You can end homelessness
Some Sacramento Samaritans were hosting homeless neighbors on their own before LGBT center offered support and resources
Aly Fuentes was looking for a roommate. But in Wendi Reinl’s home, the 19-year-old transgender woman found a family.
Fuentes went through the Sacramento LGBT Community Center’s relatively new Host Homes Program. The idea behind the program is to pair LGBTQ adults between the ages of 18 and 24 with community members who have underutilized spaces in their homes.
Potential hosts are vetted and profiles are created, from which participating youth can make their selections. The LGBT center calls this a “community response” to housing insecurity. And while it may sound unique, “host homes” have quietly become more prominent in tackling youth homelessness, in which LGBTQ people are overrepresented and standard shelter options are inadequate and rare.
According to a 2017 study by the National Coalition for the Homeless, only 10% of youth identify as LGBTQ, but as many as 40% of homeless youth do.
Wendi Reinl and her husband Steve became the Host Homes Program’s first participants in September. Now the program has seven host families, but the need for LGBTQ youth facing housing insecurity may be increasing as well.
The host homes model has been reserved mostly for people with disabilities. In 37 states, including California, the MENTOR Network matches adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities with families that mesh with their interests, skills and personalities, its website says. Bethesda Lutheran Communities does something similar in 13 states, while the Care Association operates in Colorado.
Host homes are less common for individuals experiencing homelessness, especially unaccompanied minors, who present a panoply of legal and regulatory challenges because of their age.
And while California recently passed a law allowing renters to open their homes to people at risk of homelessness, they still require the blessing of landlords who may worry about perceived liability issues.
But in Sacramento, informal host homes have already cropped up.
One night in late 2015, Laura Goldstein spotted two teenagers outside a Chipotle in Land Park just as it was getting cold. The Oak Park resident bought the couple something to eat and struck up a conversation. Then she watched the young women lug their suitcases into the night to find a place to sleep.
“I could not stop thinking about them,” Goldstein told SN&R in 2016.
A month later, Goldstein happened upon the teens, cloistered together under a rain-pelted sleeping bag by the back entrance of a Starbucks. She and her husband took them in for three weeks.
Though challenging, Goldstein says she and her husband were enriched by the experience. The couple, then 17 and 19, identified as transgender. The two were dating and both estranged from their families, but not because of their gender identity. That had more to do with drug use, which masked other challenges: a cycle of poverty and arrest and a distrust of the system, among them.
“The story was a lot more complicated,” Goldstein said then. “The more that I got to know their stories, there were a lot more issues they were dealing with.”
The 19-year-old eventually moved to Washington state to be with relatives. The younger one stayed on the streets. She would be close to 21 now.
Back when he was the coordinator of Wind Youth Service’s youth shelter program, Peter Bell often wondered what it would take to develop an Airbnb-style network of emergency hosts here in Sacramento.
“Host homes happen in other communities,” he told SN&R in 2016. “It’s a fairly successful model, and cost-effective.”
According to a 2013 blog for the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a workshop on the topic contended that host homes are more flexible and affordable than traditional shelters. And the most effective ones make sure the community hosts aren’t on their own. They get training from the respective charity agencies, which also provide case management and coordination services.
That model is finally underway in Sacramento.
Under the LGBT center’s program, hosts must be able to participate for three to six months. Pixie Pearl, assistant director of housing at the center, said the time commitment is important to reassure homeless youths that their housing can’t be taken away at a moment’s notice.
“We’re still at that point of developing full trust and all that,” Pearl said. “I think our longest hosted right now is hitting the three-month mark. And so we’re just getting past that—feeling insecure about the housing piece.”
The Host Homes Program receives assistance from Point Source Youth, a national organization that aims to reduce youth homelessness. Point Source Youth is helping develop and support programs in 50 cities with demonstrated need.
According to last year’s point-in-time homeless survey, about one in six young, homeless adults in Sacramento County identified as gay/lesbian, bisexual or a sexual orientation other than straight, and 3% identified as gender non-conforming.
Overall, homelessness in the county rose by 19% in two years to more than 5,400 people experiencing homelessness on any given night.
For Elijah Wood, Point Source Youth’s associate director for Northern California and Sacramento’s technical assistant, LGBTQ homelessness is a personal subject. When he came out to his parents in college, they cut him off, leading to a four-to five-year-long period of housing insecurity, he says.
Wood says it’s this experience that led him to his work, where he prioritizes youth autonomy, something that he says has been lacking in social programs.
“There’s this idea that just because you’ve succeeded and you’ve made it through life that other people should do it the same way as you,” Wood said. “We’re finding out as a society and a culture, that’s not necessarily true.”
Aly Fuentes grew up in Michoacán, Mexico. Her biological mother wasn’t around for much of her upbringing. Fuentes remembers seeing her for the first time at around 11 years old.
“I was at my cousin’s house, which was next door and everyone was like, ’Oh, your mom’s here, your mom’s here,’” Fuentes recalled. “And I remember immediately running under the table and hiding because I didn’t know who this person was.”
Fuentes moved to Los Angeles at 15, then to Sacramento with her mother. It was here that she started transitioning. When she graduated high school, Fuentes said her mother already decided she should move out.
“I don’t think she needs me in her life even though she’s my mother,” Fuentes reflected. “She probably wants me in her life. I don’t feel like she needs to be a big part of my life now.”
After a period of housing insecurity, which included short-term placements through the LGBT center, Fuentes was referred to the Host Homes Program and paired with Reinl, who had her own reasons for becoming a host.
Reinl has three children, two of whom identify as queer. With two kids already moved out and one a junior in high school, Reinl said she wasn’t ready to become an empty nester just yet.
“I was reading about the program and it was like a beam of light came through and I was like, ’Oh my god, we need to do this,’” Reinl recalled.
Fuentes recently hit the three-month mark in the Reinl home. And by the looks of it, everyone involved is over the moon.
The family sits down for dinner every day, together. Fuentes has taught the Reinls new recipes, including enchiladas and taquitos, and Reinl has encouraged more vegetables. Fuentes says she already shuns pork because the smell reminds her of the pigs she butchered and cleaned as a child.
Fuentes will be starting community college this month. Though she’s looking forward to exploring various subjects, teaching is something she’s gravitating to for personal reasons.
“I’ve been guided, inspired by some of my teachers that I’ve had throughout high school and I feel like I want to be that kind of support for people,” Fuentes said. “I want to be the one, where people are going to come to me and be like, ’Hey, can you help me?’”
“Ali is part of our life now,” Reinl added. “It’s definitely added so much to our family.”