[Hpn] Troubled youth finding shelter in east Atlanta

coh coh@sfo.com
Thu, 05 Jul 2001 12:37:20 -0700


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Gay teenagers find a home at the end of the Rainbow
Troubled youth finding shelter in east Atlanta

Ahan Kim - Staff
Thursday, July 5, 2001

Wrapped in the only clothes he owned, the lonely teenager wandered from park
bench to MARTA station searching for a place to sleep on the cold January

Bruce Cunningham had lived in foster care, a mental hospital and uneasily
with a mother who ultimately kicked him out of their Gwinnett County home
because, he says, she couldn't cope with her son's being gay.

Cunningham then lived on the streets for several nights, with friends and in
homeless shelters where he didn't feel welcome because he was gay.

Finally, Cunningham landed at Rainbow Home, a shelter for gay teenagers and
young adults that is the only facility of its kind in metro Atlanta.

"If the Rainbow Home didn't come into my life when it did, I'd probably be
dead," said Cunningham, now 19. "It gave me the comfort I've been looking
for my whole life."

A tiny, three-bedroom bungalow in east Atlanta, Rainbow Home looks more like
a couple's modest first house than a shelter. It serves young people who are
lesbian, gay, bisexual or unsure of their sexual orientation.

Such teenagers would likely be harassed, beaten or even raped at large
homeless shelters that serve the general population, advocates for gays say.

"All of these kids came in at one point suicidal," said Kyle Anderson,
program manager for Rainbow Home. "They're frustrated. They don't have
anywhere stable to live, don't have any money and arrive with a lot of
experimentation with drugs as a way to cope with some of the things that
have happened to them."

Since it opened 18 months ago, Rainbow Home has provided food, temporary
shelter and support to more than 50 young people aged 17 to 21. The facility
also provides free medical care, psychological counseling and programs to
help the youths develop good job and life skills.

The shelter is operated by CHRIS Homes, an agency that manages group homes
for homeless children and families across metro Atlanta.

Some of the young people who seek help at Rainbow Home are HIV-positive.
About 80 percent of those served are black men.

About 90 percent of Rainbow Home residents have been high school dropouts.

National studies show that almost a third of gay teenagers report some
harassment or violence at school, and 97 percent of public high school
students report regularly hearing homophobic remarks at school.

In a recent survey, more than 40 percent of high school guidance counselors
in metro Atlanta who conceded they knew of gay students being harassed, said
the students would likely not feel safe at school.

Steve Epstein, executive director of Enlight Atlanta, which conducted the
survey of 110 metro Atlanta public and private high schools, said the study
confirmed what activists long feared: School officials often ignore
harassment of gay students.

"The reason why Rainbow Home is so busy is because so many kids give up on
their schools," Epstein said. "These kids need a place where they can
express themselves --- without the fear that they will be harassed."

Rainbow Home is funded through $180,000 in federal grants as well as by the
United Way and private donations. The shelter can only provide six beds at a
time, although two additional beds are available for emergencies. Anderson
said the shelter must turn away far more kids than it can accommodate.

CHRIS Homes rents the house the shelter now occupies, but organizers hope to
buy another, larger house soon.

Many young people are referred to the shelter by YouthPride, a Decatur-based
community center that serves about 1,500 gay youths a year.

"It's a struggle for these youth to be able to do all the normal things that
normal teenagers get to do," said Asha Leong, program manager at YouthPride.
"It's easier to go to the movies as a straight teenager and hold your
partner's hand." 

Some who arrive at Rainbow Home only stay for one night, said Anderson.
"Some will get back together with a boyfriend that beat them up --- or they
met Mr. Right and moved in with them," she said.

No one pays rent at Rainbow Home, and there's no time limit on how long
residents can stay, as long as they follow the rules.

Curfew is 11 p.m. on weeknights, 1 a.m. on weekends. One of five resident
counselors is on duty at all times.

Residents are expected to find a job or take classes to complete their high
school diploma. No sexual activity is allowed. If a resident fails to return
to the house within 48 hours without notice, their bed goes to another
teenager in need. 

There are, however, second and even third chances. This is Cunningham's
third stint in the house. He was kicked out twice.

He prefers to talk about where he's going, though, and not where he's been.
He has a job at a nearby hardware store and is working on his general
equivalency diploma. He plans to apply to college in the fall and says he
wants to get a nursing degree so he can "help other people."

"I actually consider myself a human being (now)," Cunningham said. "Being
proud of who you are is the most important thing."

--- For more information: (404) 586-0825




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