make sure the rent is reasonable so that clients can keep paying it once our support stops,” says Balde.
Unlike with KYC’s program, clients in ASA’s program must be on PrEP. “But we don’t automatically cut off assistance” if they go off PrEP, says Balde. “We use a housing-first model, and we definitely listen to the clients” via case management that is part of the program.
To hear people at several other agencies nationwide tell it—as TheBody did while reporting its Eyes on the End series—they often encounter what ASA encountered: a lack of established federal funds to help house vulnerable HIV-negative folks, usually LGBTQ young people. Said Noel Twilbeck, chief executive officer of CrescentCare in New Orleans: “There’s always the funding disparity between those living with versus without HIV. If someone with HIV comes in, we have a lot of services we can offer because of Ryan White funding. We don’t have the same level of support for people who are not living with HIV. I may not be able to address their need for emergency housing or even medication assistance.”
Said Ty Gaffney-Smith, a linkage-to-care specialist for youth programs at APLA Health in Los Angeles: “One [HIV-negative young man] told me he’d rather be HIV positive and just take ‘one pill a day’ because he wants the [housing and other] benefits [you can get if you have HIV].”
In Seattle, the HIV agency POCAAN has a non-HIV transitional housing program serving clients ages 21 to 55, called Get Off the Streets (GOTS). “We house individuals who’ve had substantial criminal histories with multiple felonies who otherwise might have a hard time getting housing after prison,” says program director Aaliyah Messiah. “We also have an eviction prevention program.”
In Queens, New York, the agency AIDS Center of Queens County (ACQC) has what executive director Rosemary Lopez calls “an LGBTQ homeless drop-in center that is totally funded by City Council dollars.
“The homeless kids come to us to sleep, shower and eat,” Lopez says. “We try to help get them into college, work settings and permanent housing. We have 130 apartments that we rent.” (As TheBody’s recent interview with Carl Siciliano and Alex Roque of New York City queer youth shelter Ali Forney Center made clear, that City Council money started with Siciliano’s petitioning for such funding back in the early 2000s, when there were virtually no housing options for homeless LGBTQ youth in New York City except for the often homophobic and transphobic Covenant House.)
And down South, AIDS Alabama’s Kathie Hiers says: “We also have some non-HIV housing. We opened the first-ever transgender residence in Alabama about two and a half years ago, [with] 10 long-term units; and we also have some housing for LGBTQ young people ages 17 to 24 that serves around 100 people.”
A Home Sustains Health
As for Dexter Komakaru in Columbus, steady housing has given this once unstable young person an exciting new lease on life. He made a mural for KYC and is now looking for an artist he can apprentice under to learn more tools of the trade, choosing that over the more debt-laden higher-education route. He’s also doing national-level activism, such as for the National Trans Youth Council.
And being able to come home to his own space “has definitely helped my health overall,” he says. “Living on my own has shown me that chosen family is really important—that there are people out there who will respect me a million times more than my blood family.”