New Avenues For Youth is opening a new house this week for homeless LGBTQ youth, the first such housing program of its kind in Portland. For most of the last two decades, New Avenues has been working with homeless youth — offering shelter, job training and other services. This year the nonprofit partnered with SMYRC, the Sexual and Minority Youth Resource Center.
Twenty-two year old Luke, who prefers we use his first name for this story, identifies as "genderfluid." He'll be one of the first LGBTQ young people to move into "Unity House." He said he's been getting services for a few years now through Outside In and hasn't felt like he's had a home since he left an abusive situation when he was 19.
"I think a lot of times in my life, and the life of homeless people, you have to choose whether you're just going to accept what's readily available to you or you're just going to go without. So I think if there were no other options I would live in [other] housing. But I would vastly prefer and I would feel far more comfortable being in a place that I know is receptive and accepting of my needs," he said.
New Avenues For Youth executive director Sean Suib said Unity House will be based loosely on a system known as Oxford house, a group home model often used for drug and alcohol recovery. Suib said the idea is self-sufficiency, and residents are expected to pitch in financially.
Luke will be contributing 30 percent of his income from his job as a file clerk, a job he said he really enjoys.
"Working in an office you get the sense of order which I've always lacked in my life. I like tidying things up and making sure everything runs smoothly like it should," he said.
Luke said he's excited about his new situation, and glad that Oregon is catching up to other states that already offer such specialized services. Suib agreed.
"Frankly it's both a wonderful thing to celebrate and a terrible thing, that this is the first of its kind in the state," Suib said.
Suib said the numbers are overwhelming.
"A thousand street dependent youth a year that come through the homeless youth system, but go broader in definition, and often LGBT youth are often living outside of the urban core, and the iteration of homelessness they experience, might not be so easily counted. At least 40 percent of the local population that's street dependent identify as LGBTQ"
Suib said New Avenues for Youth and SMYRC weren't necessarily ready financially but they felt "had to jump and the net would appear." He said they've gotten private donations and key seed money from Multnomah County.
"So we are duct taping together the funding, with the understanding that the need is there, the time is right."
Suib acknowledged that this house doesn't begin to meet that need.
"This is a small drop in what is a big bucket. But the hope is, that we can proliferate it and have multiple programs like this that are culturally specific."
For his part, Luke said he's eager to move in, but he doesn't see this as permanent landing place. He said he's confident he'll build the skills in Unity House that will enable him to rent and live independently.
He and other residents will begin moving in on Thursday.