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In 25th Year, Kaleidoscope Youth Center Focuses on Homelessness

Lauren Sega Lauren Sega In 25th Year, Kaleidoscope Youth Center Focuses on HomelessnessLeft to right: KYC Housing Program Manager Heather Wise and Executive Director Erin Upchurch.
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Kaleidoscope Youth Center (KYC) is marking its 25th anniversary with a range of new programs combatting youth homelessness. 

Though the initiatives are relatively new to KYC, they’re not entirely new ideas, says Executive Director Erin Upchurch. They’re borrowing framework from programs out of Minneapolis (Avenues for Homeless Youth) and Cincinnati (Lighthouse Youth Services) to introduce their Supportive Co-Housing and Rapid Re-Housing programs, along with their Host Home Network. 

“All three of the programs, they cover the same need and also serve different purposes,” says Heather Wise, KYC Housing Program Manager, “and what I love about it is they complement each other.”

Each targets what Wise and Upchurch term transition-age youth, or those aged 18 to 24.

“We know that this age group, they still need family. We all need family, right? But when you’re a young person, you really need that type of support,” Upchurch says.

Currently there are more than 3,000 homeless or housing insecure transition-age youth within central Ohio alone. Forty percent of them are transgender or gender non-binary, a population that KYC has catered to since its founding. KYC, a partner of the Ohio Genders and Sexualities Alliance (GSA) Network, first started as a crisis hotline for LGBTQIA+ youth in 1994, but is now a full drop-in center offering social and mental health support, legal resources, and other gender-affirming services. 

Trans and gender non-binary youth are at increased risk of homelessness largely due to familial stressors. Coming out to family members, bringing a significant other into their family’s home, or simply being able to express their gender identity freely at home is a tricky road to navigate, especially for KYC’s targeted age group. 

Then there are other potential factors, like involvement in the foster system or the criminal justice system, psychiatric hospitalization or chronic mental health problems. Individuals with no prior mental health issues can often start to show symptoms as well, as poverty and homelessness is a form of trauma.

KYC’s decision to add housing support for transition-age youth aims to fill a void, says Upchurch. Unlike many federal programs for the homeless and housing insecure, KYC doesn’t require that their clients be literally homeless, so rather than reacting to homelessness, they’re able to prevent it. Upchurch and KYC Housing Director Heather Wise describe their programs as low-barrier, understanding a person may need housing for just a few hours, one night, 30 days, six months, or longer.

Their Supportive Co-Housing Program makes use of their recently purchased and newly renovated carriage house, which sits nearby KYC’s drop-in site at 603 E. Town St. Launching April 1 (as with all of their housing programs), Supportive Co-Housing will host up to four individuals in a two-story suite, the top floor dedicated to bedrooms, the bottom floor a communal space with a kitchen, living room and resource room. Upchurch says the setup is ideal for those in search of a roommate living experience.

The carriage house.

For those ready for a more independent living situation, KYC’s Rapid Re-Housing program partners with landlords to get individuals out on their own with their name on a lease, all the while offering support in the form of financial assistance, move-in assistance, and case management. For their partnering landlords,KYC is intentionally seeking out those who are actively interested in helping the homeless youth community.

“This might seem like a pie in the sky dream, but we’re approaching this in this way — as a low-barrier, community feel,” Upchurch says. “People who actually want to give back and participate in the community in someway, and don’t just see this as a business transaction, getting the rent paid.”

Carlos del Rio (uses they/them pronouns), the owner of a duplex on the South Side, says they reached out to KYC to be a partnering landlord because it was something they wish they’d known about at age 18 or 20.

“When I was young, I really could have used something like this,” they say. “I kind of came from a place where it was important for me to not be particularly open about my sexuality, and for a number of reasons I didn’t really have a safe place to live.”

del Rio is a yoga instructor with Queer Behavior and leads classes on the South Side on Thursday nights. They’ve got connections with various resources around the community, can get people hooked up with nearby food pantries, and live on a bus line — all ideal qualities in the eyes of Upchurch and Wise.

As a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, del Rio also brings a level of cultural competency missing from many living situations. They know to ask a person what their preferred pronoun is and to use that pronoun. They know not to dead-name someone. 

With Rapid Re-Housing, though, Upchurch says cultural competency goes a little further than that.

”When we talk about intersectionality, it’s about identities, but it’s also about experiences. And so, for our Rapid Re-Housing program, we’re funded through VOCA [Victims of Crime Act] funding, so that’s supporting folks who’ve experienced a crime or violence,” Upchurch says. “So we’re not asking our youth to pick, are you just homeless, or are you this or that. We really want that wrap-around holistic approach to where we want to support you in all the ways that we can.”

With that in mind, they round out their housing programs with the Host Home Network. A standalone program, Host Home Network also provides a space for folks to live while they’re waiting to get into one of the other KYC programs, or anything else available in the city.

KYC is currently recruiting homeowners and renters with a spare room and, again, an active interest in supporting the homeless or housing insecure youth of Columbus. And while a relationship between the host and the client isn’t necessary, Upchurch says it’s certainly encouraged.

“It could be a place to crash with no engagement. Or, it could be familial, where they come home and eat dinner every day, and build mentoring relationships,” she says. “We’d love for them to want to engage and build relationships. That’s the ideal, best case scenario.”

To be a host, interested parties must fill out an application, complete a background check, provide references, go through an interview process and training as well. Hosts need to be able to provide a private room with a door that shuts, and either it should be on a bus line, or the host should provide transportation assistance.

“I know there are people who might say, ‘Well, go to a shelter. Why not go to a shelter?’” Upchurch says, but shelters aren’t the best places for homeless youth in general or trans and gender non-binary youth specifically. 

Not only are youth typically surrounded by people much older than them, trans and gender non-binary individuals are commonly dead-named (the use of a person’s legal name rather than their affirmed name) and aren’t usually asked what their preferred pronoun is. Then there’s always the question of whether or not they can go to the shelter that affirms their gender identity, and even once they’re in there, if they’ll be safe.

“All of these people are in crisis, right?” says Wise. “They’re housing insecure or vulnerable or literally homeless, and whenever we can fill any gaps and provide any resources or services to support folks in crisis, then we’re at least doing harm reduction.”

“I think we’re trying to do this in as comprehensive a way as we can, with the little money that we have in our capacity as a small organization,” she continues. “We’re not going to end youth homelessness in Columbus right now, but our vision is big, and we’re trying to expand this work as much as possible.”

KYC’s housing initiatives kick off on April 1. For more information on how to get involved, visit kycohio.org.

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