Forty percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ.

Kalamazoo County mirrors that national average, maybe higher says Sara Jacobs, program director with Out Proud Safe, a program of CARES.

"They don’t know how to navigate resources," she explains of these youth, whose ages range from 13 to 24, but most are under 18. "They’ve been kicked out of their homes and no longer trust adults or the system."

OPS began building a system of care management in January 2017 and by July they were "up and running," says Jacobs, serving more than 40 youth by December with referrals or services.

According to Jacobs, their clients are very ambitious and goal-oriented. OPS’s first task is to get them a place to stay and food, and after that about 90 percent want to get back into school. But first, homeless youth must seek the help they need.

"We’re an organization where youth will see themselves, which helps the issue of trust and feeling safe," says Jacobs. "They know they can trust us."

More than 20 area youth-serving organizations provide various levels of support for homeless youth, including Catholic Family Services, Housing Resources, Inc., and Kalamazoo Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

KZCF Community Investment Manager David Feaster says OPS is also "advocating for systems change within the homeless sector that will benefit this population statewide."

This OPS initiative began with a grant from KZCF’s LGBTQ Equality Fund.

Beginning this year, OPS has been working to gain access to the statewide homeless data tracking system to better coordinate with and serve these youths. This will also enable OPS to become a stronger resource in the community.

Jacobs tells the story of one of their first successes. A junior in high school, planning on studying astrophysics in college, was kicked out of his house and ended up dropping out of school and living in a car for three months. Once he found OPS, they found him an apartment and a job, and he got back into school. Within nine months he had caught up with his credits and graduated. "And he invited me to his graduation," Jacobs reflected.

The plan for 2019? Jacobs says OPS will continue efforts to increase their impact on behalf of homeless LGBTQ youth throughout Kalamazoo County.

Pictured: Sara Jocobs, program director with Out Proud Safe, a program of CARES.