Culturally competent care for youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex, and two-spirit (LGBTQI2-S) and homeless is critical. Yet, in many communities, it is difficult to find. This is the perspective of one provider working with LGBTQI2-S youth who arrive at Chicago’s The Night Ministry. Candace Nordahl helps youth to feel accepted, often for the first time.
As an undergraduate student of social work, Candace Nordahl never planned to work with youth. However, homelessness had always captured her attention, leading her to an internship at The Night Ministry.
The Night Ministry provides a range of homeless services for adults and youth in Chicago. Their programs value non-judgmental listening, caring support, and a focus on connecting people with resources to change their lives for the better.
Direct services include adult outreach and health services as well as youth programs. The Night Ministry serves youth through outreach, a 120-day housing program for pregnant and parenting teens, an interim shelter and support service program for youth ages 14-20, and a Transitional Living Program that transitions youth ages 16-20 to independent living within two years.
Candace began her internship with the interim shelter. During her time interning with the program, she discovered that “youth are really fun to work with.” Now, after completing her Masters in Social Work, Candace is the residential services coordinator for the shelter programs. She plans and coordinates the weekly calendar of events, including a Young Leaders group for boys, and life skills courses for girls. She also coordinates cultural events, such as bringing residents to museums and the theater, which she says is “something they would never otherwise have a chance to do.”
She shares why she stayed at the The Night Ministry. “I fell in love with agency. The people here are so dedicated. I think that dedication is shown through interactions with the clients. There are such strong relationships here, and clients feed off of those relationships.”
That’s why it was no surprise to Candace that the staff was so receptive to her efforts to make The Night Ministry more welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex, and two-spirit (LGBTQI2-S) youth.
With only 150 beds for youth in Chicago and an estimated 10,000 youth who are homeless in the city, there is a strong demand for services at The Night Ministry. Located in the neighborhood of Lakeview, The Night Ministry is reaching kids at the heart of Boystown, the cultural center of one of the largest LGBTQI2-S communities in the nation.
Candace explains that there is no typical client. Many have been kicked out of their homes because they are pregnant, or often their family simply cannot afford to support them. However, many others left home after coming out as LGBTQI2-S. Attracted by the accepting environment of Boystown, many youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S eventually find themselves at The Night Ministry’s door.
Candace shares that she became committed to creating a safe space for LGBTQI2-S youth at the agency after getting to know a young male client. He first came to the interim shelter, but transferred to the Transitional Living Program. Candace started noticing changes in the client. He began to wear women’s clothes and changed his name. The client was transgender and in the process of transitioning from male to female. “She was finally in a place where she felt comfortable being herself. She left her family for this very reason, and within the supportive environment of The Night Ministry, she was able to really come into herself.”
The Night Ministry provided a space for the client to feel safe, but Candace knew they could do more. After taking an LGBTQI2-S awareness class at Loyola University, Candace learned that LGBTQI2-S youth represent a significant proportion of all youth experiencing homelessness.
She was surprised that few of her colleagues shared this knowledge. She sensed confusion in many of her coworkers as they grappled with clients who changed their names or pronoun preferences without much warning. Candace tried to emphasize that the clients were trying to figure themselves out, in the same way staff members did as adolescents.
She encouraged all staff to place safe space stickers or a rainbow in their office windows. These are universal signs of acceptance and openness. Candace also held a training for her colleagues, using materials from her class and packets her director shared with her about making a space friendly to all clients. A transgender youth and a gay male youth client joined the discussion. “They shared their experience and their voice has been a part of the discussion from the beginning.”
“Everyone was very engaged during the training. There were a lot of questions. For example, many people didn’t realize that a male client might want to be called by a female pronoun. I’ve learned that as long as you’re coming from a genuine place and are willing to ask about things like pronouns, it’s okay to ask. As long as you are open to learning, the kids pick up on that. It’s much better to ask than to make assumptions.”
Candace knows it will be an ongoing learning process at The Night Ministry, for her coworkers and herself. There is always a new situation or a new client. However, she is confident that by remembering the basics of cultural competence, they will provide better care. This includes being on the same page about LGBTQI2-S definitions and terminology, providing safe space, and keeping an open mind.
“Now, our clients see the safe space sticker in our office windows and ask questions about it. It sparks interesting conversations that might not have otherwise happened. For example, they’ll ask, ‘what’s the rainbow? Does that mean you’re gay?’ It prompts great discussions.”