While working as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, Brendan had the idea to start The Homeward Initiative, a non-profit that provides homeless LGBTQ+ youth with the resources they need for survival and independence. Brendan received Penn’s prestigious President’s Engagement Prize, which awarded him a $150,000 grant to fund his mission of starting Philadelphia’s first Host Home program for homeless LGBTQ+ youth. Recently, Brendan broadened his reach to New York, where he is working on a new impactful project.
What gave you the idea to focus on LGBTQ+ youth homelessness?
I always knew I wanted to do social impact work, and the education work I did early in college made me gravitate towards youth issues. I learned about the issue my Junior year at school and felt an immediate connection. Anyone who identifies as LGBTQ+ knows to some extent what it feels like to be marginalized or isolated within your own community. These young people were living lives that could have easily been my own, and I felt compelled to do something about it. I wrote my senior thesis on LGBTQ+ homelessness in Philly and was able to interview a lot of people who were working to solve this. What I found was that even though there are great minds working on this and there has been considerable progress, Philadelphia is still a very poor city with few resources available. The President’s Engagement Prize was the perfect opportunity for me to use this research I had done and be able to get real funding behind it. Once I won, I ended up spending a year and a half of my life working on this program.
How do you locate individuals that are in need of your services?
It unfortunately is far too easy. I have now passed this program off to the Valley Youth House, who I had partnered with since the beginning since they are a large youth housing nonprofit in Philadelphia. They provide LGBTQ+ youth services, so I worked with them to set up all of the infrastructure for the program, including recruiting, vetting, and training hosts. I figured out all our procedures, worked with the city, did fundraising, and brought Homeward Initiative to its launch. At that point, it was turned over to them since they are deeply connected with the homeless community in Philly and support between 500 and 700 kids at a time. There’s no shortage of LGBTQ+ young people who are in need of safe and supportive housing. Really, they find us. I still get calls asking if I can help.
How has The Homeward Initiative been affected by the pandemic?
We were about two weeks from launching when the pandemic hit, and it really threw a wrench in our plans. People became a lot less interested in welcoming a stranger into their home when a deadly pandemic was raging. I wasn’t sure if it was going to get off the ground at all, and that was a very difficult time. Somehow, we pivoted, raised a lot of money, and were feeding young people at a shelter before we managed to launch in July and place our first young person in a host home. It was such a miracle. I took this grant with no real work experience, I knew nothing about entrepreneurship, and I didn’t really know what I was doing a lot of the time. To see it take off and materially impact even just one person’s life was a really amazing experience that I’m so grateful for.
How has your expansion to New York been going so far?
It’s been great! I partnered with another Penn alum to develop affordable housing for college students in Newburgh, which is 1.5 hours away from New York City. College students, particularly at community colleges, struggle to maintain access to adequate and affordable housing. They are often excluded from the social safety net and community colleges themselves are extremely under resourced. You can’t focus on long term goals like graduation and getting a job if you’re focused on where your next meal is coming from. We’re stepping in not only to provide affordable housing, but also to create a sense of community for students that will provide them with the tertiary support they need to reach their academic goals. We decided to start as a for-profit organization because real estate is extremely expensive and we need a way to raise money from people who are interested in impact investing. As we look to grow, I’ve been learning so much about forming our values, making a true impact, and reaching as many people as possible. I’m really excited to see where it goes.