Jenny opens the door to her bedroom eager to show off what she says is the biggest room in the house.
Inside is an unmade twin bed and a gaming rig decked out in all the colors of the pride flag that she affectionately calls “the Gaystation.” On top of that sits assorted candy and a shuriken, or Japanese throwing knife. Skateboards lean against the wall.
It’s all standard stuff for a teenager. Standing in her spacious room, Jenny holds her favorite stuffed animal, a shark named “blahhah.”
But the home, on Chicago’s North Side, is anything but typical. Run by a nonprofit community agency called Lawrence Hall, it’s the state’s first transitional housing for foster children between the ages of 17 and 21 who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or queer.
Child advocates say the home, which is entirely state funded and opened in March, is an encouraging development in a foster care system that has been marred with stories of failure to provide services to some 20,000 children in its care. (WBEZ agreed to withhold the last names of the residents and the location of the home for the teens’ safety.)
The home is small, with just five beds. But the people living here — along with staff and other experts who work with youth — say it’s a far cry from other foster homes. They describe a place where kids feel safe and accepted as they work through the finer points of learning to be an independent adult and learning to live with the trauma they brought with them.
Most of the children in the state’s foster system, run by the Department of Children and Family Services, do not find themselves in such specialized homes. Lawrence Hall brought the idea to DCFS, where officials agreed that kids in foster care — where LGBTQ+ youth are overrepresented — could benefit from such a program.
The home has been widely received as a positive development by advocates for foster youth.
“We were seeing that some of our young people in the LGBTQ category didn’t really have options,” said Lawrence Hall CEO Kara Teeple.
Nationally, about one-third of foster care youth identify as LGBTQ+, and according to researchers, they are at significantly higher risk of experiencing homelessness, physical harm and exchanging sex to meet basic needs.
“It’s important that they’re doing this,” said Charles Golbert, a court-appointed lawyer who advocates for children in DCFS custody and a vocal critic of the department. But now, Golbert said, “it needs to be expanded for more than just five beds.”
A bright spot for a troubled agency
The opening of the first LGBTQ+ foster home in Illinois comes as the state’s foster care system faces increased scrutiny for its failure to find adequate placements in a timely manner — feeding criticism, lawsuits and legislative inquiries.
Over the past two years, damning news reports trickled out that Illinois foster youth languished in jail cells after they were ordered to be released by a judge, sometimes for months, and often without pending charges. Children were housed in psychiatric facilities longer than was medically necessary and even sleeping in offices and other makeshift emergency placements as the department scrambled to find suitable homes amid a shortage of appropriate living arrangements.
Golbert said the agency doesn’t have enough beds for kids “who are even a little challenging in any way.”
So far, the young adults living in Lawrence Hall’s LGBTQ+ transitional home say it’s a very different atmosphere from the places they lived before.
Jenny lived at a congregate care facility for youth in foster care in southern Illinois when she was asked if she would be interested in living in the much smaller transitional home.
It had specially trained staff and programs meant to help LGBTQ+ youth enter adulthood and heal from the additional trauma that many queer foster youth endure. Jenny said she was ecstatic hearing she would have a home there.
“The place I was at was terrible, so this place is great,” said Jenny, who’s been living in Chicago since March. “I decorate my room a lot. Here it’s very accepting. I feel at home here.”
Advocates for foster youth say more places that are welcoming for LGBTQ+ children are needed now more than ever — especially transitional homes that offer wraparound support services such as counseling. The teens there receive a stipend for buying food, clothes and other essentials. They often have particular needs, such as help navigating the complicated health care landscape.
The Lawrence Hall-run home offers trained mental health care providers with experience dealing with issues specific to LGBTQ+ youth. The staff can even help trans youth with questions about hormone therapy or gender affirmation surgery set up doctors’ appointments. More than 50% of the home’s staff identify as LGBTQ+.Advocates say such a place is a bright spot amid a growing conservative reaction against queer and trans communities. This year, a record number of 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills were introduced in state legislatures across the nation. In Illinois, restaurants and libraries that have hosted drag events have been targeted by protesters and vandals.
“There are very few programs that address that intersection” of LGBTQ+ youth in foster care, said Jonah DeChants, senior research scientist for the Trevor Project, a California nonprofit dedicated to suicide prevention among LGBTQ+ youth. “I imagine it’s among the first. I think that’s a really unmet need.”
While drop-in homeless shelters and other services for LGBTQ+ youth and adults are relatively common, places that allow youth to stay for multiple years in a family-like setting with wraparound social and health services are rare, said Danny King, senior youth policy counsel at the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
“This kind of transitional housing is definitely critical for LGBTQ young folks as they’re transitioning either from the foster care system or the runaway homeless youth system,” King said.
A rushed timeline to help vulnerable teens
One of the big questions facing the youth living in the Lawrence Hall foster home is what comes next.
The staff spend a lot of their energy helping them try to figure it out. Foster care in Illinois ends at age 21, so there’s a rushed timeline to help the teens figure out how to cook, how to clean and even how to keep a job for six months — things that family units often teach.
The risks are high for these youngsters, said Pavielle Randolph, a site coordinator for Lawrence Hall’s Chicago LGBTQ+ home. “A lot of times our youth have to unlearn behaviors, unlearn ways of thinking, unlearn ways in which they respond.”
Steve, one of the home’s residents, turned 18 about five months ago. He’s currently enrolled at a nearby college and is considering studying marketing. But he said he’s starting to have doubts. For now, he’s focused on getting a job and trying to figure out what his future holds.
Steve has been in foster care since he was 12. Before that, he lived with his mother. His story underscores the trauma and instability that can lead to LGBTQ+ youth entering the foster system in the first place.
“Every time I lived with her she would never do the necessary things for a child, like give them food. When I come home from school every day, she wouldn’t be there,” Steve recalled. “It got to the point where I was stealing from her to get myself clothes. I got in a bathtub one day, and I locked the door, and I was cutting myself. There was blood all in the bathtub. That’s when the police were called. Basically I was at foster care ever since.
“It’s nothing now,” Steve added. “She’s moved to California, so I don’t see her as often. But I feel like I have a disease. I feel like I’m not cured. I feel like I need help, and I feel like the only way I can help is if I just work my a** off. Just make my own money like everybody else. But it’s hard coming from the bottom.”
Another resident, Jess, has been in foster care ever since being dropped off at a hospital. Jess’s parents never picked her up.
The 19-year-old has been living at her new foster home for several months and likes it overall, especially compared to the “chaos” of her previous foster placement in a larger residential care center for youth. Now Jess is trying to figure out the future too.
“We have our ups and downs. It’s a good place overall. It’s more aware in a way, and it’s also more accepting,” said Jess, comparing the current living situation to a previous residential care facility. “There’s not as many rules constricting us and confining us as there were before, and it doesn’t feel like anyone’s gonna judge you here.”
During a recent weeknight, the staff — including life skills educator Jacqueline Pollock, intern therapist Shawn Healy and life skills adviser Ron Walter — set up supplies for residents to make a “vision board” collage.
Piles of magazines, markers and other supplies for collaging images sat on a dining room table. A few residents started sorting through the materials, trying to find the right images for their boards.
Jenny held up a drawing she had just made of a cartoon hamster sitting on a plush, expressive-looking armchair. “He’s old and wise,” Jenny said.
She set to work filling in details, looking relaxed and in her element.
Michael Gerstein is a freelance writer based in Chicago.