From looks alone, you’d never think Dixon had endured all that he has in barely two decades of life. Almost everything about him seems contradictory. His clean-cut boyish looks and sunny demeanor don’t seem to jibe well with his dramatic story — an epic ideal for a made-for-TV movie. His milky complexion belies his part Puerto Rican heritage. He’s tall and lanky, but tends to recoil slightly — like a child in protective mode — when he speaks of the emotional and physical traumas he’s experienced. His grammar isn’t perfect, but his words convey a wisdom that far exceeds his age. What’s most fascinating, though, is his unyielding Christian conviction. It’s particularly interesting in light of the fact that he contends that so many people in his life refer to the Bible as the basis for condemning him and his “lifestyle.” He’s well aware that he’s been dealt a bad hand in life, so to speak, but he presses on with the determination of someone holding a full house, poised to claim victory in the card game of life.
“I’ve just always had this sense that God has something better for me,” he says, a hopeful smile spreading across his face. “That’s what has kept me going.”
He’s built a surrogate “family” of friends and church members from The Vision Church of Atlanta (Dixon calls it a “progressive Pentecostal” congregation) and together, with them, he continues his pursuit of that “something better.”
Dixon now calls a quaint one-bedroom apartment in East Atlanta home. Summit Trail is a maze of five pristine brick buildings, traced by patches of vibrantly colored flowers and fluffy green grass. His place is tidy and smells of Febreeze, which he admits to obsessively spraying daily. The bright gold chair in the corner, the chocolate brown microfiber couch pressed against a large sun-drenched window and even the colorful abstract painting that hangs solo on a side wall were all charitable donations from CHRIS Kids supporters.
Aside from being the only place that Dixon says he’s ever felt was truly his own, this “supportive housing” facility operated by CHRIS Kids is unique in that it is the only one of its kind in the Southeast that specifically supports young gay, lesbian and transgender adults. The apartment community houses single and “parenting” youth, ages 17 to 24, with emotional and behavioral problems who are aging out of foster care, as well as homeless youth.
“We provide special outreach to LGBT youth, as they represent a disproportionate number of homeless youth,” explains Colbenson. “This facility is the only program in the Southeast that specifically reaches out to help and support young adults who identify as gay, lesbian and transgender. There are other programs out there, but none doing it in an apartment complex setting like we’re doing it.”
Dixon, like all of the young adults who live at Summit Trail, take part in TransitionZ, a life skills program that provides counseling, educational support and job skill development.
“We’re providing them with the skills they need to become contributing citizens,” says Colbenson. “We’re not in the business of enabling, we’re in the business of second chances. It’s all about self-sufficiency. All residents have to be working or going to school.”
In 2009, after a year on the streets, Dixon landed a precious slot at one of the tiny six-bed residential facilities where CHRIS Kids had operated since 2000. He remained there until last year when he and all of the other residents moved into the considerably larger East Atlanta complex. Summit Trail houses up to 44 young adults and up to 16 of their children. Since it is federally subsidized, the rent is based on income and residents must adhere to strict rules. For example no alcohol or smoking is allowed; all guests must undergo a background check to visit.
YouthPride is the only metro Atlanta organization that serves all LGBT teens and young adults ages 13 to 24. From its downtown Atlanta facility the staff provides counseling and group support sessions. Until recently, it had operated a program called Home@YouthPride that intervened with direct emergency assistance (such as cash or vouchers) to prevent eviction or help place a young person temporarily in a safe place. Hall says limited financial resources led to the program’s demise. She and her staff now do what they can to divert their clients to other available resources, primarily CHRIS Kids and Covenant House.
“Adult shelters aren’t necessarily the safest place for kids,” says Ashe. “A lot of child predators tend to hang out in shelters looking for kids to prey on. That’s why we need more options available in the city for young homeless kids and young adults.”
Most advocates agree Atlanta could do a better job in regards to its support of its homeless LGBT population. In fact, in 2006 the NCH named Atlanta the fourth “meanest city” in the nation regarding its treatment of homeless people.
“Georgia has come a long way, but it has a long way to go,” notes Colbenson.
Ironically Dixon says a lot of LGBT young people flock to Atlanta from across the country and the Southeast because of its prevalent image as a “gay friendly city.” Once here, he says, there’s often a rude awakening.
“I pray that I live to see the day when Atlanta and the South become an affirming, more accepting place no matter who you are and where you come from,” says Dixon. “Dr. [Martin Luther] King said an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere. We need to finish Dr. King’s work.”
“Atlanta is a gay friendly city for adults with money; if you’re white and privileged like me,” asserts Hall. “I live in Decatur [next to Atlanta] and there are so many lesbians here. If you have a job and money it’s easy to be gay here, but not so much if you don’t fall into that category.”
Once relegated to the streets for that year, Dixon says he, like many displaced LGBT youth, resorted to selling sex in exchange for food and places to stay. Soon thereafter he flunked out of college and was strung out on methamphetamine, cocaine and heroine.
“The only thing I didn’t get into was needles,” remembers Dixon. “I didn’t like needles.”
Dixon’s life was steadily spiraling out of control. His religious faith, however, remained a source of strength.
“I might have been at the club all night, but you best believe on Sunday morning I’d be at church,” says Dixon, with a giggle. “Then one day I’d had enough. I got really tired. I told God, ‘I can’t do it no more.’ A lady at my church walked up to me that Sunday and said; ‘God told me you’ll never be the same after today.’ I never touched any of it ever again. To this day I’ve been clean for over two years.”
The graduation card propped on his end table this breezy Tuesday afternoon, Dixon says, is from his openly gay pastor, Bishop O.C. Allen at the Vision Church in East Atlanta. The message printed inside reads, “Congratulations, you’re the kind of person who makes the world a better, brighter place.” He takes those words to heart.
At 21, Dixon is more hopeful about his future. His parents have been divorced for years. He speaks to his mother occasionally by phone, but he never communicates with father, a former Pentecostal minister. He’s unemployed now, but the nursing assistant certificate he received from Woodruff Testing Center in Decatur in March keeps him motivated on the job hunt. Dixon hopes to continue his education and one day open up a medical care facility for LGBT HIV/AIDS patients. Interestingly enough, he’s also soon to begin the process of becoming a Pentecostal minister — just like his dad once was. He shrugs off the comparison.
“I know that I’ve been called by God to preach,” he says. “I walk in a prophetic calling to preach love and acceptance for all people. That’s my goal and that’s what I’m going to do.”
[NEXT: Part 2 of a 3 part series on LGBT issues, “Double Jeopardy: Lesbian Activist Says Fear of Parents’ Homophobia Inspires Secret Life.” Bookmark this page for updates.]
Photography by John Fleming, JJIE.org.
*Kathy Colbenson is the wife of Pete Colbenson, a JJIE.org contract employee.