Prism program to offer shelter, programs for LGBT homeless teens in St. Pete

By : Zach Caruso
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St. Petersburg – Family Resources, Florida’s crisis counseling agency and shelter for runaway and homeless teens, is about to make history.

We’ve talked to our foster system, and we know that there have been kids who were almost adopted, but the thing that kept them from being adopted was that they came out as gay, said program director Nicole Leslie. That’s so heartbreaking that it’s something that would determine whether or not a kid has a home.

But Leslie and case manager and family counselor Richard Pippinger are seeking to change that with their new project” the Prism Transitional Living Program (TLP), based in St. Petersburg. Aimed at LGBT youths 16-17 years old, the program seeks to offer a safe environment for teens who may not have family situations to return to, and are in need of independent living skills. According to the program’s factsheet, teens are provided with shelter, food, clothing, educational opportunities, individual and group counseling as well as the training and education necessary to function as independent persons. Furthermore, Prism offers life skills classes, assistance with finding employment, recreational activities, and volunteer and community advocacy experience.

Family Resources has been around since the ’70s, and the main focus has been shelters for community and foster kids, explained Leslie. It’s short term and it aims at helping people deal with family issues through counseling and referrals.

“Then it expanded and have the TLP programs for foster kids, where they stay in until they age-out of the system, the goal being to help teens with their education, getting a job, and teaching them to live independently once they age-out. Now we have this TLP Prism program here in St. Pete which takes the same idea of focusing on foster youth, but adds the piece of specifically working with LGBT foster youth.

It is a demographic that has not been focused on in the past, and Pippinger explained that the issues these youths deal with are two-fold.

What we are finding in the research dealing with that 16-17 year old age group is that there is a lot of disruption within their placements in foster families or in group homes, due in large part to lack of education, said Pippinger. There are high instances of risky sexual behavior, depression issues, all stemming from the trauma of just being a foster kid, and then you add in the LGBT factor, and the fact that your group home or foster family may not be accepting of your lifestyle.

It’s a scenario that is rarely addressed.

It’s the first program of its kind in the state of Florida, so Family Resources is really pioneering this idea, said Leslie. We know these kids are at a higher risk of suicide, running away, and being disrupted in various placements because they aren’t getting the opportunity to be who they are.

The program has been active since late November, with full-time employees working around the clock. But Leslie and Pippinger received the grant for Prism in April, and since then have been working non-stop to prepare for its launch.

We really started laying the groundwork in the community in September, said Leslie. We’ve been doing a lot of work in the last few months to really reach out to the LGBT community here in St. Pete so we can link the youth we will have in our program with referrals, with information that can help them go into support groups, health testing, and so giving them this normalcy of having other people around them who have experienced similar things. We want to be that link for them to their community.

Pippinger, a Tampa native, feels that St. Petersburg is the perfect location for a program like this.

I came into this position from a very personal standpoint, he said. Having such a rich LGBT community in this area, that’s something that I think the youth in this area needs, and the nice thing about it is that since we are able to take youth from around the state, we can acclimate them to the gay life in St. Petersburg and let them see how vibrant that is, show them the different resources they have available to them, in the hopes that they will end up staying in this community and help it to grow.

Leslie explained that the program is starting slowly, but hopes to build as time goes on.

We’re starting off with six kids, and our ideal situation would be to be full to capacity with 12, she said. We would love to be the people who pioneer other group homes like this opening, and seeing other LGBT group homes open up in the community, so if we can get that word out and be a positive inspiration to other people in any way, that would be great.

For Leslie and Pippinger, the journey has just begun. But the potential they see in the Prism program is what keeps them motivated to keep moving forward.

We’ve had a lot of welcoming from the LGBT community here in St Pete, people are very interested and they want to know how they can help, and that’s fantastic, said Leslie. As a brand new program doing something that hasn’t been done before, what more could we ask for?

For eligibility criteria, and to learn more about the Prism TLP program, contact Stacey Welton at 727-521-5203 or Nicole Leslie at 727-552-1011.

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