San Diego’s ‘Doors of Change’ Project Helping LGBTQ Homeless Youth

There are so many great charities and service groups out there that help our LGBTQ+ Community directly and indirectly. During its 25th year, Instinct and its writers will highlight some of those charities that are near and dear to us and some that may need a bigger spotlight placed upon them as they are fantastic, but everyone doesn’t know about them. 

Our next organization in our 2022 Charity Spotlight is Doors of Change.


Because we are often too busy in our own lives to see the needs of others, we often need a reminder of others whose lives are much more difficult than we can even grasp. I know that in Utah, the homeless population has more LGBTQ youth than most places, mainly because of the religious stigma. I saddens me to know that is often the case in other places as well. I know that many of our readers were once in this situation, some were once homeless, kicked out of your homes because of who you were. What left I have of any belief in Christianity, you have Jesus in your corner when he said, “But who so shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” Matthew 18:6.

For that reason, we have this foundation Doors Of Change in San Diego, whose mission is to simply help the homeless youth, queer or straight, to get off the streets, and find a better life. I got to talk to the founder Jeffrey Sitcov & Joanne Newgard about this.


Jeremy Hinks: Jeffrey, thanks for taking the time to talk to us about your outreach. So “Doors of Change” when did you start on this?

Jeffrey Sitcov: I founded it on July 4, 2001.

JH: So 21 years into this, I see it started in San Diego. I have been to San Diego, and I have been there and seen the difference between those who have, and those who have NOTHING, it is huge. What made you decide to take this on?

JS: I went on an outreach one evening, to see homeless youth, and how they find them. I was so taken by that experience that I started the organization.

JH: SO I see it’s not a shelter, but more a “crash pad”, a safe space for young people to come find a way to get back on their feet?

Joanne Newgard: Yeah, 20 plus years ago was a program of teaching these homeless kids music and art programs, to help them get off the streets, over 2200 of them. We opened in Ocean Beach, It was successful and then when COVID hit, we were restricted in how we could help. Jeffrey, myself, and other outreach workers continued to support these kids. We would go out and post our fliers telling them about it. We would post them in parks, restrooms, the library, any place they would congregate still to get the word out. The service we provide is case management. We would help with drug abuse referrals and domestic violence referrals, and we would provide laptops and gas vouchers to get to school or work. Things that they needed, but when COVID hit, things got harder, all these places closed and things were very limited. That is what we have been continuing to do since COVID, so we are looking for another site in the north county, where we can have our music and art programs, we are talking to a couple of facilities in Oceanside.

JS: One of the things you need to know is that these kids don’t trust anyone. Before that, 90% of them come from such dysfunctional families that it is safer for them to be on the streets. Could be drug addict families, could be abuse, could be molesting them. Once they are on the streets, they don’t trust anyone because everyone is trying to take advantage of them. The KEY to this is that the only way they will ask for help is if they trust you.

JH: Yeah, some of the stories I read were pretty gut-wrenching. So, you get out there, trying to talk to them, and everybody has their own angle of what they want to get from these kids, and they don’t trust anyone. How do you convince them “Hey I am only here to help you”?

JN: I think it’s a couple of things, obviously when we had the program, through the art and music, but present-day scenario through the outreach. These kids can sense when someone is genuine. The outreach workers have big hearts, some of them have had similar hard lives, so they have compassion in a natural sense of passion and understanding for the young people. And what I think makes us successful is that we meet the kids where THEY are at, and that means that maybe they aren’t ready to get off the streets, and that’s ok. So what we can do is to help them be on the streets and be safer. Get them cell phones, shelter referrals, to couple up with other young people to be safer in crowds. You can say get them housing, but unless you are ready, that’s not going to help these kids. We try not to set these kids up to fail, they have already had disappointments in their lives, so we meet them where they are at. They may be suffering from mental illness but not ready to enter into a mental health treatment program. That is one of the reasons they trust us is that we are not judging them, but we make them feel like they are supported. It’s unconditional love, we love them if they come back and they are not working the program, we still need that safe spot.

JS: I’ll just add this, the secret sauce is the music and art program. We found 20 years ago, that if they take on learning the 8 instruments we teach, they just eat it up. After the first couple of times they come through, they see that “They aren’t trying to hurt me, they are giving me clothes, they are giving me food, and different resources, I’m going to ask for help”. We do that so they can develop self-esteem, and they can master something, this allows an opportunity for the violin, ukulele, the mandolin these kids haven’t mastered anything in their entire lives, so to master a few chords. And you won’t believe it, after a couple of lessons, they start sitting up straighter and smelling better, cause they realize “I am not a piece of garbage like I’ve been told by everybody, I can do something”. And that’s the beginning of the process of them getting off the streets, getting into housing, and going to college because they feel better about themselves.

JH: Do you see it for these kids, that they start playing an instrument or painting or drawing, and for them, it becomes a distraction or a way to escape from the mess they are in?

JN: Absolutely, you have to understand, they are tired they are hungry, and they come into a place that is safe, and filled with very committed and talented instructors and volunteers. We get them something to eat, and they can relax, we suggest that they take lessons but we don’t force them. And so many times these kids say “I can’t do it, I’ve never played anything”. And John January, our lead music instructor will say “Hey, why don’t you just try a couple of chords?” And you can see it right in front of your eyes and get this joy when they can find this about themselves that they can create something. And when they feel better about themselves, they will want to take steps to make a better life. So it’s a very small step in that direction. But when those kids “Earn” the instrument, they have to take 6 lessons, to earn an instrument of choice. That is 6 weeks, and to a person experiencing homelessness, that is a HUGE commitment. So when they earn that guitar or ukulele, we make a big deal out of it. They learn that they can have goals and make things happen for themselves.

JH: So I guess that the piano isn’t on that list of instruments they can earn?

JN: HAH, yeah, we haven’t figured out how to do that yet, but we do have little keyboards. But I am always impressed when a kid walks away with a violin because that is such a hard instrument to learn, it is quite rewarding.

JH: I think that is rather fascinating, that you are going to commit a someone homeless to something that is going to change their life, they are going to be expressing themselves and putting emotion into it, and hopefully for mental health to get out of the situation. I am in Utah where we have a very disproportionate amount of LGBTQ kids in the homeless population because of the LDS church and the stigma, parents can have a straight-A student, but still, throw their queer kids out.

JS: Actually, one of the first kids I ever met in this, 20 years ago his name is Joseph. He told me that his father who was a Baptist Minister when he came out as gay, his father threw all of these things out of the house, no money, nothing. He had to go have “Survival Sex” with a 40-year-old man, just to get 20$ to get on the trolley to get to the shelter. His Baptist Minister father kicked him out because he was gay. Joseph now is 31 years old, I knew him when he was 16, and we saved his life.

JH: See that breaks my heart that kids need to go to doing that kind of thing to survive.

JS: They get kicked out, and have to live on the streets where it is worse because now they have people preying on them.

JN: And unfortunately that story is not the norm. You mention Utah, and most of our LGBTQ kids come in from the Midwest, usually on a one-way ticket that their parents give them, just to get out. They have the best intentions to get to California because it is so welcoming to the LGBTQ, but the road over is dangerous, and a lot of things happen. People beat up on the homeless, but they beat up on the LGBTQ kids more because of homophobia. So by the time they get to us, they might not have started out on drugs but they are taking Adderall to stay awake at night, just so no one will beat them up or get robbed. The good news is that we have great relationships with other organizations to help the LGBTQ youth, our case manager is working with 59 kids, and 58% percent of them are LGBTQ. Here is our breakdown. We have 11 males, 18 females, and 5 non-binary, and we LOVE those kids, we have a lot of supportive phone calls in the middle of the night when they are feeling lost. We love them, and we see only a kid in need.

JH: See, I know that if we removed that stigma, you guys would be half out of a job. I’m sure you would be cool with that. I assume you have social workers, for kids coming in from out of state, is it hard to get resources for them?

JN: Well, yes, a lot of these kids are robbed before they get to us, and the first thing they need is an ID, and getting an out-of-state ID is expensive, and so we get them an ID, and a cell phone. Those are the tools we start with. We find shelters for them too, there are LGBTQ-specific shelters because in a mixed shelter you are often not as safe with older homeless. So we have shelters that support LGBTQ.

JH: I have a friend here who is a minister, and before COVID, I would go downtown on Sunday mornings and help them feed the homeless with a makeshift kitchen. One morning I was dishing out potatoes and I put some on a plate, and I knew the guy, he was a cop working undercover. We had both known each other for years, I looked him up a week later and asked him what was going on. He told me he wasn’t investigating any specific case, but that the homeless community doesn’t trust outsiders, especially law enforcement. He said they are there just to keep tabs on it all so people don’t get violent. But from how you are describing this situation, I think there is no place in hell deep enough for people who prey on these kids.

JN: I agree, there is so much about trust. So many of these kids have had someone, a parent, uncle, counselor, or teacher do them wrong, even police, so they don’t trust people, even hard for them to trust a police officer. They are very gun-shy a lot of them have PTSD, you can sense it in their body language when we approach them. We have some good people that can feel that, and the music and art, it’s a way to break the barrier.

JS: When I started this, it used to take 6-9 months to develop trust, that’s too long. In our music and art classes, from 1 to 3 classes, they trust us enough to ask for help. We save a lot of these kids before they die from suicide, overdose, or whatever violence. We try to catch their interest with music and art, and that’s why anyone who listens to (or reads) this, anywhere in the country can find a way to do this, with music and art, to create something, to help them feel better about themselves. I have had kids tell me that “This is the only place I can let my hair down, for two or three hours, and not have to look over my shoulder and be afraid of getting jumped” because they feel safe. And that keeps them coming back, we create a safe space for them, and they can be successful in life, they just have to realize they have to work hard, and they trust us to get them the resources to do that.

JH: So you mentioned expanding the operation.

JS: Well with COVID, we had to be creative, and this last year we helped kids over the internet in six different states. So not only helping kids in San Diego, but our caseworker, when these kids tell them what they need, she looks it up and tells them where to go. Resources, safe parking, or other social worker networks, to find a safer like. But yes we are expanding in North San Diego in Oceanside, cause it works.

JN: Yeah, I know that people think they can leave wherever and come to California, but they need to know what they are in for and that the world is NOT kind. We can tell them about Travelers Aid (I think that was founded by that asshole Hugh Hefner) that will give a kid, once in their life a free bus ticket one way. There are things these kids need to know about before just heading out with a backpack and a dream because the dream doesn’t always work.

JH: From what it sounds like is that most of those kids think they are running away from trouble, that that is exactly what they are running to, I read some of those stories, and it’s pretty gut-wrenching, and these are beautiful kids man. So, how do you approach them, just say “Hi, come to have a sandwich, chill on the couch for a while?”

JN: Well, we usually have a backpack full of food, we never “Assume” these kids are experiencing homelessness, cause they have pride. We usually go talk to them and say “We have this art and music program servicing kids 17-25 who are homeless, do you know anyone that could use our help?” And they say “Well, I’m homeless, can I come”. And after they come once or twice, then they are bringing their friends. In our approach, we don’t ask anything except for them to join us for art and music and dinner, and EVERY kid is hungry. If they want a safe place to sit and rest, and do laundry, they can bring their dogs, and get a haircut. For 3 hours they don’t have to look over their shoulders.

JS: I just say “Give us one shot, you’re gonna know in an hour if you don’t like it, but I promise you’re gonna like it. After they are there once, they keep coming back. This past year was a record year, we placed 165 homeless youth in housing, and it was 83 the year before.

JH: I know COVID made it all difficult, and I know mental health issues have amped up. How has it been getting mental health people available to help, pick up the phone, etc?

JN: Well, the silver lining there is that COVID forced us to think outside the box. It forced me to find other non-profits and pool our resources together, it became “Our” youth, and we became stronger that way. So when we had a kid with mental health needs, we could connect them to someone over a laptop for the help they needed for virtual counseling. Even when facilities were closed, we had a lot of traffic through Facebook, and talk to our case manager there. We have done some amazing things.

JH: I was gonna say, amazing things, you’re getting Three Dog Night to take the stage again, GOLD MEDAL for that. (This isn’t like re-uniting The Beatles, but pretty damn close).

Hell almost froze over, you wanna catch this show

JS: Yeah, if anyone is in San Diego on June 30th, we’re gonna have a phenomenal concert with Three Dog Night, they had over 20 hits in the top 40.

JH: Oh hey man, I know those guys well, they swore they would never play again, so you got some magic there.

JN: Yeah, Jeffrey’s tenacity, it’s hard to say “No” to him.

JS: Well for 49$ someone can come and get a lawn seat, and hear one of our featured speakers, she was homeless as a teenager. She went through our program, went on to school, has her own law practice now, and she was Miss Universe 2021.

JH: So, what are some of the other challenges you have with the LGBTQ kids.

JN: Most LGBTQ kids’ biggest issues are that their parents are not supportive, and they can not get past their sexual preference. The things their parents can say to their child, it’s unbelievable. We try to get the parent’s support, but that is the hardest challenge.

JS: They are more vulnerable on the streets not just to predators but to other kids who want to beat them up, and take their stuff. They are more vulnerable on the streets.

JN: There is also so much sex trafficking, we get kids coming through the center, and they think they have a boyfriend, and they don’t realize that it’s a 45-year-old pimp. It is very hard to watch. We try to educate them to make choices, to never sell their body. They come in with a new expensive set of manicured nails, that their “Boyfriend” bought them. The first thing that happens is they think they are “Broken” and they become numb to it. We teach them about self-worth, and that each day is a new day to start over. WITHOUT JUDGMENT.

JH: Well, I love you for your great hearts, and God BLESS YOU BOTH. I really can’t wait till the day that you are out of a job and you are not needed anymore.

JS: Please, just go to our websites to help (https://doorsofchange.org/) and to all the youth who might hear (read) this, please call us.

 

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