Just months after Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed a new bill prohibiting gay couples from adopting, the state is getting a new foster care organization exclusively serving LGBTQ+ homeless youth.
True You TN is in the beginning stages of opening, having just acquired their 501(c)3 and preparing to fundraise. The group, founded by Executive Director Stephanie Lowe, will build a group home for LGBTQ+ teens and youth and recently moved into their first office space.
True You will be the first group home to serve exclusively LGBTQ+ youth in the state, working to help the nearly 40 percent of homeless youth who identify as queer. Lowe said her own past drove her to create the organization, and although she has reconciled with her family, her coming out at 30 years old didn’t go as planned.
“It crushed me when my family turned their backs on me, so I can’t imagine that trauma as a youth,” Lowe said. “But it gets better and being true to yourself is necessary, even in the face of hatred.”
Lowe said True You is in a unique position as a state-licensed organization that won’t be contracted by the government. Lowe said the Family First Prevention Services Act signed into law by President Trump in 2018 severely limits government spending on group homes. True You will be a self-funded organization, meaning the group is free to focus on strictly LGBTQ+ youth and not subject to as many regulations on who they can serve.
The freedom is a double-edged sword, and Lowe said fundraising will be critical. While spending the last year creating policy and guidelines designed to ensure long-term success, True You is now focused on raising money. Their first major fundraiser, scheduled in April, was cancelled due to COVID-19, but will launch “any day” according to Lowe. True You was also designated as an official PayPal charity.
Lowe said True You’s mission is incredibly important considering how homelessness impacts LGBTQ+ youth. Lowe said Tennessee is 4,000 beds short of being able to accomodate all homeless youth in the state, and that 78 percent of LGBTQ youth report being further abused after arrival into the system.
“Once a teen lands on the streets, statistically, we have 72 hours before they are willing
to participate in ‘survival sex’ to meet basic needs such as food or housing,” Lowe said. “In fact, 20 percent of all homeless youth interviewed were victims of human trafficking.”
In addition, these youth are often not accepted at local shelters, who are sometimes operated by religious organizations that don’t welcome the queer community. Lowe said some will even put out signs telling LGBTQ+ people not to enter. Because many foster programs in the state also refuse to help LGBTQ+ youth, Lowe said True You will do outreach both to youth on the streets and to the state, to prevent kids going to discriminatory foster homes.
AdoptUsKids.org states that there are currently around 7,500 children in foster care and that 1,000 of them age out of foster care every year without ever finding a permanent home. In their most recent annual report for the fiscal year 2017-2018, the Tennessee Department of Child Services reported there were 2,921 foster care families or homes with at least one vacancy, and that while 69 percent of kids spend 0 to 12 months in state custody for various purposes, 23 percent spend 24 to 36 months in state custody.
It crushed me when my family turned their backs on me, so I can't imagine that trauma as a youth. But it gets better and being true to yourself is necessary, even in the face of hatred. – Stephanie Lowe
Lowe said that while some foster parents take on foster kids for the money, as they receive a monthly check for each child in their home, True You will be a group home, and will not work with foster parents or provide compensation to them.
“Since our entire purpose is to allow the youth in our care to be supported for who they are, their safety is our utmost priority,” Lowe said. “There are many people who foster for compensation and not for the best interest of the youth. You can’t not compensate the foster parents; it is expensive to bring youth into your home. But that needs to be better monitored.”
Devin Deltori, a floral designer and wedding planner, understands the negative effect of discrimination and a rough foster care system all too well. Deltori said he entered the foster care system in Tennessee voluntarily after losing both his parents before turning 11. His mother was killed in a car crash when he was nine years old, and his father died shortly after from a heart attack. Deltori said his stepmother and living situation were so unstable he approached the Sumner County juvenile court system himself to ask for help.
Deltori said he was placed in foster care in 1990, and remained there for more than five years before being abruptly returned home, and then kicked out while trying to finish cosmetology school. Deltori said he did not openly identify as LGBTQ+ until the end of his foster care experience, and although he can’t be sure, said he thought coming out may have also resulted in him being kicked out.
Deltori said being LGBTQ+ in the foster care system is incredibly difficult and acknowledged the ways it impacts queer youth differently.
“Better educate counselors to identify the behaviors of youth and better equip them with proper information because these youth are delicate, and [at a] higher rate of suicide,” Deltori said in an email interviewt.
Lowe said that while True You is figuring out the details, the organization will offer counseling and therapy for kids in their group home.
Earlier in January, Gov. Bill Lee signed the first bill to become law in 2020, a new law allowing religious adoption organizations to discriminate against gay couples. Deltori said he opposes legislation preventing gay couples from adopting, and Lowe feels much the same way.
“We believe all loving, approved homes should be allowed to foster and adopt youth in need,” Lowe said. “Any legislation that prevents that can only be considered harmful to the youth in need of a home.”
While True You won’t be able to change the entire foster care system, Lowe hopes to help as many as possible.
“You are perfect, you are worthy, and you are loved, exactly as you are,” Lowe said when asked what advice she’d give to kids in the system. “All youth in the system are worthy of a loving home. LGBTQ+ youth want the same things any other youth do—a safe loving home.”