Organizers had hoped to open Tony’s Place much earlier this year. Raising nearly $200,000 in seed money was one hurdle. But an even bigger one was pinning down a location — especially when prospective landlords and their neighbors didn’t want a facility serving the homeless in their backyards.
Jeff Hoffman chairs Homeless Gay Kids-Houston (HGK-H), the non-profit group operating the center. He says it took many conversations over the course of a year to dispel the notion that homeless teens are nothing more than a nuisance.
“Trying to impress that upon landlords, that these are not people who want to destroy your property. They don’t want to be known as homeless — was one of the hardest things to get across to people,” Hoffman said.
Out of 40 prospective landlords, one was willing to sign a lease. The group is preparing to open October 19th in what was once the River Café, on Montrose two blocks north of Alabama. Hoffman says clients will have to follow stringent rules against loitering so they don’t bother nearby business and homes.
Of course, the challenges facing “Tony’s Place” won’t end once it starts welcoming homeless LGBT youth.
For one, there’s the issue of security.
Barbara Carroll, program director for Homeless Gay Kids-Houston, says there will be off-duty law enforcement present from day one.
“To the kids who are not criminals, it’s going to send the message ‘this is a place where you are safe. This is a place where those predators are not going to be able to do their thing.’” Carroll adds that negotiations continue with various local law enforcement agencies for a long-term security contract.
“That’s also part of the struggle — finding officers who do have the right mindset, and who are going to be helpful; establish bonds with the kids, treat the kids with dignity,” Carroll said.
HGK-H will apply those same requirements to the other ongoing challenge — attracting dependable volunteers who can build trust with clients and not be shocked by their stories.
“Kids have to make really hard choices when they’re on the street. There are too many instances where kids have to compromise their personal safety, their dignity, their body in order to have a place to sleep.” Carroll said.
Tony’s Place isn’t set up to provide homeless LGBT youth a place to sleep, but it will offer space to relax during the day, do some laundry, take a shower, get a bite to eat, and receive counseling and referrals to other services.
Organizers expect it will take about $400,000 dollars in donations every year to keep the center open.