Planning a place for LGBT youth to stay

Posted: March 07, 2014

THE WALLS of the rowhouse are bare, whiter than the snow on the stoop, but two friends inspired by a sad tale see a vivid future for the empty North Philly home.

Rusty Doll, 32, has been pouring his own money into the house, which he bought in 2012, doing work on the weekends with whatever help he can drum up from the neighborhood. His friend Lisa Sipes has been raising money and awareness about their plans, hoping to decorate the home with the intricate, handwoven quilts she makes for a living.

Neither Doll nor Sipes will live there, nor make money off rent once they're finished fixing it up, and they only want a select and often at-risk group to know where it is.

That group is lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth with nowhere else to go.

"When you are a teenager and you are relying on the financial and emotional support of your family and you don't get it, where do you go and who do you have?" asked Sipes, 32. "We just want to give them a place to go."

Sipes and Doll, who met as neighbors in a North Philly building, are creating the LGBT "safe house" with their soon-to-be nonprofit Change Philly Today and hope to have the two-bedroom home up and running by June 1, with room for up to eight people.

The LGBT community, particularly young adults from 18 to 21, is one of the fastest-growing homeless populations in Philadelphia and the country, Doll said, and often its members feel unwelcome at home or even are forced out.

"Sometimes it's not even the parents, it's the shunning of the parents' family and friends that can make it happen," Doll said.

Doll, who works at a mental-health facility in New Jersey, purchased the North Philly rowhouse hoping to rehabilitate it and make some rent off it. Then he met a young, gay man in Philadelphia named Charles, whose plans to attend fashion school in Philadelphia had fallen apart. Charles - who could not be reached for comment - shared a secret with Doll that stuck with him as he slowly worked on his rental home.

"I asked him where he lived, and he said he lived in a shelter," Doll said. "Charles is why I changed my mind."

According to a 2012 UCLA study of homeless LGBT youth, 46 percent of them ran away from home because of family rejection and 43 percent say they were kicked out. Carrie Jacobs, executive director of the Attic Youth Center, on 16th Street near Spruce, said homelessness is a "huge issue" for the LGBT-and-questioning (LGBTQ is the acronym the center uses) community in Philadelphia.

"Most places that serve the homeless are just not equipped for this community's specific needs," Jacobs said.

Jacobs said she applauds Doll and Sipes for their concerns but hopes they can handle all the variables that could arise.

"It could get filled up immediately," she said of the safe house. "I hope they go in with their eyes open."

Doll said he's planned for the worst-case scenarios: for angry parents who may show up demanding to see their sons or daughters or for people who might want to harm them.

"We're going to have a buzzer to get in, security cameras, a panic button," Doll said. "Safety is one of our biggest things."

Tiq Milan, a spokesman for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), said that's important because LGBTs often are harassed even in homeless shelters.

"There's a reason it's so important to have these safety structures, to have spaces that are exclusively for them," he said.

Doll and Sipes also hope to have available a nurse, a life coach and an human-resources consultant who can help mentor the home's residents and get them educated and on their feet.

The safe house, Doll said, shouldn't be permanent, but always there in an emergency, a nondescript brick rowhouse on an unnamed street for those feeling unwanted and alone. Someone like Charles, Doll said.


For more information about the Change Philly Today safe house, visit changephillytoday.com.


On Twitter: @JasonNark

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