OYA was grappling with how to better serve youth who identify as LGBTQQI. Along came Rivera House.
On a residential street in Portland, a beige house sits behind a row of trees, a concrete and wrought-iron fence lining its yard, decorative stonework holding up the pillars of its front porch. A wind chime jingles in the breeze above a bench and a large window.
The house looks normal. Loved. Safe.
Safe is not something the young people living inside are used to feeling. In other places, they have often hidden their gender or sexual identities: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, or intersex (LGBTQQI).
But in this home, run by Janus Youth Programs and named Rivera House after 1960s transgender activist Sylvia Rivera, they feel as though they can be their true selves, without abuse, harassment, or bullying. It’s an important step as they try to address the harm they have caused others.
The six to nine youth who live at Rivera at any given time are all in Oregon Youth Authority custody. Most paroled out of OYA’s youth correctional facilities and are working toward reentering the community. They must commit to sobriety, continue with treatment if they are not already finished, and follow strict program rules that include staff monitoring their location.
But that’s only part of their story. They have all completed or are close to completing their GED or earning their high school diploma. They’re learning to find steady jobs, often for the first time. They’re joining social groups where they can connect with the community in positive ways.
Their identities complicate these pursuits. They need employers who will support their gender identity or sexuality, doctors who are knowledgeable about issues like hormone treatment and gender dysphoria, and activities that will keep them out of trouble but are also queer-friendly.
These challenges are not unknown to the 12 staff members who work at Rivera. All but one also identify as LGBTQQI. They connect with the youth in ways that others cannot, pointing youth toward resources that might be unfamiliar to those outside the LGBTQQI community.
“They look at the youth on my caseload as a whole human being, not just somebody who is in OYA custody,” says Janie Richards, an OYA juvenile parole and probation officer in Multnomah County.
“They (youth) get to be who they are, they don’t have to pretend, and from there it goes to, ‘I feel good about myself. I want to be a good person.’”
Providing the Right Support
Janus Youth Programs, based in Portland, serves about 5,000 to 6,000 at-risk teens and young adults annually in a variety of programs. That includes Rivera and four other residential programs for OYA youth.
Janus opened Rivera in July 2017 after several staff who worked with LGBTQQI youth — including Deven Edgerton, now Rivera’s program director — advocated for a separate reentry program for that population. The program is for older youth, ages 17 ½ to 24.
“These youth were struggling to find their community, to find acceptance,” Edgerton says. “Staff, not intentionally, were sometimes doing more harm to these youth than good because they didn’t know the intricacies of working with this population.”
Janus executive director Dennis Morrow approached Fariborz Pakseresht, OYA’s director at the time, with the idea. “Fariborz just said, ‘Make it happen. There’s no question we have to do this,’” Morrow recalls. “It was amazing to feel that magnitude of support.”
LGBTQQI-specific residential programs tied to the juvenile justice system are rare. Edgerton’s research has not found a program like it anywhere in the country.
Janus’s request was timely. OYA was already grappling with how to better serve LGBTQQI youth.
According to caseworkers in a 2018 survey, 9% of youth in the agency’s custody did not identify as heterosexual. The actual percentage was likely higher because the survey only counts youth who have come out to their caseworkers. Additionally, 3% (38 youth) identified as something other than their assigned gender at birth.
National studies show that many LGBTQQI youth in the justice system are homeless and resort to criminal activity to survive. Some studies say as many as 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQQI; family rejection often leads them to the streets. Other factors that frequently lead LGBTQQI youth into the system include their experiences with harassment, discrimination, and victimization in schools, shelters, or care facilities, studies show.
These youth typically need more intense services, says Monica Moran, a program analyst in OYA’s community resources unit. National data indicates that they have increased mental health needs, higher suicidal ideation, and increased instances of substance use disorders.
“The juvenile justice system is definitely becoming more aware and more safe, but historically that system has not responded well to the needs of this community,” says Moran, who administered the contract between OYA and Rivera. “Things as basic and simple as using preferred names, pronouns, clothing — all of those things are becoming part of how we do business now.
“OYA has been really steadfast in our commitment that we value the person as a whole, we will support their identity, and we will encourage and train our staff to support them in those basic things.”
Moran is a member of OYA’s Gender Identity Committee, created in 2015 to help support youth in OYA facilities who are dealing with gender identity issues. OYA also formed a LGBTQQI advisory committee for members of the outside community to help inform the agency’s policy. Members include Edgerton from Rivera House and representatives of Basic Rights Oregon and other LGBTQQI advocacy groups.
“The first order of business for this committee has been to go line by line through our policy around working with LGBTQQI youth,” says Erin Fuimaono, OYA’s assistant director of development services and chair of the Gender Identity Committee. “We are really thankful to be able to solicit feedback from people in the community who have lived a similar experience to that of our youth.”
‘I’ve Learned to Love and Accept Myself’
Rivera is nearly empty on a recent afternoon. Most of the youth residents work during the day. Staff are congregating in one of the offices to connect about cases and plan for later activities.
They get a phone call from Frank (name changed), a 19-year-old who should have already returned from his job. He fell asleep on the bus and missed his stop. “These are the kinds of things they still have to learn,” Edgerton says, with a chuckle.
When Frank arrives, he sits in the house’s upstairs “book nook” — decorated with cheery teal paint and a rainbow flag — to do a quick check-in with Rivera program supervisor Lori Torres.
Frank tells her about a new guy he is dating, a conversation he later says he never would have felt OK having with staff before Rivera. Frank first came to OYA at age 16 and paroled out of an OYA close-custody facility last fall.
“There was a time in my life where I hated myself and I didn’t want to live,” he says. “Over the years, I’ve learned to love and accept myself.”
Frank says he also learned to “adapt to the different environments I’m in, in a way that is cohesive with my identity, but also acceptable to the community.” When he arrived at Rivera House, he no longer felt like he had to adapt.
“The community and understanding and sense of equality that people have in their interactions with each other” make Rivera his favorite program, he says.
When Rivera youth go out in public, they often face harassment and bullying. Trans young women — those who were assigned the male gender at birth but identify as female — are often afraid to call potential employers, worried that their voice sounds too male and they will lose out on a position.
Edgerton recalls one transgender youth who left a queer-friendly employer for a fast food job that offered her more hours.
“We were like, ‘I don’t think that’s a really good idea,’ but sometimes you have to just let people learn for themselves,” Edgerton says.
The youth’s new boss harassed her from the beginning, referring to her as “it” and refusing to use her chosen name. “It was a very toxic environment,” Edgerton says. “I went in and talked with the manager and tried to educate them, but they just wouldn’t listen. … It was not an appropriate place for the youth to work.”
It will be up to the youth to address these issues on their own once they leave OYA custody — to stay employed, to navigate social groups in a positive way, to turn away from the activities that led them into the juvenile justice system.
Although the ultimate responsibilities lie with the youth, Edgerton and the other staff members at Rivera House will continue doing all that they can to set up the youth for success.
“The youth at Rivera are being supervised and supported by people who have had their own struggles with being outside the mainstream,” says Richards, the juvenile parole and probation officer. “They are able to help our youth in a way that others who do not identify as LGBTQ cannot. That in itself makes it one of the most positive programs for these youth.”
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