ATLANTA—Kaleb Solberg knew he had a difficult decision to make that no teenager should have to, but tens of thousands do every year.
He came out as gay at age 16, but his family wasn’t accepting of the news. So, Solberg decided to build a new life on his own.
He lived on the streets of El Paso, Texas, for eight months until he started dating someone and they moved together to Arizona. Solberg was able to earn his associate degree in art and psychology and began to build a stable life for himself.
Determined to find somewhere he felt comfortable and safe being open and gay, he was drawn to Atlanta. Once here, he entered the psychology program at Georgia State University.
Now, as a social work master’s student in the university’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Solberg is using his formative experiences to advocate for homeless LGBTQIA+ youth.
“Social work gives permission to the passion to fight for people and myself, so it drew me,” he explained. “Even so, I still felt I was not making enough of an impact. There are changes I want to see made so no one has to live through my experience.”
Solberg is working with Brian Williams, director of the College of Education & Human Development’s Alonzo A. Crim Center for Urban Educational Excellence; Nicholas Forge, clinical associate professor in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies; and a core team students to develop a street outreach program for homeless and runaway LGBTQIA+ youth in downtown Atlanta.
The project, supported by a $294,000 AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) grant that Williams and the Crim Center received, has recruited 10 current and former Georgia State students – or VISTAs, as these young public servants call themselves – to provide street outreach and trauma-informed care to this population.
About 3,300 youth and young adults experience homelessness on any given night in metro Atlanta, and about 40 percent of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQIA+, according to Forge.
They may have aged out of the foster care system or experienced family rejection, as Solberg did. And those who identify as trans often face additional rejection and violence.
“Homeless youth are less likely to be employed or find stable living situations,” Forge explained. “The overarching factor for the LGBTQIA+ population is they are more likely to have even higher levels of trauma. Their experience of being homeless is being met by service providers who are not necessarily familiar with providing trauma-informed services to this population.”
To that end, the three VISTAs leading the Crim Center’s AmeriCorps VISTA grant project — Solberg and Master of Social Work students Janee Farmer and Mikayla Gmitter — are focusing the students’ efforts in three areas: Helping local outreach organizations build their capacity to work with homeless populations, mapping assets for the LGBTQIA+ community and communicating those assets to them, and street outreach, where students connect directly with this population to learn what they need.
For example, Farmer leads the Community Engagement and Volunteer Recruitment team that focuses on street outreach, building partnerships and seeking out volunteer opportunities.
“Right now, we’re more focused on community engagement,” she said. “We’re doing a lot of street outreach and partnering with Stand Up for Kids. So, we’ve been out every Monday night doing street outreach downtown at places like the Gateway Center and Safehouse Outreach, which serves the whole homeless population, and we’ve found a few youths there. We talk to them, build relationships and connect them with resources.”
Her team is also working with the grant’s partners — Stand Up For Kids, Hope thru Soap, Partners for Homes and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District (ADID) — to create surveys that will identify the services homeless and runaway LGBTQIA+ youth need the most and what local outreach organizations provide them. ADID also has supplied hundreds of hygiene kits and will allow the VISTAs to operate from the “Reading Room” kiosk in Woodruff Park as a resource for this population.
“From partners, we’re getting a great response. Everyone wants to work with us and help build our program, and collaborate with us on meeting the needs of homeless youth,” Farmer said. “From the people we’re serving, they’re nervous about interacting with us — understandably. We’re giving resources, talking, but not completely fixing their issues. We’re doing our best to find more youth and to partner with more organizations to find youth and help meet their needs to transition them out of homelessness.”
The surveys will help Gmitter and her team develop an online resource guide for this population and the outreach programs in Atlanta that serve them.
“We’re helping Janee and her team with the survey while creating our resource guide — finding connections and creating partnerships,” Gmitter said. “This networking is our collective goal for all team leaders and VISTA’s goal in general. We’re here, we have manpower, so how can we help support other organizations while we’re building out our program?”
The grant project still has openings for students interested in joining, so Solberg, Williams and Forge will recruit additional students and find more volunteers and partners who want to work with this population.
Williams also said the grant’s long-term goal is to create a center in Atlanta where homeless and runaway LGBTQIA+ youth can find the resources they need.
“It would serve as a shelter for young people and be a space for us to better understand their needs and what resources they require,” Williams said. “We’d like to get to a place where we’ve developed enough of an understanding of this population that we can create a center for homeless youth in Atlanta.”
Solberg looks forward to this center coming to fruition and will continue to share his story as he works with Atlanta’s homeless and runaway LGBTQIA+ youth.
“I come to every situation with the entirety of who I am. Those eight months had such a large impact. They shape how and why I do what I do. It’s important for people to know my background, my purpose and my reason for this work,” he said. “I feel I’ll be involved in serving this population many years from now.”