Room to Grow

Kindred spirits: Jeffrey Peterson (left) says John Wertjes gave him the push he needed.

Surrogate motherhood wasn't on Elissa Raffa's mind when she agreed to let a 17-year-old girl move into her spare bedroom. But the room was furnished, and the social worker indicated that it was an emergency situation. The young woman, a high-school senior, had a car, a job, and a sense of responsibility, but no place to call her own. "It was clear," says Raffa, "that her sexual identity was part of what kept her bouncing from place to place."

Raffa, a self-described "femme" who writes fiction and works as a teacher at an alternative high school, knew the challenges faced by young queers. She knew that many gay and lesbian teens land in foster homes or on the streets, and that coming out to friends or family often puts them at risk. At the very least, Raffa decided, she could provide a safe haven for the young lesbian.

The teen moved in, and initially, the two maintained a polite distance. "She was incredibly self-reliant," Raffa recalls. But as each grew familiar with the other's habits, the formalities faded. They cooked ethic food together and swapped stories. They played cribbage and ate Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Raffa's friends took the girl under their wing. "I didn't have the fantasy that we would become a family," Raffa says, "but we did -- eventually -- become friends."

If the stability and security of living in a queer-safe haven benefited one teen -- Raffa's roommate eventually moved out, got a full-time job, and leased an apartment -- imagine what it might do for other young GLBT kids, says Raquel Simões of Project OffStreets, a Minneapolis drop-in center for homeless teens and twentysomethings. Drawing on the experience of Raffa and other lesbians and gay men who have opened their homes to queer youth needing a place to stay, Project OffStreets recently launched a program to match homeless GLBT kids with nurturing adults. The GLBT Host Home Program will serve youth ages 18 to 21, Simões says, and informational meetings for interested adults will be held in Minneapolis and St. Paul on Feb. 2 and 4 respectively.

Simões, the program's coordinator, doesn't know how many kids and adults will respond, but research indicates that the need for housing among GLBT in their late teens and early 20s is extensive. A study by the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in St. Paul estimates that between 82 and 219 GLBT kids ages 18 to 21 are homeless in Minnesota on any given night. In contrast, the study reported, the number of shelter beds available to this age group is limited.

"I don't think the adult GLBT community has known much about this population," Simões says. "There's not a lot of info out there."

Queer adults want to help, nonetheless. Results from a 1996 Twin Cities Pride Festival survey show that a third of respondents would consider hosting a youth in their home, and 56 percent indicated that they'd provide financial support for a host-home program.

But society and even gay and lesbian adults themselves often eye relationships between kids and adults with suspicion. "It's really easy to find unhealthy adults in the community, and our kids are finding them all the time," says Michelle Chalmers, youth-development director at Human Service Associates in Minneapolis. "The reality is, there are adults out there looking to take advantage of kids, and one instance would be devastating to this program."

To reduce such legal risks, Simões and Project OffStreets are taking appropriate precautions. In addition to proving that they have an empty room and are willing to commit to the program for a minimum of six months, host volunteers will have to undergo a criminal background check and several interviews with Project OffStreets' staff. A home visit and 16 hours of training will also precede any match, Simões says. All youth in the program will have to be referred through an outside social-service agency.

The lengthy selection process will also allow both adults and kids to consider their expectations of the host-home arrangement. Simões suggests that potential hosts consider these questions: What are the rules of your home? Is your living space ready for a young person? Can you deal with a youth who comes from a challenging background?

"Teenagers have a way of finding out what your buttons are and how to push them," says John Bullough, a social worker. Since being licensed by Hennepin County two years ago, Bullough and his partner have served as foster parents for two gay-identified youth. One of the biggest challenges, Bullough says, is finding time for teenagers. "They're coming to you with a lot of deficits," he explains. "They need a lot of guidance, thought, care, and time."

Likewise, youth participants are likely to have their own expectations about the host-home relationship. Project OffStreets regular Joshua Rae, a queer 19-year-old who currently lives with his grandmother but has been in and out of foster homes since he was an infant, says he's been interested in the host-home program since he first heard about it. "I wouldn't have to worry about sexuality," he says. "I'd have a stable place to stay while I get a job." It wouldn't matter if his host was a lesbian, a gay male, or a couple, Rae says: "I'd judge them mainly on attitude -- someone who's not snappy, who's kinda quiet and laid back."

Establishing rules and expectations before entering into a host-home situation is key to the success of the relationship, says Jon Wertjes, a Minneapolis homeowner who arranged to rent a room to a gay 18-year-old two summers ago. When Jeffrey Peterson, now a student at the University of Minnesota - Duluth, moved in for a three-month stint, Wertjes drew up a lease that required the youth not only to pay a small amount of rent each month, but also to help with household chores, painting, and lawncare.

After a summer of going to movies, riding bikes, and getting to know each other, Peterson went off to college. But the two roommates still keep in touch, and the student often stops by Wertjes' house when he visits the Twin Cities. "He knows he's welcome in my home until he decides to live elsewhere," Wertjes says.

Peterson says he's grateful for Wertjes' hospitality. Living with a gay roommate gave him a sense of community and provided him with feedback and reassurance as he grappled with his sense of gay identity. The experience, he believes, would benefit other queer kids on the brink of adulthood. "I think what most kids need," he says, "is just a little push to get them sailing."

For further information about Project OffStreets GLBT Host Home Program, call Raquel Simões at 871-3613.

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