A Supportive Shelter for LGBTQ Young Adults

The RAIN Foundation in East Orange offers support groups, counseling, financial-management seminars and career training.

Claire Wright, a resident at the LGBTQ-focused homeless shelter RAIN in East Orange, sews masks for her housemates amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of the RAIN Foundation

When Claire Wright was kicked out of her residence last fall, she had nowhere to go. Then she learned about RAIN. “It ended up being the perfect fit,” says the 24-year-old.

The typical homeless shelter provides for basic needs. The Essex County RAIN Foundation offers that and more to LGBTQ-identifying young adults aged 18–26.

RAIN founder and executive director Elaine Helms worked in the World Trade Center’s Life Safety Department and was on site when it was attacked on 9/11. The chest, back and neck injuries she sustained that day continue to plague her, and she has PTSD-related episodes.

The experience spurred Helms to move in a different direction. “It started with me having to reinvent myself after surviving 9/11. I knew it had to be something with helping people,” says Helms. She witnessed several transgender women offering sexual favors outside her office just to earn a place to sleep. “They explained they didn’t feel safe in normal shelters,” she says. “My heart told me I needed to do something.”

Today, RAIN—which stands for Reaching Adolescents in Need—provides emergency shelter for up to 12 LGBTQ young adults at its East Orange facility. Residents get case managers who connect them to the services they need. RAIN offers weekly support groups and mental-health counseling, as well as financial-management seminars and career training through its partner agencies. “They have resources for everything anybody could need,” says Wright.

RAIN is unique in its focus on the LGBTQ community. Of the estimated 4.2 million youth who experience homelessness each year, up to 40 percent identify as LGBTQ, according to the organization True Colors United. A University of Chicago study found 62 percent of homeless LGBTQ youths had been physically abused. RAIN provides services under the federal Victims of Crime Act (VOCA), which helps victims of sexual crimes. The foundation is supported by grants and individual donations.

[RELATED: How NJ Is Giving Back in the Age of Covid-19]

The supportive atmosphere at RAIN helps residents overcome their challenges and achieve success. The RAIN staff—mostly volunteers—operates 24 hours a day. The volunteers, like Rebecca King, engage with residents, often discovering their true talents.

“I noticed just how artistic and creative nearly every resident was,” says King. “They told me about the music they were working on, sang songs they wrote, performed dances, talked about starting up fashion studios and art spaces. There’s no lack of spirit and artistic vision in the RAIN house.”

While sheltering in place during the Covid-19 emergency, residents had time to bond and share movie and game nights. Wright, who is still a RAIN resident, helped make masks for housemates.

To Helms, that was proof of RAIN’s success. “I measure it by the kids and their actions and what they get out of it,” says Helms. “When they gain sustainability…that shows me the success of RAIN.”

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