Inside Waltham House — Assisting LGBTQ Youth, Both In-House and Beyond

by Steve Duffy

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday June 11, 2020

Waltham House
Waltham House  (Source:www.thehome.org)

Massachusetts-based The Home for Little Wanderers is one of the oldest child and family service agency of its kind in the country. Founded in 1799, it heads into the 21st century with a seamless continuum of vital programs and services for every stage of child and family development. One of their programs aimed at LGBTQ youth is Waltham House, the first residential group home designed specifically for LGBTQ youth in New England, and one of only three of its kind in the nation.

Located in a large, federal-styled home in Boston, Waltham House provides a safe and supportive living environment with 24-hour staffing for up to 12 gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender youth ages 14—18. Their stay at Waltham House prepares them for what is next in their plan which may be reunification with their families, transitioning to a foster family, or preparing for independent living. In addition to the in-house treatment, Waltham House has recently introduced Out at Home, an outpatient therapeutic service that extends their reach far beyond what the in-house services can offer.

On the Waltham House website, Waltham House alumni talked of their experiences living there. One, named Alex, experienced homophobic bullying until he arrived at the facility at the age of 16. "When I first got there, I was amazed to see so many different kinds of people in one house. At Waltham House, we were accepted no matter who you were or who you loved. The staff was incredibly supportive and positive," he says on the website. Since leaving the house, Alex has gone onto a successful career with Coldwell Banker.

Another successful alumnus is Charlotte, who came to Waltham House as the angry Chris, who, at 16 "identified as a girl" and felt compelled to tell her parents. "Her parents ordered out of the house and locked the door behind her," her profile reads, and she was placed at Waltham House. Once there, she found self-acceptance and, with the legal help of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF), she won court approval to get hormone therapy despite an attempt by her parents to stop it.

EDGE spoke to Allyson Montana, who has worked at The Home for Little Wanderers for five years, first as the Milieu Director at Waltham House, and now serving as its Program Director. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Psychology and has worked in the human services field for 15 years. EDGE spoke to her about her experiences working for The Home, the Out at Home program and one of her favorite success stories in which a trans male lived in the house and is now headed to Harvard.

What is Waltham House?
A Waltham House resident prepares a sign for a Black Lives Matters rally  

What is Waltham House?

EDGE: Tell us a little bit about Waltham House.

Allyson Montana: "A little bit" is a very relative term, so you may have to shut me up. I am ridiculously passionate about it. So, Waltham House is only one of three LGBTQ geared group homes in the country. We have been around since the early 2000s. We serve up to 12 LGBTQ identified youths from ages 14 - 18.

EDGE: How does someone get referred to Waltham House?

Allyson Montana: There are two different sets of eligibility for the Waltham House, which is our congregate care program versus Out at Home, which is our community-based program. For the Waltham House, the kids are part of the Department of Children & Families (DCF) or Department of Mental Health (DMH). They are referred to DCF care for two different things: the parents may need support for behavior that the kids are demonstrating, or the parents lack the ability to provide a safe environment for them. That is how they come to us. We are a lower level of care, so our kids are higher functioning than other congregated care programs meaning they are active in the community, have jobs and go to school.

EDGE: Your organization does lots of incredible work. Can you tell me a bit more about the Out at Home program?

Allyson Montana: Out at Home is super exciting! It is a new program. I was really struggling because I felt like we were missing so much of the population that needed support and I felt like we could do a lot more. With Waltham House, we can only serve 12 kids at a time because the admission requirement is so specific. Out at Home was born as a result of that. Because it is an outpatient therapeutic service, we were able to be really broad with requirements for services. You just need to have some sort of insurance, which gets billed the way an outpatient therapist gets billed. What is special about it is that we are LGBTQ specific about it and that we can serve people anywhere — we can meet in school, café or your home. There is no age requirement or limit and it can include anyone in the home requiring services that identified as LGBTQ.

Helping queer youth
A Waltham House resident prepares a sign for a Black Lives Matters rally  

Helping queer youth

EDGE: How as working at the Waltham House affected you?

Allyson Montana: That is an amazedly loaded question. The Waltham House has changed my life. It is a place I want to get up and go to work every day. I work with the most resilient human beings that I have ever encountered. They give me strength; they give me hope and they give me a renewed passion for things. Professionally, the drive that they create in me is very organic to continue to grow the services we have and to continue to maintain the highest quality delivery of services that we can. They really drive my goal of advocacy to change systems. The experiences that my kids go through regarding their interaction with medical professionals, schools and the workplace and all the injustices I see within them. These kids spur my desire and constant effort to impact change and demand better for them.

EDGE: What can Massachusetts do better to help queer youth?

Allyson Montana: I am laughing because this is a conversation that I have been starting with as many people that will listen to me. One of our biggest issues is access to transgender and gender non-conforming medical care and confident medical care. When we talk about the state of Massachusetts, if we are talking about kids in the care of the state, you're talking about kids that have to follow guidelines put in place by the state which means that those guidelines should be streamlined, and they are not.

There is a strong need for the state to streamline the steps that kids must go through to access gender-conforming care and that does not exist right now. The example that I give everyone is: I could have two trans kids living in the same room. And one kid's DCF team is super-supportive of their hormone therapy, so they get approved and everything is moving along for them. The kid right next to them, maybe has the same identity, but different DCF team. (Their) hormone access is delayed and they can't go to the specific provider that they want; instead they have to go to the one DCF wants them to go to. That falls on the state and it falls on the system to make the change. I am really trying to be a squeaky wheel about this.

EDGE: Among LGBTQ youth, what are some groups whose support needs have gone unrecognized?

Allyson Montana: I think when you are talking about the trans population you have to separate out the gender non-conforming kids because there is such a push to make kids decide; and also when we are talking about homeless LGBTQ youth. Not the kids that I work directly with, but it is a population that falls by the wayside. They are unnamed, uncounted, and unseen. There are also so many kids caught in-between. They are caught in families that are not okay with their identity and don't support them, but they can't get services because they are not in DCF care. And that again is where Out at Home is going to come in and help make a difference.

Challenges facing homeless LGBTQ youth
Waltham House residents at a recent Black Lives Matters demonstration  

Challenges facing homeless LGBTQ youth

EDGE: Could you talk about the challenges that homeless LGBTQ youth face in this country today?

Allyson Montana: I am not incredibly well-versed in the population specifically because my focus is more here at the house. What we see when kids transition out into the next phase such as independent living or living with kin, you are really looking at kids who may not have the care places to go. So housing becomes an issue for them. Also, a lot of time employment becomes an issue, especially for transgender and non-conforming youth. There are a lot of ways for employers to discriminate without discriminating. If you can't find employment, you can't maintain anything for yourself.

EDGE: Many LGBT youths are coming out at a younger age. What advice would you give those thinking about coming out to their parents?

Allyson Montana: That is a fantastic question and to me, it is one that is doubled-sided. I came out as a renegade at 14-years old. I was like "you have to accept who I am or not." My advice would be to be thoughtful and to be patient. When you are coming out to your parents, it can be something that you are doing in phases while also trying to educate them. That was key with my mom. This was all new to her and because of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, she just assumed that all gay people got AIDS and died. Having her sit and watch documentaries with me, or introducing her to people like me, are the steps that I had to take to help her understand. I think that when kids come out today, they think that acceptance must be immediate. But it's a process no matter how short or long it takes.

EDGE: The Trump administration has taken different path on LGBTQ issues. How do these backward steps affect your work, and how do you see it moving forward?

Allyson Montana: I think it has made us even more unapologetic and has continued to firm up our need to stand our ground and advocate for our kids. The more the world's view shifts, and it becomes scarier for kids and for the LGBTQ community. It really has become a call to continue to stand united. The impact that it has is, people who agree with him are digging their heels in more and feel more protected and speaking hateful things and the kids have to hear that. They are getting called "faggots," there are more transphobic comments, more harassment than ever. People just feel so entitled to speak hatred.

EDGE: What's your favorite success story?

Allyson Montana: We had a kiddo whose mom was incarcerated, and dad had passed away. From the moment of walking through the door, you knew they would flourish more in a foster home; or you just know with some kids, that the programs will just not work. He was a trans male. I was interviewing a mentor one day and as I was talking to this him, I thought to myself, "this guy and this kid are going to hit it off." They are going to absolutely love each other. They are the same human. I introduced them to be mentor/mentored to each other. As I was reviewing his paperwork, I noticed that he was preapproved for foster care. They become best buddies and as things progressed, he wanted to foster this kid. Long story short, this gentleman adopted this child. This child is going to Harvard in September. He calls the gentleman Dad and changed his last name. They are also utilizing Out at Home therapy services. The great thing is that Out at Home services can continue even when he is in college.

For more information on The Waltham House visit, www.thehome.org

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