Out Youth Temporarily Out of Business
Financial problems and staff turmoil leave queer kids alienated
Austin's queer youth were dealt a sudden blow in January, when the Out Youth drop-in center, where kids aged 12-19 had gone for peer support and professional counseling since 1998, closed without warning. Subsequent bickering between staff, board members, volunteers, and youth threatened to shut the 16-year-old organization down. Now, with Out Youth's executive director gone, and tempers dying down, Out Youth's board says it plans to reopen the drop-in center later this month. But many youth still resent what they see as the board's mishandling of the situation, and some say they may not be ready to return.
Money trouble is the main reason for the closing of the center specifically, the lawsuit insurance, required by any agency that works with minors, had expired. It's not the first time that Out Youth has run short of cash; everyone involved agrees that the organization is a difficult one to fund. Many grant-giving agencies are reluctant to fund agencies that deal with alternative sexualities, and if funding GLBT organizations raises eyebrows, funding queer minors is an even stickier issue. And within the limited pool of grant money that is available, Out Youth must compete with higher-profile causes like HIV services.
Two years ago, financial troubles brought the drop-in center to the brink of closing. Youth members of the organization organized an open house and silent-auction fundraiser that raised nearly $3,000 and brought Out Youth temporarily back into the black. This time, things weren't nearly so heartwarming.
Out Youth's old executive director moved to San Antonio in August. Board members and a panel of youth chose a replacement with a strong background in fundraising, hoping she could steer the organization onto solid financial footing. The new executive director, Amy Arquilla, took up the office at the end of December, and "stepped immediately into a lot of turmoil," says Out Youth board secretary Bryant Hilton. Both youth and volunteers found Arquilla dictatorial and hard to work with, and by the end of December, Out Youth's one full-time staff member had resigned, and the organization's only youth counselor declined to renew her contract. Both youth and volunteers were shocked when Arquilla got rid of all of the drop-in center's computers and most of its furniture.
Meanwhile, there were cash flow problems. In December, Arquilla discovered that Out Youth's lawsuit insurance had lapsed during the previous fall. Without that insurance, city and county officials suspended the grant contract that had been Out Youth's main source of funding. A three-year grant from the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health ran out, and all 15 grant applications filed in 2005 were turned down. "Our financial footing just fell out from under us," Hilton says.
On January 3, Hilton sent an e-mail to volunteer Rick Mann stating that the drop-in center would be open three nights a week as usual. Two weeks later, volunteers and youth got an e-mail stating that the center was closed, and would remain closed indefinitely. On Jan. 22, the board met with youth and volunteers and estimated that the center would reopen within a week or two. Weeks went by without further word from the board, however, and the center remained closed. Many volunteers assumed the board intended to close the center permanently and began making plans to take control of the organization, by lawsuit if necessary. When youth attempted to attend a board meeting in February, they were asked to leave and threatened with trespassing charges.
Early this month, the board announced Arquilla's resignation. Last week, the board held a meeting with volunteers, where many ruffled feelings seemed to be ironed out. The board presented a short-term plan to privately raise the $3,000 to buy enough insurance to re-open the center one night a week, beginning in late April. After that, the board hopes to raise money to buy the additional levels of coverage the city and county require to renew Out Youth's contract. In the long term, the board will try to diversify Out Youth's funding and make the organization sustainable. There's some talk of trying to build an endowment, or of partnering with other community organizations with more solid financial footings. Meanwhile, there will be no money to pay staff, so volunteers will have to take on the work of supervising youth, organizing activities, and communicating with the board. So far, volunteers seem willing to cooperate.
The board also held a meeting with youth last week, but only three youth members attended. Nick Snyder, who has been involved with Out Youth since 2002, was there, but was unimpressed with the board's explanations and projections for the future. In the past, Snyder has been involved in everything from painting the center to building Out Youth's Pride Parade float. He was a central organizer of the 2003 fundraiser, and part of the panel that interviewed Arquilla for executive directorship. "Out Youth was like home and family to me," Snyder says. "This was one place I could go and be accepted."
Snyder says many youth members felt ignored and disrespected by the board after the center's closing. "Everything was a secret," he says. "They couldn't tell us this. They couldn't tell us that. We were all a little pissed." While the center was closed, Snyder co-founded a group called the Interchange, which he says will work for social justice for all minorities. The group contains several former youth members of Out Youth, but Snyder says it's not intended to replace Out Youth and is willing to work on joint projects with Out Youth in the future. Currently, the two organizations plan to work together to organize the annual Alternative Prom that provides a prom experience for GLBT youth and straight allies. Still, Snyder is wary about returning to Out Youth. "They asked me last week what it would take to rebuild trust with the youth," he says. "I didn't have an answer. I don't know."