Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
Last spring, Quenisha McGee, a 24-year-old native of Lonoke, found herself homeless and living in a shelter in Little Rock. Then things got worse.
"I was kicked out for being gay," she recalled. "They let me know they didn't want me there because I made the other girls uncomfortable." She began sleeping in a parking garage and spent her days at Jericho Way, the city's resource center for the homeless. That's where a social worker told McGee about Lucie's Place — a nonprofit with the specific mission of serving homeless LGBT people between the ages of 18 and 25. As of December, she now has her own apartment and is in the process of turning her life around, with help from Lucie's Place Executive Director Penelope Poppers.
"I come by here almost every day," McGee said one afternoon in December, sitting in the organization's drop-in center in downtown Little Rock. "Penelope has really been a wonderful help in my life. Everybody else gave up, and she didn't. I just thank goodness that she's around with Lucie's Place to help people like us."
Poppers, 29, founded Lucie's Place in 2012 with the dream of eventually opening a shelter for LGBT young adults struggling with homelessness in Little Rock. After years of unpaid evening and weekend labor, she finally raised enough funds last May to quit her day job at the Arkansas Arts Center, becoming the first full-time employee at Lucie's Place. In August, the nonprofit found a space of its own on the eighth floor of a downtown building; the three-room suite at 300 Spring St. serves as both office and drop-in day center. Sometime this year, if all goes as planned, the shelter will become a reality.
"The big thing we're trying to build here is just a sense of community so that people feel comfortable," Poppers said. "I always tell people, 'This space is for you.' All I need is a desk and a chair."
At first, the target demographic of Lucie's Place may sound curiously niche: How many homeless LGBT people in their late teens and early twenties could a mid-sized Southern city really hold? A lot, as it turns out. In 2015, Lucie's Place served 70 clients — twice as many as in the previous year — and Poppers said the organization may work with 100 in 2016. Those numbers are borne out by national statistics: A 2012 report by the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law, found that 40 percent of youths served by agencies that work with the homeless are gay, bisexual or transgender. Many LGBT teenagers run away after being rejected by their family; others are fleeing sexual abuse. The True Colors Fund, a national nonprofit working to end homelessness among LGBT youths, estimates that up to one in four teenagers who come out as LGBT are forced out of their homes by their parents.
Poppers is concerned that well-publicized victories for LGBT rights — such as last summer's U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage — may actually make such problems worse in the short term.
"I worry what's happening is that kids all over the place, including Arkansas, feel safe and empowered to come out, because they think the world is changing for the better ... and their parents aren't [always] going to react in the way they thought they were going to," she said. "I've heard from other places across the nation that they've seen spikes in clients after big victories. I want people to be able to come out, but a lot of our clients are homeless because they came out at a point when they were still underneath the rule of their parents, and their parents still held the keys to the house."
The drop-in center at Spring Street is open 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. weekdays (Poppers hopes to extend the hours eventually). The center provides bus passes, clothing, toiletries and cell phones and minutes. Those basic items can make all the difference to someone living on the streets, McGee said.
"Restaurants won't let you use their bathrooms. They're afraid you're going to scare the customers. ... People take stuff for granted, like having your own restrooms and tissue paper. The clothes, the simple stuff. It's really been a blessing to us.
"There are rules with everything, and if you have to ask somebody for help, just know that there are rules that come with it. [At Lucie's Place], they are pretty simple: Put 10 job applications in a week. Go to the Women's Center. Please try and find a job. Please try and find a house. Stay out of jail — none of that. Make sure you're doing stuff to get you out of your situation."
Poppers organizes a free mental health program in partnership with local counselors who contribute their services. She also works directly with clients to find housing, develop resumes, fill out job applications and seek out other assistance, essentially acting as case manager for all 70 clients last year.
"I sort of serve as a database for understanding what programs exist in town, what services they offer and whether our folks qualify," Poppers explains. "I keep track of the religious affiliations of these various programs, so I can tell people, 'You can go there but you can't be open about your sexual orientation or gender identity.' A lot of the shelters are run by private religious institutions, and a lot of them have open anti-LGBT policies, and those trickle down to other programming." McGee's experience of discrimination is not uncommon.
One exception, Poppers says, is Our House. "They actually allow transgender people to stay in the dorm [corresponding to] the gender they identify as, which is huge. There's nowhere else in town where that is an option. They're great. They've invited me there to do trainings in working with trans folks and LGBT folks, and I feel really comfortable sending clients there."
But even the most inclusive shelters can't meet the specific needs of young adults, she continued.
"What we're realizing is the services here in town really are not good places for young people in general, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Even in places that are accepting and affirming of LGBT people ... most young people are not going to thrive in an environment with a bunch of 50-plus-year-olds." Homelessness is an especially lonely ordeal for young adults, she said. "You're not in high school anymore, you can't afford to go to college, you can't afford to go to clubs or bars, and so there are very few spaces for homeless young people to meet peers. There really is this feeling of loneliness and a lack of community. We hear this recurring theme of, 'I want to find people my own age.' "
Little Rock needs more services for homeless young people in general, Poppers says, including heterosexual youth. However, Lucie's Place will continue to work exclusively with LGBT individuals, both because preserving a safe space for clients is top priority and because there's much more work to be done within that population.
"We stick to that pretty solidly, because this is often the only space where our folks feel truly comfortable. ... We're [still] not meeting every need of the homeless LGBT young adult population."
Thus far, Lucie's Place has been funded mostly through local grants and individual donations. The Darragh Foundation provided the initial support to get the organization off the ground. In late 2014, the nonprofit got an unlikely fundraising boost when an online LGBT activist, Scott Wooledge, created an image juxtaposing Lucie's Place with the anti-LGBT messaging of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar (of TLC reality show fame), who at the time were organizing Northwest Arkansas conservatives to defeat Fayetteville's civil rights ordinance. The Internet campaign took off in a huge way.
"We ended up securing $32,000 from people literally all over the world in response to all the Duggar business," Poppers said. "That's what gave us the final kick we needed to hire me on as a staff member, and subsequently open the space."
In 2015, Lucie's Place won a $20,000 grant from Tom's of Maine that Poppers called "the light at the end of the tunnel" toward the goal of opening a shelter. Although Poppers sometimes finds herself at odds with socially conservative churches, she says that some of the organization's strongest supporters have also been in the religious community.
"The Episcopalians have been amazing to us, and the Presbyterians have been great. And there's the Unitarian Universalists, of course," she said. "Starting next year, we'll have a Friends of Lucie's Place program: Each month we're looking for a new religious congregation to sponsor the space for a month ... [it's] $600 a month for rent, utilities, phone and everything." The less time she has to spend raising money, she says, the more she can work one-on-one with clients like Quenisha McGee.
McGee, for her part, credits Lucie's Place for getting her back on her feet and into a home.
"I'm off the streets. Before I met Penelope I thought I'd never [be]," she said. "You know how you always expect bad stuff to happen? You sort of get tough and prepare for it. [But] now I've got the right people in my life."