The Rescue Mission’s organizational goal is simply stated: “Put Love Into Action.”
“I can’t think of a better way to live that mission than to provide a space for kids in need of help,” said Tori Shires, chief development officer of the Rescue Mission Alliance in Syracuse.. “What we learned was that LGBT Youth weren’t having their needs met, and we wanted to fix that.”
In October, the Rescue Mission plans to open a 10-bed shelter that will provide a safe space for runaway and homeless youth ages 12-17 in Onondaga County and, in particular, an affirming environment for those that are LGBTQIA+. We provided the Rescue Mission with a grant to help offset the costs of staffing the youth shelter with 24/7 care.
LGBTQIA+ youth are at a heightened risk for homelessness, sexual assault, and death by suicide than their heterosexual peers. Without a safe alternative, runaway or kicked-out LGBTQIA+ youth often end up couch surfing, sleeping outside, or staying on friend’s porches.
For more than 130 years, the Rescue Mission has worked to end homelessness and hunger in Central New York. But its shelter in downtown Syracuse only serves adults, so if a young person in Syracuse needs housing, staff have to refer them to other local organizations or to the Department of Social Services.
“We looked at that need, and talked to other community agencies, and ultimately what the Rescue Mission does really well is shelter people,” Shires said. “So we started looking for a place to put love into action.”
Making A Place
For months, the team looked for a neighborhood-based property, outside of downtown, with easy access to the bus line. In 2019, they purchased a building on the city’s east side that had previously been used as a shelter through a different community organization.
“We want everyone to feel like this space is their own,” said Shires. “We want to make a place that doesn’t feel like a shelter, but feels like a home, even though it’s temporary.”
The 10-bed house needed renovations, and so the team got to work tearing out cabinets, updating the bathrooms and creating bright common spaces.
Shires said she wants everyone to feel like they have their own spaces, but also to have the option to find community with other youth and staff. Every person will have their own bedroom with a bed, wardrobe, and night stand. There will be a newly renovated kitchen, living room, and game area. Each youth will benefit from 24/7 staffing, healthy meals, clothing, homework tutoring, case management and recreation.
When the pandemic swept across the globe, renovations were put on hold as the Rescue Mission responded to increased demands and heightened vulnerability for people experiencing homelessness. Pending state certifications, the Rescue Mission hopes the shelter will be up-and-running in October.
Most youth will be taken in through referrals of guidance counselors and caseworkers. The ultimate goal is for family reunification, whenever possible.
“We will be providing trauma-informed care. So we want to make sure that we are relating to the kids and working to understand the place they’re coming from at that moment, because in some cases, the kids who identify as LGBTQIA+, will have been thrown out of their homes, “ Shires said. “They’re already undergoing trauma so we need to be as accepting as possible to provide the right care.”
The Rescue Mission plans to partner with other community agencies that specialize in youth-focused case management, healthcare and mental health services. They’ve been in preliminary talks with McMahon Ryan and The Q Center at ACR Health .
“National statistics are mirrored in CNY and we see many youth coming through our doors experiencing housing insecurity,” said Stephen Simone, youth, family services and education manager at The Q Center at ACR Health. “Some of our youth resort to couch surfing or engaging in survival sex so that they can have a place to sleep.”
Simone said there aren’t many options for homeless youth in Central New York, and that bed spaces are limited. He’s looking forward to the potential collaboration, and to see more safe options available to LGBTQIA+ youth.
“We want them to feel welcome and loved and know that they are in a safe place and that they’re going to be protected and loved here,” Shires said