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Haven in danger 

Gay teenagers at risk of losing their home

Cara Leigh Tackett moved from Fayette County to East Atlanta three weeks ago -- but not for the usual reasons. She wasn't interested in boutique shopping or better dining. The girl on the brink of adulthood, her moon-shaped face beaming with newfound independence, says she left to escape family problems -- ones that arose because the 11th-grader is gay.

"At first they didn't think I was serious about it," 18-year-old Tackett says of her parents' reaction to her leaving. "It hurt my mom. She thought I must have hated her. But there was always more bickering than good times."

It used to be that gay teens from discriminating or abusive families had three options: a state foster system ill-equipped to deal with homosexuality, shelters that are cruel to gays, or streets that are crueler.

Where Tackett landed -- a sky-blue house two blocks from East Atlanta Village -- is the exception. It's also endangered.

The Patterson Avenue bungalow is named Rainbow Home. It was created three years ago as an answer -- albeit a small one -- to the rising population of young and homeless homosexuals. So far, 80 gay youths been sent to the six-bed home by psychiatrists, the state or the word of other homeless teens.

When the idea was first pitched to the federal government, Rainbow Home received a rating of 99 out of 100 points, based on its perceived ability to "help older homeless youth achieve self- sufficiency and avoid long-term dependency on social services." Rainbow Home won a three-year federal grant of $180,000 per year, with the option of renewing the grant.

But the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has turned down Rainbow Home's fourth year of funding. Forty five percent of the home's annual $400,000 budget is gone.

According to the HHS website, the "transitional living" grant Rainbow Home received is renewed "dependent upon satisfactory performance, availability of funds and determination that continued funding would be in the best interest of the government."

"What I was told was we didn't score high enough," says Rainbow Home CEO Kathy Colbenson. "Now, I wrote the grant application three years ago and I wrote this one. And this one is five times stronger, based on actual kids and based on data from Fulton County."

Last year, HHS handed out $30.2 million in transitional living grants. In the year to come, HHS anticipates the grants to jump to $39.7 million. So that leaves only the third criteria -- the one that requires grant renewal "would be in the best interest of the government."

The HHS has not yet provided Rainbow Home with a formal reason for turning it down. But gay-rights activists have their suspicions. Allen Thornell, with Georgia Equality, points out that Rainbow Home first received its funding under a Democratic president -- and before the words "faith-based initiatives" entered the American vernacular. The Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, created by President Bush, is attempting to funnel federal funds from non-secular nonprofits to religious ones.

"This is kind of the big shoe dropping," Thornell says. "It's a real example that there is a difference between candidates. There is a difference between the parties."

David Smith, communications director at the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C., says he's waiting to get more information from HHS on why Rainbow Home was turned down. "We're extremely concerned that there could have been anti-gay bias," Smith says. He points out that Human Rights Campaign has not recorded any spike in gay agencies being denied funds since the inception of the faith-base initiatives office.

"We're going to be watching it carefully," Smith says.

The HHS denies that any grant applicant is the victim of discrimination.

"There's no preferential niche," says Curtis Porter, a team leader at the HHS Family and Youth Services Bureau. "It's a very competitive program, our most competitive program."

Whatever the reason for the refusal, Rainbow Home has inherited an obligation -- in addition to sheltering neglected gay teens -- to raise the lost funding by the year's end. Rainbow Home's parent agency, CHRIS Homes, started the fundraising race Nov. 14 at Park Tavern in Midtown.

In the bar's loft-like gallery, tables and easels bore hundreds of donated goods up for auction -- everything from a Sonicare toothbrush to lunch at Mary Mac's Tea Room with Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard.

If the well-heeled auction-goers -- each of whom paid a $35 entry fee -- are any indication, the fundraising mission so far has been smartly directed. A half-hour into bidding, a collage by Italian artist Niro Vasali fetched a first bid of $650.

Earlier that day, at Rainbow Home, one of the residents gawked over the art he'd unloaded at Park Tavern. "There was a painting of Marilyn Monroe," said Andre Solis, the home's one straight resident. "It was huge."

Solis reclined beside Tackett on one of the tiny living room's four couches. Solis and Tackett, from different racial backgrounds and sexual perspectives, giggled about the challenges of life in such a diverse six-teenager household.

"What is that CD you keep playing constantly in our room?" Tackett chided.

"Tank," Solis answered. "You better not be talking bad about Michael Jackson."

Solis was on his way out, to the 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. shift he works at the airport's Starbucks. Between shifts, he takes voice lessons at Jan Smith Studios. He intends to be an R&B singer.

Tackett has set her sights on teaching kindergarten, so she is studying for her GED and looking for a part-time job. She's applied at Krystal, McDonald's, Publix and Kroger.

"I needed to grow up, and I couldn't grow up independently," Tackett says of the house she shared with her mother, her second stepfather whom she hardly knew, and her 3-year-old nephew she was left to tend. "Here, you get to be who you are."

mara.shalhoup@creativeloafing.com



For information about donating to Rainbow Home, go to www.chrishomes.org.

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