Ending Gay and Transgender Youth Homelessness: Interview with Jama Shelton

Mark-Horvath-1-1 Many of you know me as a follower of Jesus and those of you that have been paying attention also know me as a “straight ally”. To me, I actually believe both of those descriptions of me are connected.  I know many faith based organizations are frantically scrambling to come up with a LGBT position, which I think is silly because as Christians we should be extending unconditional love and compassion to everyone – EVERYONE!

My journey over the last few years has provided me with many experiences, but probably the most life-changing was when I spent a few hours with 20 or so new transgender friends at  TRANS: THRIVE.  Homosexuality is not a “lifestyle”! People are born gay! It freaks me out and actually pisses me off that families kick their kids out for “coming out” and being honest about who they really are!

Imagine you’re a young teenager and for as long as you remember you feel different than everyone around you. After years of trying to “fit in” and playing pretend, you finally decide to be open and honest about your sexual preference or gender identity with the people closest to you. Then, when you tell your parents, they kick you out of the house and out into the streets.  More than 1 in 4 children and youth are thrown out of their homes making family conflict the biggest issue causing youth homelessness today. The numbers are staggering. Each year, between 500,000 and 1.6 million youth in the U.S. are homeless or runaways. [1]

A few years back Cyndi Lauper co-founded The True Colors Fund to help raise awareness and bring an end to LGBT youth homelessness. From that the Forty to None Project was created and I especially love their Give  Damn Campaign. I have been following @FortytoNone on twitter for some time, and then at this years SXSW I saw a tweet that Forty to None Project Director, Jama Shelton, was speaking and jumped at the chance to met her.  As luck would have it, Jama and I connected for some coffee and this short video interview:


Alan Graham on Community First and Tiny Houses

This actually is a hard post to start because there is so much to say about Alan Graham and his amazing work helping our homeless friends. Back in July of 2009, Alan was partly responsible for talking me into taking the risk of the traveling around the U.S. to document homelessness for the first time. We had just connected on social media and he kept inviting me, even offering to cover some of the expenses. Thing was, Alan knew exactly how amazing his vision was and once I arrived, he knew I’d become an evangelist for his work.

Seems like just yesterday that I taped this video of Alan showing me around one of his catering trucks . Although having a small army of food trucks to help build relationships is pretty amazing, it’s giving our homeless friends real dignity and the power of choice that is the lesson Alan’s work taught me.

2009: Lee Leffingwell, Alan Graham and Mark Horvath

2009: Lee Leffingwell, Alan Graham and Mark Horvath

During that first visit Alan showed me the master plans for a plot of land he had the vision of transforming into what he calls “Community First Village”. At the time, it was all on paper and in Alan’s heart. He had already been using a variation of a rapid rehousing model to get our chronic homeless friends off the streets into their own RV, but acquiring a large parcel of land had yet to happen. As I type this, I remembered Alan pitching Lee Leffingwell, Austin’s Mayor, who joined us out on the streets.

Each year as I visit SXSW in Austin I always make it a point to spend some time with Alan, and each year he has something new and amazing going on. Last year I posted this story: At SXSW Helping Homeless People Is Delicious With Street Treats , that highlighted Alan’s continued creating social enterprise ways for our friends on the street to generate revenue.

This year, Alan was able to tour me around the beginnings of “Community First Village”! There really no words to describe how happy I am for him and our homeless friends, who will soon be calling the place “home”. I know this vision has been in Alan’s heart for years and there has been a few setbacks in trying to make it all happen, but there is no stopping now what may be the coolest model in fighting homelessness I have ever seen.

One might call this a Tiny Home community, but Alan was quick to correct me that tiny homes have been around for a very long time and are nothing new. Ten years ago Alan housed a homeless man in an RV and he started to dream about a place where people could not only get a roof over their head and a meal, but find healing. That vision has now grown to a 27 acre master-planned community that will provide affordable, sustainable housing and a supportive community for the disabled, chronically homeless in Central Texas.

While I was visiting, a church youth group was building a chapel for the community. You only have to spend a moment with Alan to know he is a Follower of Jesus. To me, this is the model more faith based services should follow. Each and every person, no matter of religious beliefs or sexual orientations, can become part of the Community First Village. Church services and places for healing are offered, but are never mandated. Everyone still is allowed the dignity of choice!


LAPD Officer Deon Joseph Speaks about Public Feedings on Skid Row

I first became aware of LAPD Senior Lead Officer Deon Joseph a few years back, when two Christian documentary filmmakers featured his amazing work on Skid Row. I literally was blown away by this strong Christian man’s love for a community that is in desperate need of genuine love. Since then, our paths have crossed a few times, but it was only recently that I connected with Deon Joseph on Facebook. His candid and emotionally honest accounts of his day-to-day life working with the Skid Row community are encouraging and heartbreaking…often at the same time.

About a week before Christmas, a time on Skid Row where faith based groups ascend into Skid Row by the droves, Deon posted an update that messed me up. It was pretty much a “play-by-play” account of a war zone of madness created by faith based groups, who have good intentions, but are completely unaware of the reality of their actions. My heart broke for Officer Joseph and for the people on Skid Row.


Whenever a community is pushed against a wall and has to pass laws to get faith based organizations to work together, my social media channels go off. People tweet news links to me and email me stories expecting me to be outraged, but although I am not for punishing people who want to do good – I have seen the harm churches can do to a homeless community. Since most faith based groups are very territorial and refuse to work with their communities, regulating public feedings become the only solution to a very serious problem. About a year ago I wrote a post: Why You Should Support Regulating the Public Feeding of Homeless People , which opened some eyes and upset others. Please hear me…no one is saying stop helping people or stop giving out food. What we are trying to say is WORK WITH OTHERS TO HAVE MORE IMPACT IN ENDING HOMELESSNESS!

The Missions based on Skid Row feed 9,000 meals every day. They work together as a coordinated effort to make sure no one goes hungry on Skid Row. In the two decades I have been visiting Skid Row, I have yet to meet a single person who is in need of food, and as as Officer Joseph points out, you don’t see anyone in this interview running around naked and in need of clothes. Yet 20 – 30 churches come down to Skid Row every day randomly feeding people and creating a mess. They are creating far more harm than good.


Partner with homeless services: During this interview Deon said LA Mission is in need of bread and Union Rescue Mission is in need of peanut butter and jelly. That’s just two of many ways your church or bowling team can help and have real impact.

Come clean up the streets: Deon mentioned the Los Angeles Dream Center  as a good example of a faith based group that helps clean up the streets. If your church wants to help but really does not know what to do, contact the Dream Center and I am sure they’d be happy to train your staff.

Provide tangible social interaction to people in housing: Good news is lots of people are being placed into housing. They need positive interactions with good people. Yes, you have to leave your bible in your car, but if you’re “fishing for souls” on Skid Row, you should note that pretty much everyone has already said the sinners prayer dozens of times. It’s time to start being an answer to prayers instead of trying to get people to say a prayer.

Seniors need food: the one area we will see growing food insecurity is seniors. They may have their rent paid, but very little money for anything else. Throughout Los Angeles there are seniors in need of food.

The Downtown Clergy Council released this position paper that has a lot more background on this conversation and goes into more detail on ways to help:  How to Make the Influence of the Service Community Stronger than the Influence of the Streets!


I am so very saddened whenever this conversation comes up by the amount of energy faith based organizations will put into a message of fear, instead of simply reaching out to other churches to work together. The simple solution for all is to communicate and coordinate, but most churches are very territorial. When a law has to be passed to get churches to work together, it really says a lot about the church world today. Oh, please note, there are amazing churches out there actually working with the community and partnering with homeless services for more impact. My point is no community should ever get to the point where public feeding has to be regulated, and if it does, it our fault as Christians that it got that far.

All food is regulated. Sidewalk cafe’s have to have a permit, hot dog vendors have to be licensed, restaurants are zoned – all for public safety!  Why faith based groups start ranting about about regulation really says more about them than the regulation itself.


All it would take is one strong leader to champion all the faith based organizations to start working together. In my perfect world, churches would rise up and show the people of Los Angeles we can coordinate for more impact to help the hurting of our city. Instead of arguing about regulations, let’s show the world regulations are not needed. There are a lot of ways faith based churches can really make our city better – lots of ways! The point is let’s work smarter, help each other, and do what is best for the community.

Here is a short quote from Deon’s Facebook update just before Christmas:

After two hours, the event came to a merciful end. I watched the majority of the recipients of this good will dump out or try to sell the items for drug money as they ambled down the street. In the background another minister was singing “Jesus is on the Main Line” with fervor on the mic, while all hell was breaking loose from their donations.

“Let’s not be a church of ignorance to our own actions and let’s work with others to help end homelessness in Los Angeles.” ~ Mark Horvath


Clean Out Your Closet to Help End Homelessness

Thrift Shopper storeI’ll admit it: I was wrong! Very wrong! Up until I connected with the Rescue Mission in Central New York , I pretty much thought giving directly to people was the best way to give out gently used clothing. Often people contact me and say: “we have clothing we’d like to donate, but we don’t want it to be sold”. I would then connect them to shelters, or actually pickup their donations and then drive around to distribute the clothing out of the back of my SUV. Part of the reason I did that is most every ministry and shelter I worked at, if anything of real value came in, staff and volunteers get “first dibs” on the good stuff.

My paradigm about clothing donations and thrift stores started to change when I first visited Rescue Mission Alliance of Syracuse. In fact, I was literally blown away by their 3fifteen store located near Syracuse University. In the past, I’ve seen some pretty amazing for-profit recycle and vintage clothing stores like the Buffalo Exchange, but the not-for-profit stories always seemed to be a little grungy. The 3fifteen store takes thrifty shopping to a whole new level. They partnered with Café Kubal to create a comfortable, modern and cool shopping/hangout experience. But that spirit of excellence can be seen in all of the Rescue Mission’s Thrifty Shopper stores, even the store on their campus that gives clothing to homeless and low-income men, women and families.


3fifteen and Café Kubal near Syracuse University

So here’s the deal. Right now money is tight. Less people are donating badly-needed funds, simply because so many people today are facing their own financial crisis. Added to that, government support to fight homelessness continues to be cut. This is happening all while need for support services keeps increasing! Government reports may be saying there is less homelessness, but everywhere I travel I see more people on the streets than ever before. Sadly, there is a large group of hidden homeless that most of us don’t see, and our government refuses to count. Add all this up and we have a serious crisis that will continue to get worse – unless we find a way to fuel services that are getting people out of the shelter system and back into society or in permanent  supportive housing!

Thrifty Shopper stores make up 60% of Rescue Mission’s budget here in Central New York. That means the people who donated clothes and furniture last year helped house 324 of the 540 people the Mission placed into housing. They also helped provide 175,933 of the 293,223 meals given to those in need. That’s AWESOME!

Ladies We Need You!

Let’s be real. Guys wear their jeans until the literally fall apart. Cleaning out a closet is not on most men’s radar. Because of this, jeans in normal men’s sizes are a desperate need at most homeless services. We often get a lot of women’s clothes, but there is always a huge need for men’s clothing and items like belts. Ladies, please grab a large bag or a pillow sack and walk into your man’s closet. Start packing up all the stuff you know he’ll never wear again. You may hear him cry: “I’ll be a size 36 again so I am saving them”, but we all know that’s never going to happen. Now ladies, you don’t save clothes like that do you?!!

I am not sure where you live, but I am pretty sure there is a thrift store that supports homeless services near you. If you’re in Central New York, I strongly recommend you give those unused items to Thrifty Shoppers. They take everything: recycling what can’t be sold — reducing our footprint in landfills — so just give it all. If you’re in another part of the country, do a little research and find an organization that is working hard to end homelessness and uses the thrift store model.

Rescue Mission has thrift store donations down to a science. In this short video I interview Christin Mixon, merchandise manager for Thrifty Shopper, about their operations and how donations play a huge role in saving lives.

If you were like me, or know someone who has the wrong idea about clothing donations, please share this post with them. Yes, there are some for-profit thrift stores that sell your donations just to make a buck, but if you take a moment to look, you’ll find organizations that will accept your donations and give them to those in need, and sell the rest to help better your community. From now on, I’ll be giving my clothes to a thrift store that helps fight homelessness. How about you?

It’s not Housing First or shelters. It’s Housing First AND shelters!

yogi2We have a problem. A very serious problem that is getting worse. A problem that we created! A problem that is polarizing homeless services in communities when we ALL need to be working together to end homelessness. The problem is that the only conversation these days is Housing First, and people who have given their lives to setup and run shelters feel left out and offended. Because of this, the Housing First folks are creating their own opposition.

I get it. I do. When I first heard about Housing First I considered Housing First a miracle sent to us from the heavens. Housing First is the new shinny tool in our arsenal for fighting homelessness. It makes sense, and now that we have a few years of data to look at – Housing First is a proven method that helps save lives and taxpayer money. For a little while I was all about Housing First, and the fact that I lived in a shelter based program for over 7 years just reinforced my new-found love of the Housing First model.

Then a colleague opened my eyes to how shelters are needed to help create a system to get people off the streets into housing! In fact, shelters may be the most important first step of support, assessment and then placement.

It’s not Housing First or shelters. It’s Housing First AND shelters!

I have been working with homeless services for some time now and with a fair bit of traveling – I have yet to see anyone go directly from the streets into housing that would be defined as Housing First. There is normally a transitional (yup, I know “transitional” is a bad word these days) component of some kind while housing that actually fits the client is being found. I must stress that finding the right housing is extremely important. I have seen people placed in the wrong situations simply because it was the available opening, and that never ends good!

The other reason shelters are so very important is data shows that the majority of people experiencing homelessness do so temporally. Either from natural disasters or economic crisis or relationship problems, a large percentage of homeless people will not be needing services that long. Housing First works for the chronic homeless person, but for the people who are only in the state of homelessness for a short time – we still need shelters!

Michael McConnell once said to me: “we have a lot of pillars and no systems”, which is spot on. For us to end homelessness we need everyone to work together. That also means we all have to change.

Let’s be real: most shelters are horrible places, and there are a lot of agencies claiming they do Housing First but are just throwing people into apartments without the needed support services! Shelters need to be a place that provide people with dignity. Housing First agencies should not be placing people into housing unless the placement is a good fit, the apartment is actually furnished like a home should be, and most importantly – provide the client with services and tangible social interaction.

At the last NAEH conference this growing division of Housing First and shelters really became evident. The conversation by the people attending was all exclusive and not inclusive. I talked to a few people who run shelters and they were emotionally hurt.

My suggestion to the Housing First supporters is to include shelters in the conversation. By excluding shelters we are creating our own enemy. My suggestion to the shelter folks is to keep an open mind and to be willing to change from a one-stop model to a community based system that quickly gets people out of homelessness. In this short video I interview Jenny Niklaus, CEO of EHC LifeBuilders, a leading provider of services and shelter beds in Santa Clara County, about how they repositioned their shelter model to support Housing First.

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