Harriet Howard Heithaus
Naples Daily News
Marianne Lambertson knew the teen curled up on her couch, sleeping peacefully, was safe.
But, she wondered: How many other LGBTQ+ kids in Collier County did not have some place to spend the night when livid parents threw them out?
Lambertson is a parent to two LGBTQ+ children of whom she’s really proud — “Both very different, really happy kids. Wonderful. Smart. Honor roll. My daughter’s on the dean’s list in college.” Through them, she has dealt with those who were not so fortunate: evicted from their homes during their most vulnerable years.
Her first experience with it came when her daughter, then a junior at Barron Collier High School, told her a friend had been kicked out of her home for coming out about her sexuality.
“When she was a senior, a second kid got kicked out,” Lambertson said, shaking her head. The Lambertsons took in both friends; one is still living with the family until she begins college this fall.
Seeing abuse led to LGBTQ+ child research
The idea of evicting one’s own children struck Marianne Lambertson as so unbelievable, she returned to her roots as a therapist, researching the statistics of LGBTQ+ abuse here. It resulted in a major change of direction in her own life, as the founder and champion for Sage House, a proposed group home and services center for LGBTQ+ teens.
Lambertson and the community-based board she recruited are working to raise $2 million to:
- Build or remodel an existing structure with housing for up to 16 youth, along with live-in staff quarters, plus indoor and outdoor enrichment areas
- Incorporate counseling and event space in the house
- Seed a maintenance fund
- Create a $500,000 endowment to help pay for expenses
The group has a website for more information: sagehousenaples.org
Its counseling isn’t just for youth.
“I have a friend with a child right now who is transgender and she can’t even say the word ‘transgender,’ ” Lambertson said. “She’s trying to be accepting, really trying. I would love to be there for parents like that, who want to be accepting but just can’t wrap their head around it.”
The new, controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law that forbids counseling in middle grades without parental consent, didn’t light the fuse for this, she said. Lambertson had the numbers long before that, and they were sobering.
“They’re the reason I started Sage House, because when I started digging … (I learned) there as many as 130 LGBTQ+ kids in Collier County every year who are homeless,” she said.
Their alternatives range from acceptable to perilous. Moving in with relatives or sympathetic neighbors. Couch surfing with friends’ families. At the raw end, bunking in homeless camps or under bridges or pavilion roofs.
“I don’t think there’s a need for a home for 130 kids. But there’s probably a need for a home for maybe a dozen or more,” she said.
At-risk population: LGBTQ+ teens
The problem is a major one for its population, according to the National Network for Youth, which says up to 40 percent of the 4.2 million homeless youth in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ+. Lambertson’s estimates come from county agencies, and state statistics fill in a landscape of a fragile existence:
- LGBTQ+ students are two to three times more likely to be bullied on school property or electronically
- LGBTQ+ teens are two to three times more likely to report physical or sexual violence compared to heterosexual teens
- LGBTQ+ students are twice as likely to skip school because they feel unsafe there
That’s why Lambertson is advocating for a separate space from Youth Haven, the local shelter facilities for children who are abused, abandoned or neglected.
“It’s really not the right place for these kids, because they’re still potentially going to get bullied by other kids. It’s a good place, but not for them,” she said. Further, Youth Haven holds as many at 73 children at one time, and its beds only include 13 for children who are homeless for any reason.
The home will be the only one of its kind in the area. And, according to Lambertson, it’s not an institution with growth aims — ideally that would be because the number of parents who disown their children becomes smaller with more understanding and tolerance. But it’s also because Lambertson sees it as fulfilling only that need: “We’re not looking to become a $20 million nonprofit. We’re going to be a $1-2 million nonprofit forever.”
The house will work within the county’s foster care system, which may bring it some help. But it will be active seeking grants, foundation help, other government funding and fundraising events, according its three-year strategic planning document.
The next stop, of course, is the doors of potential donors. Lambertson, who has worked as chief development officer at Grace Place for Children and in the private sector before that, is no stranger to fundraising.
Fundraising has started, but quietly
The capital campaign has already started, but quietly, she said.
“We’re reaching out to donors we know who are allies who are high-wealth individuals. We have both and we’re going to have a lot of information at PRIDE (the Collier County LGBTQ celebration coming Saturday, July 9, to Cambier Park; see the information box for details). We had a reception planned that got postponed when PRIDE was cancelled, but we’re going to do something later in the year.”
(The Naples Pride Festival was originally set for early June but a storm postponed it until this weekend.)
She’d like to have something tangible, “yesterday,” she said, laughing. “But I’d love to hoping to have something in place in 2023 — like a house — if not sooner.
“I don’t understand how any parent can reject their child for being his true self. But for any of those kids, what I say to them is, ‘I’m your mom now.’ “
Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Reach her at 239-213-6091.