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Sunday, 23 November 2014 22:00

Our LGBT Fund looks to raise money for homeless LGBT youth

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Carol Sarosik, left, and Shelley Padnos, right, created Our LGBT Fund at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation with a goal to raise $1 million in the next five or six years to emphasize creating a safer environment for LGBT homeless youth in West Michigan. Carol Sarosik, left, and Shelley Padnos, right, created Our LGBT Fund at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation with a goal to raise $1 million in the next five or six years to emphasize creating a safer environment for LGBT homeless youth in West Michigan. COURTESY PHOTO

If you take a close look at national homeless youth statistics, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) youth are one of the biggest groups at risk.

According to a report from the Williams Institute at UCLA, LGBT youth are 10 percent of the total youth population, but make up roughly 40 percent of the homeless youth population. These statistics, however, are difficult to pinpoint because of the danger this particular community faces when members come out as LGBT.

“There are lots and lots of stories of people experiencing violence in the shelters when they were outed or if somebody has a suspicion,” said Tami VandenBerg, executive director at the Well House, which provides safe, affordable housing to the homeless in Grand Rapids. “So when we’re talking about data, it’s really hard to figure out where the numbers are because there are so few safe places.”

But Shelley Padnos and Carol Sarosik are looking to create a safer environment for LGBT homeless youth in West Michigan.

The couple created the Our LGBT Fund at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation this year after being inspired by the biannual OutGiving Conference in New York. This particular conference is geared toward people whose annual philanthropy is $25,000 or more and who want to increase their giving in the LGBT community.

“For Shelley and I, what came out of it was simply, ‘We’ve got to do something,’” Sarosik said. “We were so uninformed when we walked in and so very informed when we walked out.”
Padnos and Sarosik have their own fund at the GR Community Foundation and looked at the relationship they built with the organization over the past 10 years as a starting point for the new fund.

“Through that 10-year relationship, we’ve gotten to know Shelley and Carol quite well, what their interests are, and had this idea that they might want to see an LGBT fund move forward here in the community,” said Marilyn Zack, vice president of development at the GR Community Fund.

Padnos and Sarosik met with the Community Foundation in the spring of 2014 to discuss the fund’s goals, as well as fundraising strategies. While the broad intent is to support West Michigan’s LGBT community, Padnos and Sarosik’s first focus is to offer better resources to the often-marginalized LGBT homeless youth.

“As we looked at LGBT issues in this community, we saw a multitude of them. But the homeless youth issue seems to be one of the most pressing right now, so that is the initial focus of the fund,” Padnos said. “We hope to grow the fund so that it may deal with other issues besides homeless youth.”

In the Williams Institute report, 68 percent of its respondents indicated family rejection was a major factor in LGBT youth homelessness.

“I think what’s important to say — because this question has been asked of us before — is, ‘Why not all youth? Why LGBT youth? Why do you put a focus on that?’ And I think the answer to that is they do have different issues,” Padnos said.

“Unfortunately, many of the social services agencies are not trained to handle those different issues. They’re dealing with homeless kids as a class. They’re not all the same and in particular, LGBT kids have very different issues.”

Additionally, members of the LGBT homeless youth community have increased difficulty finding a safe space within shelter culture.

“I think part of the issue is not that people are necessarily being turned away, but people are trying to hide or not let people know about their status because they’re so used to hearing stories about people being turned away,” VandenBerg said. “Or, in the case of youth, if they’ve lost their housing with their family by coming out, they’ve learned that it’s not safe to let people know.”

While the fund is based in Grand Rapids, its goal is to provide a safe and welcoming environment to the LGBT communities within Kent, Allegan and Ottawa counties. For its first focus, however, the issue stems within the cities.

“When you look at LGBT youth who either feel that they’ve been abandoned or actually have been thrown out of their homes, they tend to head toward larger cities,” Sarosik said. “So one of the things we are seeing in Grand Rapids is a lot of kids from all over the area … need assistance there.”

To provide these resources to the community, the fund needs to raise money. Currently, it sits at around $275,000 in community donations after a successful fundraising campaign. Within six weeks, the fund reached its four-month goal.

“The larger the fund is, the more grants it will be able to make, the more support it will be able to provide the LGBT community, so certainly funding is first and foremost,” Zack said.

Padnos and Sarosik’s goal for Our LGBT Fund is to have $1 million raised within the next five or six years. With more funds raised, Padnos and Sarosik can focus on making an impact within the LGBT homeless youth community, starting with mentoring and family acceptance, which they hope will decrease not only the number of homeless LGBT youth, but also the high suicide rates among that community.

“If (homeless youth) can be convinced that things will get better, they tend not to be as desperate and as suicidal as they would be if they are convinced that this is as good as it gets,” Sarosik said. “And mentors tend to be able to help them, show them that it is possible to be successful, to reach your dreams and your goals despite what it is you may be believing at that particular moment.”

On Nov. 22, the Our LGBT Fund hosted a ping pong party as a thank you to all the donors who contributed $50 or more to the fund. The event, which was held at The Pyramid Scheme, featured food from Comstock Park-based Amore Trattoria Italiana, live music and ping pong.

“This has been a really unique experience,” Zack said. “We have a lot of very interesting funds, funds that have been supported for a variety of purposes. This LGBT fund has taken on a little bit of a life of its own. I can’t think of another fund at the Community Foundation that kicked off with this much enthusiasm and support.”

Read 4820 times Last modified on Sunday, 23 November 2014 21:42

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