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Sat09222018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

David Rothmiller and LD Thompson have learned some unsettling lessons since founding the LGBT Sanctuary Palm Springs—a transitional housing facility for LGBT and allied youth—back in 2015.

They’ve also had to jump through a lot of hoops related to licensing and regulations before finally opening and taking in residents—but in March of this year, The LGBT Sanctuary finally moved into the building it now calls home.

That does not mean everything has been easy since then.

“We’ve had some (residents) come and some go, and we know with the population here that it’s common,” Rothmiller said. “Not every one of our applicants and residents is a match (for The Sanctuary). Some of our kids just weren’t ready; we’re not a treatment facility, so we are unable to help some of these kids. They sometimes have issues that are far beyond us, but we can refer them. The Desert AIDS Project is our partner in health, dental and mental health. … We cannot have violence. We tell the kids, ‘We are a non-violent home.’ Some haven’t worked out, and that’s the bottom line.”

The residents currently living in the home are doing well, Rothmiller said.

“The kids we have now are great; they understand the program,” he said. “We are called a ‘transitional housing program plus foster care.’ It’s a state license we have written the program for; we have to meet state guidelines, and we have to meet our own program guidelines. In those program guidelines, our residents have to be working 80 hours a month, or in school—completing their GED, completing high school or earning college credits.

“The nice thing about our (Coachella Valley) community is they are supportive, and business owners have come forward and have hired our residents. We have two who have graduated and aged out; we can only have them from 18 to 21. It’s part of the extended foster care that the state realized was a necessity for these kids. Some 62 percent, after five years of leaving foster care, are on the street, homeless, doing drugs, prostituting themselves, dead, in jail or in combination. The state of California realized we were failing kids in foster care who graduate out of it at 18. That’s why they have made money available to assist those who are 18 to 21.”

Rothmiller explained why there’s a need for this program specifically for LGBT youth.

“The kids who come to us are LGBT youth or LGBT allies. We are all-inclusive, but (residents) have to be allies to the LGBT experience,” he said. “(LGBT kids) have suffered more at the hands of foster care. LGBT kids are bounced (around) three times as much as their straight counterparts in foster care. They keep losing families.

“There are various reasons kids are in foster care. One of them is because they’ve come out as gay, so they’re afraid to come out to their foster family for that same reason. In fact, many foster families are religious-based, so the gay experience is something they don’t want in their homes. Our kids are bounced more often, and each time they are bounced, they lose six months of academic achievement. Our kids come to us neglected educationally and socially, and we have a lot of work to do. They may not be adopted at this point in their life. … That’s our whole push—get them included; get them connected through our mentoring programming; and get them working or volunteering in the community.”

Shockingly, The LGBT Sanctuary does not currently have a waiting list for youth seeking services—even though there is definitely a need.

“We’ve had to work hard within the social system with social workers, case managers and probation officers to let them know we are here, and we are here to serve this demographic,” Rothmiller said. “When we first opened, Riverside County wasn’t capable and missed a state deadline to be our licensing agent. So we had to go to San Bernardino (County) for our licensing. They said, ‘You will have such a waiting list; please make sure you have beds.’ Fast forward, and we have one empty bed right now. We expected a long waiting list.

“We have identified anti-gay bias in the system, and we identified some ignorance to the situation of LGBT youth in foster care. The Los Angeles LGBT Center did a study that showed close to 20 percent of kids in foster care identify as LGBT. A lot of them aren’t identifying (as such) in foster care, because they are afraid to, so we believe the number is much higher. Riverside County is the least up-to-date (jurisdiction in terms) of meeting the needs of LGBT kids in foster care. They aren’t even asking kids in foster care. … It’s a broken system. One of their social workers said, ‘I believe (the percentage of kids in foster care who are LGBT) is about 3 percent.’ There’s a huge mistake in ignoring the fact that these kids have special needs. They need to be welcomed and understood. We tell the residents, ‘Yep, you have issues, and we understand that, but being gay is not one of your issues. Let’s move forward.’”

While the community’s response to The LGBT Sanctuary has been largely positive, there are always critics, conspiracy theorists and bigots. Those involved with The LGBT Sanctuary have come up with a fascinating way to deal with the negative responses.

“What we are doing is gathering residents, supporters and board members in front of the camera, and we’re doing something similar to the ‘Mean Tweets’ that Jimmy Kimmel does,” Rothmiller said. “It’s to shine the light into the darkness to remind those of us in the community that we’re still hated. It’s a controversial thing to do, but I feel it’s important in this time to tell our truth, and to share comments that are so mean and ugly. Our intention is to remind people that we are here for our residents.”

For more information, visit www.sanctuarypalmsprings.org.

Published in Features

Last year, when I went to Sanctuary Palm Springs—a transitional housing program for LGBT young adults coming out of foster care—co-founder David Rothmiller told me a fantastic story about a young man named Henry Lucena.

Henry was 18, straight and transitioning out of foster care. He’d contacted Sanctuary looking for help—but Sanctuary was not yet open. Rothmiller wasn’t sure what to do.

Let’s skip ahead to today: Henry is now an entrepreneur and college student, living in a happy Palm Springs home with his adoptive father, Harry Courtright, a gay man who is a retired library administrator.

Now let’s go back to the start of the story, when Henry was 8 years old.

“I was taken away from my birth parents,” Henry said. “I lived with my foster parents, and it wasn’t the best living situation. I didn’t feel like I was being treated right. I didn’t feel any love from them, and throughout the whole time I stayed there until I was 18, I never grew comfortable enough. I never knew what they did for jobs—only that they were also pastors in a church, but I never really knew what they did for money. I didn’t feel comfortable talking to them. I had six siblings who were their real children. … When I was in high school, I had 3.8 GPA as a freshman, and then it dropped.”

Henry said he never felt comfortable in his foster home.

“It didn’t feel right to ask a question about anything. Whenever I would go into my foster parents’ room to talk to them, they would make comments that I looked around too much,” he said. “They would say that and ask, ‘Why are you looking around so much?’ When they would do that, I wouldn’t really feel comfortable looking anywhere.

“When I first came (to live with Harry), I had nothing. I just had pants, shoes, underwear and a little bit of clothes, and I had to get my Social Security card and my birth certificate. My birth certificate is where I learned my father’s real name, and my foster parents never told me that. They were abusive, and I didn’t want to be around them. They put locks on the refrigerator because the grandmother had Alzheimer’s, and they only gave the key to certain family members. I wouldn’t have it.”

Days before his 18th birthday, Henry decided he would rather be homeless than stay with his foster parents.

“I wasn’t a bad kid, but there were a lot of little problems I couldn’t deal with,” he said. “As soon as I turned 18, I didn’t want to live with them anymore, so they took me out here to SafeHouse of the Desert. … When I turned 18, they said I couldn’t stay there anymore because it was only for kids. My foster dad picked me up asked me what I wanted to do. I still had a year in high school left, and I’d never had a job. … I didn’t want to be in the situation with them. I knew I would finish school; I knew I would get a job—and I didn’t want to do it around them, because I couldn’t be around them.”

Henry ended up at Roy’s Resource Center, and later the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission in Indio.

“When I was at Roy’s, I registered for Palm Springs High School. I was in the shelter and going to school,” he said. “Then I started living at the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission in Indio, and I took three buses in the morning to get to school. … Luckily, I also had a job. I would go back at 11 at night. They knew I had a job and was in school, so they let me come back late. I used the job to get back as late as I could.”

Henry met a friend who let him stay at his place. That friend also gave Henry a news article about Sanctuary Palm Springs. Henry immediately reached out to founders David Rothmiller and LD Thompson.

“My friend cut the article out and knew it applied to runaway (former) foster kids, so I saw it and called them,” Henry said. “I was under all the requirements that their house had, but I wasn’t LGBT, but they said it was fine and that it wasn’t just for LGBT kids. They had me come over to the house and talked about some options for me. I volunteered at one of their events passing around food, and David and LD had me speak at the event talking about my situation—and Harry heard my story.”

A week later, Courtright said, he reached out and offered Henry a place to live.

“One of the questions I asked him at lunch was, ‘How do you feel about living with a gay man?’ because he’s straight,” Courtright said. “He threw his arms up and said, ‘I don’t care. Doesn’t mean anything to me.’

“He moved in, in March 2016. As of Aug. 8, he’s officially my son. We talked about that adoption a couple of times, and he kept saying, ‘No!’ I told him if he changed his mind to let me know.”

Henry said he was hesitant about the adoption at first.

“I said, ‘I don’t think I could do it,’” Henry said. “After my old situation, I didn’t care much about the idea of family. People love family in general, and I had to really think about it. The only reason my situation was so bad was because it was foster parents. I went back to him and said, ‘With the adoption, I’m open to it.’ When I first moved in, I offered to pay rent, and he said I didn’t have to. So many people were pushing me to pay rent, and I tried to push it and he said I didn’t have to.”

Courtright explained why he offered to adopt Henry.

“When I was in my 30s and 40s, I thought about being a foster father,” he said. “… I lived in Harrisburg, Pa., and was the head of the library there. I ran for mayor, and everyone knew me. When I went down to the county and talked to them, they said, ‘Harry, we can fill out the paperwork, but it’ll never get approved, ’” because Harry is gay.

“I want to make sure (Henry) has a family after I’m gone—so he has more family now than he knows what to do with. There are generations of cousins he now has, and they all know who he is.”

Today, Courtright is a proud yet concerned father. “I worry too much. All I’ve told him is to let me know where he is, and that he’s all right. … At night, I’m usually awake until I hear the lock on the door, but that just comes with being a parent.”

Henry is a fan of a Los Angeles clothing store. He buys limited-edition items there—and then sells them online for profit. He once sold a $160 jacket for more $500 on eBay. Courtright proudly bragged about his son’s success.

“He’s going to be rich someday. He’s an entrepreneur!” Courtright said. “… He does this all the time. I told him he’s going to be a millionaire.”

Henry currently is working two jobs and taking classes at College of the Desert. One class helped Henry discover a love for writing, but he’s keeping his options open.

“Right now, I’m taking business, but I know there are so many options out there,” Henry said. “I like to learn, and I know I could do whatever I wanted if I focused on it. I really like to sell stuff and have always naturally been good at selling stuff. In school, I always got a free lunch, and I would sell it for $2, which was the regular lunch price. … I’d bring my own lunch and eat that instead.”

Courtright said he’s watched Henry make some significant and positive changes in his life.

“I’ve told him, ‘I don’t know how you ended up being such a good kid’ after that 10 years he had with the foster parents, but he’s really blossomed,” Courtright said. “He talks a lot more. He asks questions constantly. He’s interested in everything, particularly the news. He registered to vote and voted for the first time. We love each other as father and son—and we say it to each other often.”

Published in Features

When children turn 18 and age out of the foster-care system, they face a difficult transition into adulthood: Not only do some of these young people lack a family; they also lack the skills to live on their own.

For LGBT youth in foster care, it’s even harder. That’s where Sanctuary Palm Springs comes in: Sanctuary is working toward providing a home with support services to LGBT youth between the ages of 18 and 21 who leave the foster-care system.

Sanctuary was founded by David Rothmiller and LD Thompson. Rothmiller explained how they started down the path of creating Sanctuary.

“Originally, it was the desire to be a parent,” Rothmiller said. “… My spouse, LD, and I had begun with the intentions of starting a family. We were licensed (for foster children) in Washington state, and that system made us wait for two years for a placement in our own home. People asked me why that was the case, and I have no answers. The system is so broken. While that happened, we looked where else we could participate. We were told by someone about group care.”

Rothmiller mentioned that many LGBT individuals lose their families when they come out.

“LD was kicked out of his home at 17 and found family again in the LGBT community,” Rothmiller said. “That’s our model: They might have lost their family, but there’s a family already there that waits for them.”

Rothmiller explained the challenges LGBT youth face in the foster-care system.

“Depending on how long they’ve been in foster care, there is enormous psychological damage that we have to sort out,” Rothmiller said. “The reason (many of them) are in foster care is because they were gay to begin with. … Some of these Christian families kick their kids out because they find out they’re gay. In foster care, kids are afraid to come out, because many of the foster families are well-meaning Christian families, and it doesn’t fit their culture. If the kids come out or are found out to be gay, the foster parent can make a seven-day call to get them out. We’ve seen that happen many times. There’s no legal protection for them, and the more often a kid is bounced, the harder their life becomes. With each bounce, they lose six months of educational placement. LGBT kids are bounced more often.”

Originally, Rothmiller and Thompson planned for Sanctuary to provide a home for LGBT foster kids in the system. However, Riverside County put numerous hurdles in front of them.

“Riverside County’s foster care is currently under investigation,” Rothmiller said. “They are so messed up and can’t even maintain the claims of abuse and investigate them properly.”

Eventually, they decided to open a home for LGBT foster kids who were entering adulthood—to help with a problem that’s recently received state and federal attention.

“Sixty percent of kids leaving foster care at 18 would fall into the category of incarcerated, homeless, on the street, doing drugs, doing prostitution or dead,” Rothmiller said. “The state realized they were failing these kids. That’s why they created the new program, and that’s how we’re funded. It’s through San Bernardino (County), because Riverside (missed) the calendar date to be able to license homes such as ours. San Bernardino licensed us to operate in Riverside County.”

As of this writing, Sanctuary is open, but there are no residents yet, as Rothmiller, Thompson and their staff jump through hoops with licensing and getting the Palm Springs home up to code.

“LB and I are the founders of the program, but we don’t have any letters after our names. We had to bring in skilled professionals to have on our team,” Rothmiller said. “Even with that power behind us, these bureaucrats are like, ‘You need to do this, that and the other thing.’ In each case, our program manager had to tell them how to license us.

“On the positive side, the community has been very supportive. Our fundraising has been impressive for a start-up … and our staff is all-volunteer. Everyone who has donated their time or money, or comes to work with us, feels emotionally connected. People are seeing this as something they can do locally to stop that negativity toward LGBT rights and equality.”

Sanctuary will help teach youth the skills they will need in adulthood, and hopefully even inspire careers.

“Our independent living program is designed to teach them cooking skills, car skills, job-interview skills and being part of a larger system,” Rothmiller said. “Most of these kids coming into the program probably won’t even have a driver’s license, because no one cared enough to get them through that process. All of these things you have to know as an adult have been withheld from them.

“If a kid wants to learn culinary skills, there are chefs from restaurants all over town who have offered to be mentors. Pick anything a kid wants to learn—there are people in this community who want to share that with them.”

Rothmiller said Sanctuary has already helped one particular young man who aged out of the system and contacted them for help.

“He said, ‘I really want to come live at Sanctuary. I’m in foster care. I turned 18; I was kicked out of Safehouse, and I’m living in a men’s shelter in Indio and getting up at 5 in the morning to take a bus from Indio to Palm Springs High School, where I’m a senior,’” Rothmiller recalled. “I said, ‘Are you gay?’ and he said he wasn’t. I told him we will not discriminate against anyone, but that we were designed for the LGBT community. We met; we had a fundraiser coming up. He’s a great kid, and we wanted to do something for him. He came and helped the staff from Lulu do the catering. He fit in perfectly, and when we got up to do the remarks, I told his story and why the program matters so much. It was very emotional, and we said, ‘We need to find a home for him.’

“Fast forward to today. He lives with this kind man, and he has become family. We graduated him; he works at a deli; he goes to College of the Desert. That’s the potential we have. So many in the gay population thought we missed the boat to be parents, but there is more that we have to offer, and we want people in the community to know that it isn’t too late to (be a) parent or grandparent. We see ourselves as having that ability to facilitate.”

For more information or to offer assistance, visit www.sanctuarypalmsprings.org.

Published in Local Issues