Deb and Steve Word of Memphis, TN have been safe house parents for 17 homeless LGBT youth.
Catholic couple takes in homeless LGBT youth
01:22 - Source: CNN

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Deb and Steve Word are surrogate parents for 17 homeless LGBT youths

As many as 40% of homeless youth in the U.S. are LGBT, one study finds

Long-term solution needed to help support discarded LGBT youth, advocates say

Memphis, Tennessee CNN  — 

When Deb and Steve Word found out one of their sons was gay, the devout Catholics offered up affirmation.

“We made every effort to make it easier for him to come out,” Deb Word said.

Despite the efforts, their son didn’t come out until he was 23.

“I said, ‘Why did you take so long to tell us?’ He said, ‘It’s your club. You know the rules,’ ” she said.

“As Catholic parents – it broke our hearts that we weren’t able to kind of shield him from some of that.”

Soon after, the couple began to attend potluck gatherings of the Catholic Ministry With Gay and Lesbian Persons in Memphis. They noticed a common thread among families with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children – a lack of acceptance. The couple officially fell into their role as LGBT advocates, joining the organization Fortunate Families as listening parents.

“If a parent is struggling with an issue, whether it’s a church issue or a child issue, they can call and talk to a parent who is already walking on that path,” Deb Word said.

But it wasn’t until the Words met Will Batts, director of the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center, that they truly met the calling of their lives. Batts told them about a young gay couple and 4-year-old child who were living out of a car.

“We invited them into our home. They stayed for three or four weeks –that was the beginning of our journey as a safe house,” Deb Word said.

They now not only have only a safe house, but they also are surrogate parents for 17 LGBT youths.

“Any of the young people who have stayed with us have known they were going to be treated just like our own children, which means you take the good, the bad and the ugly,” Steve Word said.

According to a study by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, as many as 40% of homeless young people in the United States are LGBT. Many of these young people have needs that go beyond a safe place to sleep at night.

“What happens to kids on the street in the first 48 hours is scary,” Batts said.

“The kids we were working with had so many issues. They had medical issues, legal issues and mental health issues and all kinds of things.”

As safe parents, Deb Word said, we say “we are putting Band-Aids on gapping wounds. These kids need help psychologically to deal the damage their parents have created and to help them with risky behavior.”

In Memphis, leaders in the LGBT community are looking for a long-term solution to help discarded LGBT youth. The idea has been tossed around about creating a small community of tiny homes, but even if accomplished, there is still a need for more supportive services.

“What we are asking of our straight allies is to think about what it would be like if that were their own kid on the street,” Batts said.

Deb Word added, “We’ve got to get past the fact that sexual orientation is a reason to discriminate or not love someone.”