Nurturing the Invisible: The Tale of a Queer Punk and His Kids

PHOTO: Che Arias

PHOTO: Che Arias

The following article was written in partnership with Thoughtfulness.org
Head on over to this page to donate to Lost-N-Found Youth's campaign. 


I’m on the phone with Rick Westbrook, the activist founder of Lost-N-Found Youth a non-profit that gets queer and trans kids off the streets. Talking to Rick, I get the sense that this conversation is only one of many he plans on having this week. I also have a feeling of guilt, even though our conference call started on time. This guilt is something else, it’s the feeling that maybe I—like everyone else who isn’t Rick Westbrook—am not doing enough. “I have kids dying on the streets; I don’t have time to be nice. Sure, I’ll say hi, shake a hand, but I’ve got shit to do.” “Mama Rick” has a penchant for eschewing the clinical, rose-tinted language often deployed by non-profit heavyweights. He speaks not with what could be misinterpreted as bravado, but with overwhelming urgency, substituting passion for a very real and immeasurable sense of duty. Throughout our discussion, I fall into a fantasy in which I am not addressing a known performer and event organizer with a heart, but the leader of a truly frontline assault on queer lives as we know it. Rick is a punk and it’s tangible in the way he speaks and the strategies he employs to keep “his kids” off the streets long enough to thrive.

What Rick and his LnF staff see everyday are the colors that fill in the grim outline presented by the CDC’s statistics regarding HIV/AIDS and the plight of queer youth. Currently, queer youth have a 40% chance of being kicked out following their coming-out; the Southeast sees that figure rise to 56%. That’s “a little less than a coin-flip” overall, as Rick puts it. During our conversation, he cites statistics with the methodical, personable affectation of a lobbyist with punk-as-fuck roots. Some paint a bleak image and none of them offer even a minute glimmer of hope, and that’s exactly what “Mama Rick” wants.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a person with that kind of candor has managed to earn the ire (temporary as it may have been) of his colleagues in the nonprofit sector and within the city government. Though he hesitates to openly criticize his nonprofit peers, it’s hard for him to censor any descriptions of the very real, contentious relationships he had with a select few.  Though he dares not speak ill of Atlanta’s long ailing nonprofit infrastructure and its major players, he asserts that things weren’t as easy as he thought.
 



Atlanta has many reputations: as a strip club capital and as an epicenter of hip hop, with sports franchises that never do well enough, shitty public transit, surprising diversity, and home to the Western hemisphere’s largest aquarium—the list’s trends alternate between awful, awesome, and mediocre. While these distinctions can be parlayed as friendly airport terminal banter when seated next to a West Virginian, another is sure to send shudders down the spine of even the most cosmopolitan traveler: Atlanta is now the American epicenter of the modern era’s burgeoning HIV/AIDS crisis.

Many Americans think of HIV/AIDS as a thing of the past. Devastating diseases like cancer, ALS, and other non-sexually transmitted ailments have usurped the place once enjoyed by HIV/AIDS following Magic Johnson’s very public disclosure of his positive status in 1991. Before Magic, the concerns and bodies of HIV/AIDS activists were festering under the indifference of the Reagan White House—a failure in American policy that to this day eludes even the most learned Americans. After him, HIV/AIDS became an important topic; it was so important that Linda Ellerbee of lauded kids’ informational staple Nick News saw fit to explain HIV/AIDS and humanize those living with it. Still, while Magic Johnson made it okay to talk about HIV/AIDS, he was hardly the face of it. When he contracted the virus, statistical incidence for heterosexual men and HIV/AIDS was significantly lower than it is today. Before he contracted the virus, over 120,000 queer men had perished.

The difference between them and Magic Johnson was, and is, that Johnson contracted the virus from heteronormative sexual relations. The other 120,000 that were dead before his announcement didn’t matter, because their identities were those of an actively state-oppressed class. To be queer was to be forgotten.

“On any given night, around 40-60% of my kids will test positive.” This statistic isn’t meant to be a tear-jerker when Rick drops it; he wants to wake you up. “Sometimes, we’re too late,” he says while recalling the large proportion of black men under twenty-six who find out they’re positive only after being admitted to a metro-area hospital. It’s only here that you hear him crack. While Westbrook is clearly a person that lives with risk sitting in the blinders, there have been bumps in the road. He’s been HIV positive for twenty-five years, takes a lot of meds, and “spends a lot of time on the toilet”—he’s seen it all. Still, having a few lifetimes of experience grants no one the ability to see into the future and there are times when even Rick doesn’t see it coming.

 

PHOTO: Che Arias

PHOTO: Che Arias

In 2013, when LnF was hardly two years old and in the embryonic stages of the program’s development, a “beautiful, blue-eyed, fairy-like” boy called the LnF hotline. He needed a place to sleep during a surprisingly cold August night. Rick picked him up in Midtown, Atlanta’s crown jewel of LGBTQ affluence, and bought him two big meals from a Wendy’s. He could tell he was starving and he could also tell he was tweaking; as a package, Matthew Ralston looked weak. When they arrived at the house, Mama Rick put him up in a room and decided to deal with the red tape later because he wanted to get the boy off the streets.

LnF has always drug-tested; mainly because Rick believes that having a group of rejected youth engage in the escapist habits of drugs and alcohol not only slows their recovery but could effectively prevent it. Still, he’s never been too hard on pot—if the kids test positive for it, Rick let’s them stay with the expectation that their THC levels will decrease over time. “You can’t get a job if you pee dirty,” he says—echoing a core of LnF’s mission to get the kids off the streets and into a stable job. With this, it's obvious that even though the policy makes sense, his own tendency to forgo any kind of judgement makes it difficult (but not impossible) for him to draw a hard line. This is probably why he couldn’t fight Matthew when, before a drug test, he said “I’m not ready to get off drugs yet, take me back to where you found me.”

Rick obliged and two days later, Matthew Ralston was found dead in a Cheshire Bridge motel. He was twenty years old.

“I have a picture of him at home. He was a beautiful, beautiful boy.” It’s here that Rick’s tenacity shows its teeth. Following a situation that would make so many people question their own guts, he pushed on for Matthew and for the millions of other queer youth all over the nation that he unironically and without pretense refers to as his kids. Perhaps there would be fewer Matthew Ralstons if the city administration and legislative body leaned in. Perhaps the shelter that Rick wants to open would be a possibility if LnF didn’t have to depend on the kindness of Atlanta’s queer community. While large amounts of money have been raised within various sectors of the community, City hall has been quiet regarding the achievement of Rick’s program. To date, LnF services 750 kids and has been profiled in print on local and national levels. There isn’t anything like it, not just in the Southeast, but in the country.

So why hasn’t the mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, given more bounty to assist in the good fight? The answer is dull, infuriating, and a salient example of the state’s “eyes-closed” approach to queers: the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

HUD issues grants to local governments so they can build homeless shelters and veteran housing by way of their Emergency Shelter Grants program. The program is meant to assist “homeless individuals and families, and subpopulations within this group, such as victims of domestic violence, youth, people with mental illness, families with children, and veterans. Emergency Shelter Grants Program funds can also be used to aid people who are at imminent risk of becoming homeless.” Noble as this may sound, HUD still has guidelines that prohibit coed living in shelters benefitting from its Emergency Shelter Program—this heteronormative standard provides an obstacle when caring for queer youth. Rick may be progressive and forthright, but he understands that housing queer kids with others of the same sex would stymie the already delicate process that is their rehabilitation. It’s entirely impractical, and since LnF is the first program of its kind highly unlikely to ever change. Westbrook considers this guideline a marker of his kids’ invisible status in the eyes of the government. Not only does the government ignore the statistical significance of queer youth homelessness, it does little to provide a channel for its own citizens to address the issue head on. 
 

PHOTO: Che Arias

PHOTO: Che Arias

“I don’t need people telling me I’m a horrible person because I showed a nineteen-year-old a hard cock and how condoms work. If I save their lives, you’ll thank me.” Westbrook doesn’t even know how to talk pretty when explaining his mission. That is in part due to his origin: born and raised in Atlanta, he worked as a corporate suit before moving towards community work with the forever punk Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The Sisters were founded in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood in 1979—a year after Dan White gunned down Harvey Milk. Their original intent was to satirize sexual intolerance by way of religious iconography and over-the-top pageantry and makeup. Now, their principle focus is HIV/AIDS testing and education, and even though their chapters have grown and they now have a national profile—that punk soul that brought them together is still robust and thriving.
 



Rick connected me with one of his success stories, a young woman named Kim Waters who graduated from the program when she was twenty-five years old. Kim’s story lacks the drama and epic heroism that details the history of the program’s founding, and that’s a good thing. She grew up in South Georgia, living with her sister following the death of her parents. Both died from natural causes within four months of each other. Kim’s relationship with her sister is currently nonexistent, as she’s dropped all communication with her. She cites a pattern of abusive behavior, rooted in age-old jealousy of their parents’ focused affection on Kim. Her escape from the toxic arrangement was made possible by family members who called Atlanta home; after living with her cousins for some time, Kim put herself through college. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Music, but she still needed a job.

Since having a college degree nowadays does little to remove the impediments one faces when getting their first post-college job, Kim knew she was going to have to put a lot of work in. If only things weren’t complicated by one very minor detail: Kim is a transgender woman. What's important to her is stability. In a world where even stability is a pipe-dream fantasy for many transpeople, this is understandable and completely acceptable. I ask her to describe exactly how she made it into the LnF program and she begins by telling me, with deadpan seriousness, “I needed to find a job.”

When she did find one, it was in Kennesaw, Georgia. She worked at a customer service center and her time there was bumpy, as a lack of transportation and resources made it difficult to keep a steady workflow where she could save and use her money to support herself. She fell into the trap that so many working-class Americans experience: since she didn’t make a lot of money, unexpected events were more than capable of putting her on her ass. In a perfect world, credit lines, personal savings, and other accrued safety measures would save a person from the fate of losing a job when their car’s transmission fails, but America is still recovering from the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression and Kim’s reality is the reality of many people now. As if external circumstances weren’t enough, a coworker accused Kim of disclosing their quality-control scores in a public Facebook post. Kim knew it wasn’t true, and she insists that the accusation was a result of who she was. She tells me that management made no effort to investigate the matter, only working with her as far as to tell she no longer worked there. It made no sense to her, because during her employment, she had gained the attention of company higher-ups and accolades for her department.

Still, being transgender in the South—America even—is usually a guarantee of some form of workplace discrimination. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey indicates that at least 26% of transpeople lost jobs because of who they are and a whopping 50% of transpeople were harassed on the job. Kim says that it was the gossipy whispers of her co-workers that ultimately led to the loss of her position, and having experienced this myself during the early stages of my transition, I immediately realize how familiar her narrative is for many women like her and I.

Today, that’s behind her. While living at the LnF house, which she found following a week-long stay at the notorious Peachtree and Pine shelter for the homeless, Kim was given a golden ticket, finally a chance at securing stability. A local real-estate agent and giver to the LnF foundation tapped the program for a secretary, opting to give an opportunity to someone who could really use a break. Kim was a prime candidate for the position; the LnF staff were all aware of her tenacious work ethic. House members can’t stay in between the weekday hours of 9 AM to 5 PM, as during this time they are supposed to hit the pavement and secure a job.

This is a major portion of LnF’s program to help queer youth achieve autonomy and stability. It ties into their regular weekly programming, which includes group therapy, single therapy (which is optional), budgeting classes, interview preparation, and bonding activities to help relieve the stress of having to grow upovernight. It’s a tough program, but it’s no tougher that what the world will put any of Mama Rick’s kids through. “It’s my job to get them off the streets and onto a payroll,” he emphasized to me regularly during our conversation. Rick considers Kim to be one of his greatest success stories, and to her feigned chagrin, he often requests that she lend her story to any news outlet willing to get LnF’s mission out there. She knows this and displays a quiet commitment to assisting the program in making their efforts and success known to the world.

Her journey lacks the serial quality of the program’s establishment. It is without drama, yet riddled with the strength of true resilience. Her story is such a world away from the themes that define the program’s beginnings, that emphasizes just how vital, and more importantly, how successful LnF’s efforts are.
 

PHOTO: Steve Hightower

PHOTO: Steve Hightower


Lost n Found Youth is not your typical Atlanta non-profit that does more to raise poorly allocated funds and less to actually accomplish its mission. More or less, it mirrors the efficacy of programs like Indianapolis’s Damien Center, which is one of the most successful HIV/AIDS advocacy nonprofits in the country. They offer testing, counseling, linkage to care, nutrition assistance, dental assistance, and housing assistance for people affected by HIV/AIDS.

Lost n Found is a rarity in that it is the only program in the Southeast and the country working to address the unique needs of queer youth. Their comprehensive approach, much like the Damien Center’s, is even more unique. One criticism of the nonprofit sector is the inaccessibility of many organizations. Many programs offer assistance, but when it comes to delivering their goods and services, they fall short. Since its beginning, LnF has had a twenty-four-hour hotline, ensuring that no one goes unassisted. Rick notes that following cultural shifts embodied in now famous personal journeys like that of Caitlyn Jenner and landmark judicial decisions regarding marriage from SCOTUS, he’s seen a huge uptick in the number of cases he takes on. “It’s all a part of a reaction—a backlash,” he states. And he’s correct. In times of progress, there is also pushback. Still, Rick shows no signs of stopping, and as long as he can share stories like that of Kim Waters, it’s unlikely that he would ever even consider the possibility.


Zaida J. is currently a Features Editor here at WUSSY and a self-described transgender loud mouth.