Local LGBTQ youth organization goes above and beyond

Valley Youth House, which continues to serve LGBTQ youth amid a dramatic increase in services requested, says securing PPE is one of the ‘biggest challenges.’

Valley Youth House’s food distribution efforts, which take place Wednesdays from 12-3 p.m. outside of the 1500 Sansom Street location.

Valley Youth House is one Pennsylvania nonprofit organization that serves an essential function, especially during the new coronavirus pandemic. In addition to youth housing services, the organization provides educational programming, employment services, programs geared toward LGBTQ+ youth, mentoring and abuse prevention, among many other services. Valley Youth House has offices in several locations, including Philadelphia, Lancaster, Media and Harrisburg. It has never closed its doors since opening in 1973, said Joe Lynch, vice president of development and marketing for Valley Youth House. 

“We really want to stay in touch with our youth and continue to make sure that they’re getting the counseling, the services, the support, and at this time, the mental health and therapies that they need,’” Lynch said. “Like everybody, we’re taking the safety of our youth and the safety of our staff of preeminent concern to us as an agency.”

The organization has been able to secure a limited number of N95 masks and other personal protective supplies. “Getting personal protective equipment has been one of the biggest challenges that we’ve had,” Lynch said.  

Similar to many essential organizations that continue to function at this time, Valley Youth House staff have had to accommodate a dramatic increase in the need to provide resources to youth, from rent support to covering the cost of food.  

“It feels like right now there’s a lot of inter-programmatic need, specifically around our emergency support response,” said ZC, Pride program supervisor at Valley Youth House. 

They told PGN that there are two levels where Valley Youth House is seeing increased need, one of which is providing food and supplies such as diapers and baby formula to young people who were experiencing severe poverty or financial instability. 

“While a lot of [youth] have our financial support for rent, they’re no longer able to feed themselves, pay their utilities, things like that,” ZC added. “Public services like WIC have been moving a lot slower and are really hard to get in touch with for people who weren’t already signed up.” 

The second area of increased need lies with young people who had been planning to exit the organization’s support but now need prolonged rental assistance due to loss of income. “We’re scrambling to try to find alternate sources of funding to support those young people as well,” ZC said. 

Thirty youth currently comprise the Valley Youth House Pride program, ZC told PGN.   

According to The Williams Institute, 20-45% of homeless youth in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ – two to four times higher than the projected percentage of all LGBTQ youth. 

Philadelphia’s 2017 Voices of Youth Count study showed that 31% of youth experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia County identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning or asexual.

“Because of the ostracization that happens with young people and their families, they don’t have a safety net,” ZC said. “During this time, a lot of people have a network of others that can support them if something happens. There are all these things that people who have familial support kind of take for granted that a lot of young people who are queer and trans don’t have.” 

Employment discrimination also plays a role in why a disproportionately high number of LGBTQ youth experience homelessness and poverty, ZC added. Pennsylvania currently has no law banning discrimination in public accommodation based on sexual orientation or gender identity. 

“Queer and trans youth, especially Black trans women, face a high level of employment discrimination and are not being hired for jobs that can be remote,” they said. “Because of their low economic status, they often don’t have things like a laptop, wifi — some of the essentials that people would need in order to transition to a shelter-in-place kind of situation and still stay connected.” 

Valley Youth House is working diligently to ensure its youth are technologically able to reach support.  “We’ve been trying to make sure we’re getting reliable cell phones and data plans, so [youth are able to] connect to our services in that sense,” Lynch said. “Sometimes all it is is a check-in and a familiar voice that says ‘I got you, you’re going to be OK.’” 

Lynch told PGN that the organization has experienced a substantial weekly budget increase. “We’re seeing probably on average, outside of our budgeted numbers for food distributions, we’re up at least $1500 a week,” he said. “Youth are coming to us, youth want the support.”

To accommodate for such an increase, the Valley Youth House team has been leaning on federal, state and local grant funding as well as philanthropy, Lynch told PGN. 

The organization’s Street Outreach team, otherwise known as the Synergy Project, continues to operate its hotline, which can be reached at 1-888-468-7315. Valley Youth House Street Outreach Supervisor Alyssa Weinfurtner told PGN. Staffers are also continuing to process shelter placement requests for youth who call the hotline, and continue to connect them to housing programs at the moment. 

“A lot of [housing] programs are doing virtual phone interviews,” Weinfurtner said. “Or for some site-based places like the Drueding Center, they’re taking folks’ temperatures before coming in for their interview and things like that.” 

While the Synergy Project team is not currently doing active street work for the safety of its employees, Weinfurtner said, the team invited the entire office staff to help distribute emergency supplies one day a week. Outside of the organization’s 15th and Sansom Street location, staff are making available hygiene products, clothing and snack bags for youth in need. 

Members of the Synergy Project team have been making contactless in-person deliveries to youth in need of groceries and hygiene supplies. Lynch added that Valley Youth House partnered with the Convention Center and Aramark to deliver over 900 pounds of food to its clients. 

Although Synergy Project staffers have been delivering supplies since the onset of the pandemic, the street team last week began its first “distribution day” to target young people who either don’t have a place of residence to receive deliveries, or who don’t have the means to reach the organization’s hotline, Weinfurtner said. 

“A lot of youth who we know personally, we haven’t heard from,” she said. “I would like to hope that they’re in a safe place, but it’s hard to know. We’re trying to expand our emergency supply distribution specifically to target youth who are experiencing homelessness.” 

On the whole, the Valley Youth House team has seen a strong response from the community, Weinfurtner said. “We’ve also been partnering with our youth provider partners,” she said. Some of those partners include Philadelphia FIGHT’s Y-HEP Adolescent and Youth Adult Health Center and Mazzoni Center. “People are just really trying to do their best to support, and the response touches my heart. It’s been nice to see.”

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Michele Zipkin is a staff writer for Philadelphia Gay News, where she reports on issues including LGBTQ youth issues, housing insecurity, healthcare, city government and advocacy organizations, and events. Her work has been recognized by the Keystone Media Awards, Society of Professional Journalists, National Newspaper Association, and more. She received her BA from Goucher College and her MA in journalism from Temple University. She has been on staff with PGN since January 2020 and previously worked as a freelancer.