In America, up to 1.3 million youth experience homelessness each year. The statistics for homeless LGBT youth are even more shocking, as this group represents up to 40% of all homeless young people. Once they are out of their homes, LGBT youth are more vulnerable than ever: they are at a greater risk for victimization, unsafe sexual practices and mental health issues than non-LGBT young people experiencing homelessness.
Larger cities like New York and Los Angeles have robust programming to meet the needs of this community, but smaller cities and rural states have limited resources, where LGBT inclusion is more sparse than anywhere else in the nation.
But Brad Schlaikowski and his husband Nick are looking to make a difference in their home state of Wisconsin by providing a solution to the problem. “The idea came from a teenage girl that we fostered in 2015,” Schlaikowski explains to Hornet. “She and her friends had similar horror stories. There are more options for straight children than LGBT children, but there is one agency that is gay-friendly. That one shelter has 16 beds, and like most shelters there’s a time limit you can stay there.”
“We did a bit more digging, asking what exactly is happening in our city? How many kids are we talking about here? We found the stats and numbers and were just like OK … never again,” Schlaikowski continues. “We have 500 kids on the street in Milwaukee, 40% who identify as LGBT. I told my husband, we can do this. We can continue taking one child in at a time in our house, but there are still a ton of other children out there that need our help.”
That is when the idea of Courage House, Wisconsin’s first group home and drop-in center specifically for LGBTQ youth, was born.
But Schlaikowski doesn’t like the term group home. “We can’t imagine being 12 or 16 years old and having a friend ask where you live and answering a ‘group home,’” he tells us. ”We’re removing the word shelter and group home from the vocabulary of these kids. This is just a home.”
“We want them to live their life as they are, because that is how they are going to start fixing themselves,” Schlaikowski says. “They are going to feel what it’s like be respected. They are going to know what it’s like to be family.”
In December 2015, the guys put their ideas on paper. From there they launched Courage MKE, a nonprofit with a mission to uplift LGBTQ youth. Since it started the grassroots organization has raised more than $110,000 in small donations for projects and initiatives that support LGBTQ youth. The guys recently used $50,000 of that money to purchase the property in Milwaukee that will be home to Courage House. They hope to open the eight-bed facility by November of this year, before the severe Wisconsin winter begins.
That funding came from the Schlaikowskis’ local community, raised entirely from small-batch contributions, and no private donors or huge sums have been accepted. “We did it because of the community, and the communities around us have embraced us with all of their might,” Schlaikowski says. “Our supporters are people who have given $5, $10, $20, $100. Not too many people are giving away $1,000 these days.”
Even off the streets and in the foster care system, LGBTQ children face challenges. The percentage of queer youth in the foster care system is larger than that of the general population, and these teens face disparities of care within the system, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
“Research has shown that LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the foster care system — many having faced family rejection around their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression,” HRC reported last year. “We also know that while in care, LGBTQ youth face higher rates of harassment, disruptive placements and trauma than their non-LGBTQ peers.”
“It’s their house, and they will have ownership over it and they will have ownership over the rules,” Schlaikowski says. “These kids have a gap, so we have to make sure we fill that gap with unconditional love. That is the only way they are going to heal.”
Schlaikowski explains to us that many people in the community call them “The Little Nonprofit That Could,” but they like to correct them and say “The Little Nonprofit That Does.” “Nick and I are driving this, but we wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for all of our supporters,” he says.
They still have to work work through permits and state licensing, and have approximately another $25,000 to do to the house in renovations. They continue to accept donations through their website.
Some critics have asked, what if a person who comes to them isn’t LGBT, then what? Schlaikowski responds, “We aren’t gonna turn them away. We are going to work with the powers that be and make sure they get the help they need.”
The couple both work full-time jobs and parent four children. After meeting on a dating app, their first date was on July 8, 2012, and the guys have been inseparable ever since. “I have a true life partner in my husband,” Schlaikowski says. “He has more patience than I do. He has been my hero because he keeps our family moving. He puts up with me. When that man dies, he needs to be nominated for sainthood.”
The pair are looking to expand their idea to other cities as well — places where there are limited resources for LGBTQ youth. “The farther you get away from the major cities, the less support there is for the kids who need it,” Schlaikowski says.
When asked what he has learned, he struggles to find an answer. “You turn on the TV and the news is so depressing,” Schlaikowski says. “But I have learned that there are more people willing to help and give in this world than I ever imagined.”
As our conversation winds down, I relay something I learned from Schlaikowski during our chat, though maybe in a different set of words than he used when speaking to me: “A child is not able to work on himself until he is able to be himself.”
Schlaikowski responds with love for my words and says they just may be added to the front door of the home for his kids. I promise him I’ll stop by one day in November to see if they’re home.