In 2020, the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC) in Washington, DC, received UnidosUS’s LGBTQ Champion Award for their work building LGBTQ+ youth strengths and assets so they can achieve their full potential and obtain a sense of safety, structure, belonging, self-worth, and social contribution. In this article, you’ll hear the story of CC, a young gay Salvadorian man whom LAYC helped set up a life in the United States.
Over the past year, LGBTQ+ youth in the DMV region (Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia) have been subjected to numerous hardships. From surviving a pandemic to experiencing discrimination, it was a challenging year. For some LGBTQ+ youth like CC, who is openly gay and an immigrant from El Salvador, difficult moments were not scarce. At 20 years old, CC lost his father to the COVID-19 virus. He also faced challenges as a result of having limited knowledge of governmental systems in the United States, such as the processes around obtaining a job, getting a license/I.D., and finding a place to live. Especially for immigrant youth, many of these systems can be intimidating and confusing. However, LAYC staff were able to step in and assist CC in working through these systems.
By Brenda Santiago-Ramos, Latin American Youth Center, UnidosUS Affiliate
We are so grateful at LAYC for UnidosUS’s ongoing support for youth in our community, including LGBTQ youth, and honored to be recognized for our work creating safe spaces for youth with the UnidosUS LGBTQ Champion Award.
LAYC’s mission is to empower youth to successfully transition to adulthood through multicultural, comprehensive, and innovative programs that address their social, academic, and career needs. Serving primarily Latino and Black youth between the ages of 14-24 in DC, and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland, our programs include academic tutoring and mentoring, counseling, health and wellness, workforce readiness, housing, and healthy recreation.
SAFE SPACES FOR LGBTQ+ YOUTH
LAYC runs a safe housing Drop-In Center that serves as a convenient, youth-friendly, and LGBTQ+ safe space for runaway, unstably housed, street, and homeless youth under 24. At the Drop-In Center, youth like CC can receive essential care services, assessment, referrals to housing, crisis intervention, case management, and family intervention. The center often serves homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ+ and/or have been subjected to or are at risk of being subjected to trafficking, sexual abuse, exploitation, and prostitution. All Drop-In Center staff are trained in LGBTQ+ allyship, and our assessment and intake process allow for optional disclosure of gender identity and sexual orientation. Additionally, LAYC offers a free clothing “shop” for youth, Hope’s Closet, which provides gender-affirming undergarments and clothing for transgender, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming youth.
With the support of UnidosUS, LAYC also offers the STRIPES program, a social justice leadership group that emphasizes LGBTQ+ allyship and advocacy. Youth are engaged through social networks, schools, and community outreach efforts and collaborate with Gay-Straight Alliances advisors and mental health counselors in DC Public Schools (DCPS) high schools. Participants also attend the DCPS LGBTQ+ student conference and facilitate trainings for peers. Many youth enter STRIPES as allies and, as they become more comfortable, begin to identify as LGBTQ+.
SETTING CC FOR SUCCESS
LAYC has a long-standing commitment to developing Latino youth leadership, supporting both youth and staff in their growth as advocates and change-makers in their community. Like UnidosUS, LAYC recognizes the importance of creating dynamic and creative thinkers to shape our communities and bring about sustainable change that benefits Latino communities, including the LGBTQ+ community and other immigrant communities or communities of color.
Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, LAYC helped CC set up a meeting with the Salvadoran consulate to retrieve his birth certificate. During this time, he was also able to get his Social Security card and legal work permit. Staff helped CC obtain a job at a small restaurant and find an apartment. He received rental assistance through LAYC to achieve stable housing, as well as through the DC CARES Assistance program. Recently, he got a general ID and is studying to take his driver’s exam. LAYC provided him with study materials in Spanish to facilitate the process. In addition, staff helped him open a bank account, and CC is responsibly beginning to save.
LAYC was able to provide CC with resources for his father’s funeral service and connect him to DC’s COVID-19 mental health services. With his father’s death and the loss of family members due to gang violence in El Salvador, CC has sadly experienced many losses. Therefore, connecting him to mental health professionals was crucial to his well-being.
CC acknowledged that it meant a lot to him when staff came together to provide him with resources, including blankets, household items, candles, clothes, gift certificates, and Uber gift cards. Through all the hardship of the past year, and by bravely living his truth as an openly gay immigrant from El Salvador, CC has shown incredible strength. He is determined and persevering, and with assistance from LAYC, CC is on track to becoming a fully independent adult.