FORT SMITH -- Young adults in the River Valley who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning will have a new safe space to turn to for shelter and other services to help them through life.
Patrick Boze, executive director of Jessi's House on North Eighth Street, said the housing program began accepting applications Tuesday. It expects to open March 1 for its first residents between the ages of 18 and 25.
Boze is a life coach who also runs Sweet House, an LGBTQ youth socialization center that opened in Fort Smith last year. Since then, housing insecurity has been the main concern for him and his team, he said.
"A lot of these kids don't have anybody, and their families have rejected them because of their sexuality or gender identity," Boze said.
Boze also cited unstable home environments and mental health issues as other reasons for housing insecurity among LGBTQ young adults in this region. He said Jessi's House plans to welcome these youth with open arms to ensure they "can have a good chance to tell their own story."
"Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America," a 2017 study from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, states the risk of homelessness was 120% greater among LGBT youth in the United States compared to counterparts who identified as heterosexual and cisgender. It defined youth as 18- to 25-year-olds. Cisgender refers to people whose gender identity aligns with their birth sex.
The California-based Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ young people, got input from nearly 35,000 13- to 24-year-olds in the United States for its 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, with 42% saying they seriously considered attempting suicide in 2020. This includes more than half of the youth who were transgender or nonbinary. Nonbinary refers to people who identify neither as strictly male or female.
Boze said he and his team have been looking at other programs and speaking with consultants about the best way to make Jessi's House happen since September.
Jessi's House will start with three young adults taking part in a six-month residency at the house, although the time could be extended in certain circumstances, according to Boze. The 1888 Victorian house includes four bedrooms, an office, living room, dining room, laundry room, kitchen and two-and-a-half bathrooms. A staff member will also stay on the premises.
Boze said the young adults will work with one of the program's two case managers and agree to an action plan, which will set out things they need to do during their residency, such as finding employment and applying to further their education.
"So they'll be held accountable to their action plan, the goal being that, at the end of the six months, they'll have the ability to go out on their own," Boze said.
Boze said the program will also work to connect its clients with health care and mental health providers, as well as provide education concerning finances and general personal care. The program plans to expand the house's capacity at a later date.
Jessi's House residents are expected to follow certain rules, Boze said. This includes regular check-ins with their case manager and Boze himself for life coaching.
Clients are also prohibited from having alcohol on the premises or using drugs, and will be subject to random drug screenings, according to the program's website.
"We really want to provide a safe space for some of these young adults, and some of these young adults may have drug and alcohol problems, so we'd like to also assist in their recovery plans," said Chris Jenkins, property manager for Jessi's House.
However, Boze said Jessi's House took action Tuesday to address the community's immediate needs ahead of its March 1 opening. It rented an adjacent duplex and used it to get two young LGBTQ people off the street, both of whom agreed to follow the program. This duplex, now a permanent part of Jessi's House, could comfortably hold six people.
Boze said he and his team were contacted by Melanie and Clint Sharp, who are from the River Valley, about donating the house that would become Jessi's House. They had a vision for the house to be a home for LGBTQ people, and tasked Boze and his team to create the best plan to make it a reality.
He said the program is named after his niece, Jessi, a lesbian who dealt with housing insecurity, mental health issues and abusive relationships. She died of an overdose in 2020 at age 23.
"As I have thought since she died of what I could have said differently, especially coming from my experience as a recovery professional, I have found some peace in knowing that the day before she died, she told me that I loved her unconditionally," Boze said. "That's the kind of care that I'm wanting to provide to these kids."