October 4, 2013 at 6:00 am EDT | by Mariah Cooper
A place to call home
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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