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Wanda Alston House for LGBT youth to launch foundation

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Brian Watson, Wanda Alston House, gay news, Washington Blade
Brian Watson, Wanda Alston House, gay news, Washington Blade

Brian Watson at the Wanda Alston House. (Washington Blade file photo by Henry Linser)

The Wanda Alston House has helped support homeless LGBT youth throughout the last five years. Now, with Transgender Health Empowerment’s (THE) bankruptcy, the Alston House needs some support of its own.

The Wanda Alston Foundation formed in July to financially aid the Alston House in the wake of THE’s collapse. The foundation hosts its official launch reception and first fundraiser at MOVA Lounge (2204 14th St., N.W.) Tuesday from 5:30-8 p.m. The kick-off reception also celebrates the Alston House’s fifth year anniversary.

Christopher Dyer, gay news, Washington Blade

Christopher Dyer (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“It’s a unique program and we’d love to have as much support as we can from the community about this,” says Christopher Dyer, president of the Wanda Alston Foundation. “We’re getting grants, we’re up and running and we’d love to have as much support, in terms of volunteers and financially, as we possibly can.”

At the Alston House’s inception, the Department of Health and Human Services provided funding for the shelter combined with help from THE’s services to aid homeless LGBT youth. After THE’s bankruptcy, Alston House needed additional funding. Former THE Director of Programming Brian Watson oversees the Alston House and sought funding through a sponsor. The foundation was formed to administer the grants needed to keep the program running as well as the program itself.

“It’s a good foundation to start because it’s sourcing money more directly to Wanda Alston. There was some fundraising effort but it’s complicated to describe fundraising to donors. Now the foundation is pretty clear,” Dyer says.

Alston House, named after Wanda Alston, a lesbian activist who was murdered in Washington in 2006, is a renovated multi-bedroom house located in the Deanwood neighborhood of Northeast’s seventh Ward. It opened after THE noticed an increase of LGBT youth at its drop-in center. The house has assisted about 50 people ages 16-24 over the last five years. Eight people now reside in the home, the maximum amount allowed at one time. It is the only program designed to provide services for homeless at-risk LGBT youth in the District.

The house is always full excluding when rooms are being cleaned for new residents. Residents are required to go to school or have a job while staying in the house. They are allowed to stay up to 18 months. Former residents have gone on to attend college, move into their own places or returned home to their families. The board’s secretary, Xion Lopez, is a former Wanda Alston House resident. She lived there for about 13 months from the end of 2011 until January of this year. She joined the board last month after being told it would be advantageous to have the perspective of a former resident and transgender person on the board.

Xion Lopez, HIPS, Queery, gay news, Washington Blade

Xion Lopez (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“This is a service that is definitely needed,” Lopez, 22, says. “Homelessness continues to grow and these are our children out there suffering through this. They’re forced into all kinds of things from drugs to prostitution to even jail, just to survive. Some don’t mind going to jail because they see that as a safety net. But we’re here to help. Do what you need to do to get on the waiting list. That’s what we’re here for.”

A paid staff that includes a full-time executive director, program director and administrator coordinator controls the day-to-day activities. The house also has trained adult supervisors qualified to oversee the special needs of a homeless shelter. The board approves each staff member hired.

The board focuses primarily on the fiscal and government oversight of the organization. The nine members work together to determine policies such as which grants are important and feasible to apply for and which are not. Approximately 90 percent of their revenue comes from D.C. administrated grants.

Lopez says she had an overall great experience at the Alston House. Among her fellow residents, several have moved on to school, one is studying abroad, two others are out on their own with full-time jobs, another got married and had a child.

“We have lots of success stories,” she says.

Now living on her own in Hyattsville, Md., Lopez says there were occasionally tensions within the house, but a high emphasis was placed on working through tension.

“You put eight LGBT young people in a house together, of course it’s not going to be all rainbows everyday,” she says. “There were some hormones and attitudes that collided but for the most part we had good relationships with each other and things that needed to be worked out were brought to the forefront. We never closed out a week with things not being addressed.”

Funding from the city has been steady over the years. The organization’s budget is about $400,000 per year. It includes the $60,000 spent on renting the house per year. The fundraising efforts have just begun and start with the reception on Tuesday. Dyer admits that the board is still figuring out how to organize “an infrastructure for donor maintenance.”

Dyer’s support for Alston House and his collaboration with Watson began five years ago when he worked as an LGBT liaison for former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty. Watson secured funding for the Alston House from the D.C. City Council while Dyer served under Fenty’s administration in 2007. He became president of the Wanda Alston House Foundation board during the foundation’s first meeting in August.

The board has already made strides as an organization as they recently moved their operation from inside the Alston House to an administrative office downtown. Eventually, the board would like to expand the program so more clients can find help.

“We’re so new our board is much more active as opposed to a board that meets once every two or three months and just writes checks,” Dyer says. “We’re more intimately involved in the strategic direction of the organization.”

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PHOTOS: Superstar Drag Revue

Bombalicious Eklaver leads the show at Selina Rooftop

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Superstar Drag Review (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Bombalicious Eklaver held a Superstar Drag Revue at the Selina Hotel Rooftop on Friday, Nov. 25. DJ Juba provided the music.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Books

Memoir reveals gay writer’s struggle with homelessness, rape

‘Place Called Home’ a powerful indictment of foster care system

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(Book cover image courtesy Legacy Lit/Hachette)

A Place Called Home: A Memoir
By David Ambroz
c. 2022, Legacy Lit/Hachette
$30/384 pages

For David Ambroz, 42, author of the stunning new memoir “A Place Called Home,” one of his childhood recollections is of himself and his siblings walking with Mary, their mother, on a freezing Christmas morning in New York City.

Today, Ambroz, who is gay and a foster parent, is a poverty and child welfare expert and the head of Community Engagement (West) for Amazon.

But, on that morning, Ambroz remembers, when he was five, he and his seven-year-old sister Jessica and six-year-old brother Alex were freezing. Mary, their mother was severely mentally ill. They were homeless.

Ambroz draws you into his searing memoir with his first sentence. “I’m hungry,” he writes in the simple, frightened, perceptive voice of a malnourished, shivering little boy.

As it got dark and colder, Ambroz recalls, he walked with his family, wearing “clownishly large” sneakers “plucked from the trash.” 

Five-year-old Ambroz remembers that the night before his family got lucky. They had dinner (mac and cheese) at a church “with a sermon on the side.”  

“We heard the story of the three kings bringing gifts to the baby Jesus,” Ambroz writes.

But the next day they’re still homeless and hungry. Talk about no room at the inn.

Young Ambroz doesn’t know the word “death,” but he (literally) worries that he and his family will die. Frozen, hungry and invisible to uncaring passersby.

Ambroz’s mom, a nurse, is occasionally employed and able to house her family in dilapidated apartments. But she’s soon ensnared by her mental illness, unable to work. Then, her family is homeless again.

Until, he was 12, Ambroz and his siblings were abused and neglected by their mother.

Ambroz doesn’t know as a young boy that he’s gay. But, he can tell he’s different. Instead of playing street games with the other kids, Ambroz likes to play “doctor” with another boy in the neighborhood.

Mary tells him being gay is sinful and that you’ll die from AIDS if you’re queer.

His mother, having decided that he’s Jewish, makes Ambroz undergo a badly botched circumcision. At one point, she beats him so badly that he falls down a flight of stairs.

At 12, Ambroz reports this abuse to the authorities and he’s placed into the foster care system.

If you think this country’s foster care system is a safe haven for our nation’s 450,000 kids in foster care, Ambroz will swiftly cut through that misperception.

From ages 12 to 17, Ambroz is ricocheted through a series of abusive, homophobic foster placements.

One set of foster parents try to make him more “macho,” rent him out to work for free for their friends and withhold food from him. At another placement, a counselor watches and does nothing as other kids beat him while hurling gay slurs.

Thankfully, Ambroz meets Holly and Steve who become fabulous foster parents. Ambroz has been abused and hungry for so long he finds it hard to understand that he can eat whatever he wants at their home.

Through grit, hard work and his intelligence, Ambroz earned a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College, was an intern at the White House and graduated from the UCLA School of Law. Before obtaining his position at Amazon, he led Corporate Social Responsibility for Walt Disney Television.

But none of this came easily for him. Coming out was hard for many LGBTQ people in the 1990s. It was particularly difficult for Ambroz.

In college, Ambroz is deeply closeted. He’s ashamed to reveal anything about his past (growing up homeless and in foster care) and his sexuality. 

At one point, he’s watching TV, along with other appalled students, as the news comes on about Matthew Shepard being murdered because he was gay. Ambroz can see that everyone is enraged and terrified by this hate crime. Yet, he’s too ashamed to reveal anything of his sexuality.

Over Christmas vacation, Ambroz decides it’s time to explore his sexuality.

Telling no one, Ambroz takes a train to Miami. There, he goes home with a man (who he meets on a bus) who rapes him.

“I run in no particular direction just away from this monster,” he recalls. “When I get back to my hotel room, I’m bleeding…I order food delivered but can’t eat any of it.”

“A Place Called Home” has the power of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

Ambroz’s writing becomes less powerful when he delves into the weeds of policy. But this is a minor quibble.

Ambroz is a superb storyteller. Unless you lack a heartbeat, you can’t read “A Place Called Home” without wanting to do something to change our foster care system. 

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Books

New book explores impact of family secrets

Her father was hiding his sexual orientation

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(Book cover image courtesy HarperOne)

The Family Outing: A Memoir
By Jessi Hempel
c. 2022, HarperOne
$27.99/320 pages

Don’t tell the children.

For most families in America in the last century, that was the maxim to live by: the kids are on a need-to-know basis and since they’re kids, they don’t need to know. And so what did you miss? Did you know about familial philanthropy, rebellion, embarrassment, poverty? As in the new memoir, “The Family Outing” by Jessi Hempel, did secrets between parent and child run both ways?

“What happened to me?”

That’s the big question Jessi Hampel had after many therapy sessions to rid herself of a recurring nightmare. She had plenty of good memories. Her recollection of growing up in a secure family with two siblings was sharp, wasn’t it?

She thought so – until she started what she called “The Project.”

With permission from her parents and siblings, Hempel set up Skype and Zoom sessions and did one-on-one interviews with her family, to try to understand why her parents divorced, why her brother kept mostly to himself, how the family dynamics went awry, why her sister kept her distance, and how secrets messed everything up.

Hempel’s father had an inkling as a young man that he was gay, but his own father counseled him to hide it. When he met the woman who would eventually be his wife, he was delighted to become a husband and father, as long as he could sustain it.

Years before, Hempel’s mother was your typical 1960s teenager with a job at a local store, a crush on a slightly older co-worker and, coincidentally, a serial killer loose near her Michigan neighborhood. Just after the killer was caught, she realized that the co-worker she’d innocently flirted with might’ve been the killer’s accomplice.

For nearly the rest of her life, she watched her back.

One secret, one we-don’t-discuss-it, and a young-adult Hempel was holding something close herself. What else didn’t she know? Why did she and her siblings feel the need for distance? She was trying to figure things out when the family imploded.

Ever had a dream that won’t stop visiting every night? That’s where author Jessi Hempel starts this memoir, and it’s the perfect launching point for “The Family Outing.”

Just prepare yourself. The next step has Hempel telling her mother’s tale for which, at the risk of being a spoiler, you’ll want to leave the lights on. This account will leave readers good and well hooked, and ready for the rest of what turns out to be quite a detective story.

And yet, it’s a ways away from the Sherlockian. Readers know what’s ahead, we know the score before we get there, but the entwining of five separate lives in a fact-finding mission makes this book feel as though it has a surprise at every turn.

Sometimes, it’s a good surprise. Sometimes, it’s a bad one.

A happily minimized amount of profanity and a total lack of overtness make “The Family Outing” a book you can share with almost anyone, adult, or ally. Read it, and you’ll be wanting to tell everyone.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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