Street smarts: How and where homeless GLBT youth find support

For GLBT youth whose sexuality has resulted in shunning within their home communities, a Middle Tennessee organization is especially crucial in helping them overcome these challenges and move forward into a happy, healthy adulthood.

Since 1969, the Oasis Center has served Middle Tennessee by offering a safe haven for youth in crisis. With a variety of educational resources and programs, Oasis has enhanced the lives of countless young people in the area over the last four decades, including numerous GLBT youth who have experienced ridicule from their families regarding their sexuality.

According to their website, Oasis Center provides service to more than 1,900 youth and their families each year. The majority of those assisted by Oasis Center come from Metropolitan Nashville and surrounding counties, but services are not limited to these areas. Ben Griffith, street outreach coordinator for Oasis Center, stresses the fact that many youth who seek out services are severely damaged by their unstable living situations.

“We take a very trauma-informed approach. Nearly every young person here has experienced some trauma,” Griffith said. “Until a young person feels safe, they're not ready to take on life's challenges. They're in survival mode.”

Griffith believes that achieving the right balance for these at-risk youth is primarily about encouragement and acceptance, and that the center provides a therapeutic and healing environment that can help them to reach their goals. Change is gradual, but the results are often rewarding.

“We try to be aware that young people have to be empowered to make changes and that relapse is part of the process,” Griffith said. “We try not to see that as a failure but as part of a successful process.”

Michelle Hall, director of transitional living for Oasis Center, explains that services are a multi-step program designed to maximize a young person's potential.
“We have our street outreach where staff and volunteers seek out young people who have run away and are homeless,” Hall said. “If they're needing other resources, we have an outreach center where young people can come who don't have a safe place to live.”

Hal Cato, President and CEO of Oasis Center, has been a crucial element in this development, taking a well-rounded approach to assisting youth in need.
“We're trying to offer access to emotional, physical and social safety for these kids,” Cato said. “We give them opportunities to build positive connections with caring adults and peers and help them learn how to take direct action to improve their lives."

“We're trying to offer access to emotional, physical and social safety for these kids. We give them opportunities to build positive connections with caring adults and peers and help them learn how to take direct action to improve their lives."

- Hal Cato, president and CEO, Oasis Center

The Oasis Center also hosts Nashville's only long-term transitional living center for homeless youth between the ages of 17 and 21. Hall says that the best tool is to develop a consistent relationship with the individual. These bonds can be important in guiding young people in the right direction.

“They have probably experienced many hurtful situations in their lives from adults that have abandoned them,” Hall said. “They might be afraid to get into relationships.”

A powerful force in their positive growth is the wealth of friendships that are formed at the Oasis Center. Due to their shared experiences, these young people tend to develop intense relationships that often last long after their stay. In addition to these crucial connections, a supportive family unit is often a key in steering young people towards future success personally and professionally.

“I love it when we're able to have a relationship with parents and guardians,” Hall said. “We try to do the same thing with families as we do with youth. We give them a lot of encouragement and support.

“What's normal in adolescence is a conflict between parents and youth,” she continued. “It's a way for youth to create autonomy and that's a natural thing. A lot of youth will return to living with family and extended family and we think that's a big success.”

At particular risk are GLBTQ runaways who have experienced difficulties in their home lives. Staff members at Oasis Center do not introduce the subject of sexuality in their preliminary meetings, but simply foster a welcoming environment for GLBTQ individuals. Griffith believes that Oasis Center is in a unique position to assist young people who are struggling with their sexual identity.

“Very rarely in the first time is it brought up directly,” Griffith said. “The youth often drop some hints rather quickly. I would expect them to keep things a secret, but they've reached that point where that's a safe place to talk about.”

To ensure that Oasis Center remains a constant source of comfort, the staff insists that all youth treat each other with respect regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender or religion.

“We're not just accepting of GLBT youth, we believe in celebrating them. The staff here have received specific training in how to make sure they are accepting and embracing of all youth,” Hall said.

Though it's often a challenge to service youth from various backgrounds, Oasis Center is a prime place for character development. Young people often use insensitive speech, but those outbursts can serve as teaching moments.

“Our job as a staff to really be aware of the temperature of the group and be very careful with language,” Hall said. “If we hear things that are bullying or shaming, we step in and explain why that's not OK.”

Griffith agrees that stopping stereotyping involves addressing the problem instead of issuing a simple reprimand.

“We must commit to keeping it a safe environment," he said, “Conflicts are quite rare. We require everyone to show a lot of compassion.”

Oasis Center provides individual bedrooms for its occupants, eliminating any discomfort for transgendered youth who may flounder in other environments.
“We allow young people to self-identify,” Griffith said. “Shelters really do their best, but they can be unsafe at times and often they separate by gender.”

Oasis has built specific leadership programs designed to enhance the experience and ease the discomfort felt by these youth. Activities range from organized efforts against youth violence to discussion of potential Metro school board policies, with the sole focus on driving youth to take action in their communities. There’s also the nationally recognized Building Bridges program, created to raise awareness about prejudice among youth. There are currently 580 active participants in the program.

“Oasis Center is a place that values what bring young people to the door,” Cato said. “We try to find where their passion lies and channel that energy.”
In the end, Oasis Center is available to give young people opportunities they may not have had otherwise.

“I think it's impossible to really make a young person do anything,” Griffith said. “I can continue to give them safe options. My hope is as they start to heal and their confidence and their self-worth starts to grow, they'll make healthier choices

Photo by Margo Amala on Unsplash

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