There’s No Place Like Home

By Staff, Nov. 20, 2014.

On one my first visits to Arizona’s only group home for GBTQA youth, I walk through the front door full of journalistic swagger. But not long after stepping inside the comfy south Tempe residence, it’s painfully clear this isn’t going to be about digging up facts so much as not looking away.

The truth, as it turns out, is a thing equally beautiful and painfully excruciating, yet brimming with hope.

I hunched down on the floor of the sunken den, shoulder-to-shoulder with three of the teenage boys parked in front of a widescreen TV playing Halo on the house video game system. My arrival produces less fanfare than I expected. Somebody casually steers me to the den, introduces me, and then after my hey-kids-I’m-a-writer spiel one of them perks up and asks, “So… do you play Xbox?”

Like all the boys I eventually meet at Mulligan’s Manor, the lanky blonde is more wary than shy, and exudes a world-weariness that belies his young age. He offers me a controller and quick rundown of the endless moves you have to do.

Quietly, my confidence wanes.

After about a half an hour, it’s obvious I totally suck. Each time I get killed our progress stops for the other three players to revive my character. And each time the rescuer seems to be the kid sitting next to me, a burly teenager with longish jet-black hair and dark, soulful eyes. He half turns from the TV, and in a low murmur says, “Don’t worry, dude. I’ll save you.”

Mulligan’s Manor executive director Jenny Diaz. All photos by DJ Cordero.

Making A House A Home

Established in 2011, Mulligan’s Manor is Arizona’s only group home, and one of few in the country, caring for youth ages 12 to 17 who identify as gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning or allies.

That’s GBTQA without an L because state rules prohibit male and female residents living together in group homes. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Mulligan’s Manor only houses up to eight residents at any given time, and despite having fewer resources than most for-profit group homes common in the Arizona system, provides a level of care that exceeds state requirements.

Residents can rely on “house parents” available 24 hours a day for help with things like homework or personal issues, or just for one of the hugs exchanged so freely.

But with that support comes personal accountability, as Mulligan’s Manor seeks to lay a foundation for successful lives after their kids age out of the child welfare system at 18.

Yet Mulligan’s Manor tends to exist on a shoestring budget: Their 2013 filing with the Internal Revenue Service shows the group home operated at nearly a $22,000 loss that year. To make ends meet, they rely on charitable giving or, when things get really tight, staff members dig into their own pockets, charge credit cards or refinance mortgages.

Jenny Diaz, co-founder and executive director, offered up her own house to start the group home. For Diaz, a licensed social worker, Mulligan’s Manor is a full-time job, seven days a week, between 10 and 15 hours a day.

“My entire retirement fund and much of my husband’s have gone to establishing and maintaining the manor. That’s just financial,” Diaz explains. “My husband has spent the last two-and-a-half years building our foundation with hard work and learning how to handle the social service system.”

Diaz takes home a biweekly paycheck of $1.83 after taxes. It’s just a token sum to comply with state rules.

“At times it is the most fulfilling job ever, and other times it is the most challenging,” she said. “Each boy is as lovable as the next in their own way, and every one of them has experienced pain beyond belief that they need help overcoming.”

All photos by DJ Cordero.

Family Values

Tonight for dinner, Diaz has whipped up a batch of taco pies. The residents shuffle into the dining room and take seats around a large table where they eat together each night.

Before we dig in, everyone takes a turn sharing highlights of their days. As our meal winds down, one of the youth remains engaged in the after-dinner conversation.

He’s a tall, handsome and very open about being transgender. He recently transferred here from a large, for-profit group home that houses hundreds of kids in a boarding school-type setting.

This young man seems proud of his time there, and shows off a broken wristwatch he earned for taking a leadership role. Somewhat vaguely, perhaps deliberately, he also describes a history of getting harassed and bullied for his identity. He never says exactly what brought him to Mulligan’s Manor.

Another kid, a jaded teen who perpetually wears earphones and keeps to himself, notes he just stays plugged into his music ignores what’s happening around him.

“Yeah, like living in a bubble,” he agrees.

Youth land in group homes when circumstances usually involving abuse or neglect by parents lead a judge to place them in the care of the Arizona Department of Child Safety. DCS then looks to house the youth in, according to agency reports, one of about 3,500 group homes licensed by the state.

Numbers Speak Louder Than Words

Group homes range in size from a handful to hundreds of residents. The state negotiates a set amount with each group home for each kid.

There are more than 14,000 Arizona children in foster care, according to an August 2013 DCS report. Overseeing this population — about the size of Payson, Ariz. — is an agency reorganized from the beleaguered Child Protective Services.

CPS was formally abolished by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer amid a fracas that included reports of failing to investigate some 6,500 child abuse cases. Brewer’s executive order, signed in January 2014 notes, “...the current Arizona child welfare system is broken and is not meeting expectations of prior reform efforts and it is time for significant reform.”

As children meander through this broken system, GBTQA kids typically find themselves at Mulligan’s Manor after problems fitting in at other group homes, or if a particularly diligent or intuitive caseworker provides a proactive nudge in this direction.

There are no official numbers measuring the population served by Mulligan’s Manor, while broader statistics and some basic assumptions suggest a need that is enormously underserved.

According to a 2013 Gallup poll, 3.9 percent of adults in Arizona self-identify as LGBT. Meanwhile, reports such as a 2006 study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute suggest that figure jumps as high as 40 percent among homeless youth throughout the United States.

So by janky logic, there might be 550 to 5,600 LGBT youth in the system on any given year. And with state rules forcing a choice between sexes, the only group home than can provide a safe place for the boys is turning out its pockets to house eight of them at once.

It’s a dilemma that consumes Chuck Hawkins, Mulligan’s Manor co-founder, CEO and husband of Executive Director Jenny Diaz.

Long-Term Investments

Before he started the group home with his wife, Hawkins was a successful businessman and entrepreneur. He also frequently mentions his military service, but tends to steer discussions away from that topic. Sometimes when he talks about the kids, Hawkins will abruptly pause, look away and weep silently into his hand.

Today, his life is dedicated to advocating for kids in danger of falling through cracks in the state’s child welfare and court systems. With his no-bullshit demeanor, it’s not surprising Hawkins has been held in contempt of court — twice, so far — for letting his outspokenness get out of hand during proceedings.

“So, what, you’re going to put me in jail and send me to live in a tent?” Hawkins once tells me. “Okay, fine. I already lived in worse places than that.”

As for his long days hopping around agency offices and courtrooms, managing operations at the house, and taking phone calls at all hours on the earpiece he’s always wearing, Hawkins doesn’t get a cent.

One day I find Hawkins in the kitchen with the dark-eyed kid who saved me from the zombies. Hawkins barely acknowledges me; he’s focused on showing the kid how to iron shirts, military style. His pupil is patient and attentive, though, even when Hawkins instructs him to re-iron a few and make sure they all hang neatly with sleeves folded in the same direction, just like soldiers do.

It’s tense at the house today. Even the kids seem worried. One of them has gone missing during a visit to his parents after he was caught with drugs, and then fled to avoid consequences. His safety now, wherever he might be, is an obvious concern. But the incident also puts Mulligan’s Manor in a difficult position: The group home can only hold the young man’s bed vacant for seven days before another resident takes his place, and he must again be processed through the system.

Hawkins’ take on the whole mess seems less about a broken system, though, and more like he’s looking for someone, anyone to confront.

“It’s amazing to me that the legislature can gives themselves a raise … So where’s that money coming from that’s going into their pockets? I just don’t understand,” Hawkins says. “I would go without to give to these kids, and that’s the part that doesn’t … doesn’t make sense to me. If they had a 12- to 17-year-old, and we said, ‘Here, gimme your kid, and let’s put them in the system for 90 to 120 days.’ Let’s see what you think, I bet you they’d change all the rules.”

One Day At A Time

The young man who fled, I later learn, didn’t return in time and had to be placed at another group home.

On one of my last visits to Mulligan’s Manor, the place is a flurry of activity as kids get home from school and percolate through the house looking for ways to stay entertained until dinner. One of them, a confident, athletic type, seems to be having a crappy day.

First, he’s hungry, noting he didn’t eat lunch at school because he was distracted by extracurricular activities. Then, his Xbox privileges got yanked because teachers reported that, while he was a satisfactory student, it’s obvious he’s only been trying hard enough to get by.

As he sits with his face in hands while Hawkins explains the big picture — accountability — the kid frequently interrupts with a teenaged sigh followed by, “Oh my gaaaaaahd!

Beyond ensuring kids do their best in school, Mulligan’s Manor also requires them to do chores around the house and maintain progress in areas including cooperation, respect and morality. Whiteboards posted in the kitchen track how they’re doing.

Along with all the stuff that already totally sucks to a teenager comes a lot of the things most of us would take for granted — such as group outings, a swimming pool, even snacks — but they roll into providing a better quality of life. For example, last fall everyone went camping.

Among the campers was Shannon O’Connor, the daughter of Jenny Diaz and a full-time staff member at Mulligan’s Manor. For O’Connor, it seemed natural to assume boys would be familiar with the great outdoors and wouldn’t need a girl to demonstrate baiting a fishing hook and casting lines.

“Silly me just assumed teenage boys would know how to do that,” she remembers. “Instead, I had to rely on what my dad taught me when I was a kid to pass along to these boys instead of their fathers.

“Every one of these kids deserve and want a forever home, whether that means returning to their families or being adopted. But most wouldn’t know what to do or how to prep themselves for that new reality after everything they’ve been through.

“Our goal is to complete that circle.”

Photo by Margo Amala on Unsplash

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