Lambda Legal Helps Homeless Teen Get Food Stamps

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October 23, 2012

Ashley, a 19-year-old Latina living in rural Montgomery County, New York, now has food stamps, after Lambda Legal sought a fair hearing to challenge the denial of the public benefit.

Last year, Ashley was rejected by her father and kicked out of her home because she is bisexual. She was homeless, couldn’t focus at school, and even contemplated suicide. Ashley was sleeping on couches among other family members because her father gave her an ultimatum: “leave his house or be with men.”

Ashley’s decision to be herself left her without a home and without a father, the parent who had been raising her and whom she considered her “hero and idol.” With nowhere to turn, Ashley went to her high school counselor, Colleen Cushing, to whom she had come out earlier that year. Ms. Cushing recognized that it would not be safe for Ashley to return to such a rejecting and harmful environment, so she suggested Ashley contact the Montgomery County Department of Social Services for temporary assistance and food stamps. Social Services rejected her application for assistance after an employee spoke to her father, who said he would allow her to come home—although only if Ashley promised to be “straight.” Ashley knew that returning home was not a safe option for her.

Ashley and her counselor, Ms. Cushing, contacted Lambda Legal. Flor Bermudez, Youth in Out-Of-Home Care Staff Attorney, worked with Ashley to appeal the denial to the Montgomery County Department of Social Services. Bermudez argued that, according to New York State law, because Ashley was over 18 and not pregnant or parenting, Social Services should not have contacted her father as a condition of receiving her benefits, but only as an alternative income resource. Even more significant, the Social Services failed to follow the legal requirement to consider whether it is practical or safe for a young person to go back into a home, taking into account whether the young person will be forced to endure more psychological damage based on family rejection of the young person’s sexual orientation.

“It is critical that government agencies understand their legal responsibilities: The Department of Social Services cannot make a young person’s public assistance contingent upon staying in his or her parent’s home where the youth is being forced to try to change his or her sexual orientation—something mental health experts agree is ineffective and potentially very dangerous,” said Bermudez.

In August, Ashley received food stamps retroactively. She is continuing to work with Lambda Legal to secure temporary assistance. “I’m doing this for other LGBT kids. When they get kicked out of their homes by their parents, they shouldn’t have to get an attorney like I did to make sure they get food stamps,” said Ashley.

“Getting Lambda Legal involved really helped teach the county that … they have to . . . take into consideration what is best for gay kids who are showing up on their doorstep. It’s not 1952 where they just go home and everything will be okay… They need to be asking questions,” said Ms. Cushing.

“We hope all school counselors will be as committed to their LGBT students as Ms. Cushing has been to Ashley. Lambda Legal has just launched a mobile site for youth and social service professionals—Know Your Rights: Youth—so that young LGBT people, like Ashley, and their allies can find help instantly on their mobile devices,” said Susan Sommer, Lambda Legal Director of Constitutional Litigation.