For the past 15 years, DaMontae January has had a dream of opening a shelter for LGBTQ youth. Now his dream is starting to take shape.
DaMontae’s journey is an unconventional one. Originally from Illinois, DaMontae attended UW-Whitewater, where he graduated with a degree in Social Work. While in college, he saw friends who struggled with homelessness after they came out to their families. According to a recent study from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, LGBTQ young people are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than non-LGBTQ youth. DaMontae saw himself as being lucky since his family was accepting when he came out as gay, but he never forgot how the lack of acceptance by the family members of his friends impacted them for the rest of their lives. He continued his education, receiving a Master’s at UW-Platteville in Counseling Psychology. While he understood that the mental health of LGBTQ people was important, meeting the basic need of housing was first in his mind.
The idea stayed with him while he went on to take a job at the then-UW-Marinette as the student housing director. In this role he also saw students struggling to support themselves, especially those who were on their own with no family support.
“Then life happened,” as he said. “I got married, I got divorced.” He moved around, taking different jobs. Most recently, DaMontae started two new jobs during the pandemic, one of them as being the membership coordinator for Madison Community Cooperative, a group that owns 11 cooperative housing residences. His second job is being a customer service rep for U-Haul.
“I turned 34 last year and wanted something to do that’s not work.” Seeing an article about the opening of Courage MKE, a shelter in Milwaukee for displaced LGBTQ youth, reignited his dream. DaMontae began to look around at what Madison had in terms of shelter, finding only one option for youth, but not on a long-term basis. “If you’re 16 and on your own, that’s two years until you are old enough to sign a lease.” He also cited that young people are only allowed to work a certain number of hours since they also need to attend school. Additionally, youth who couch surf often feel like they are overstaying their welcome at a friend’s house, and as a result are highly mobile. Many end up on the street, turning to human trafficking as a way to survive, he concluded. DaMontae also thought about the stories of LGBTQ youth ending their life and wondered what could have been done in those situations where there was a lack of acceptance at home.
DaMontae called Brad Schlaikowski, co-founder of Courage MKE, in January to get guidance on next steps for creating a shelter. The dream now had a name: Casa Del Rainbow.
Next, DaMontae registered with the state as a nonprofit in order to raise funds for the house. “It takes a village, and I needed to start finding that village.” DaMontae enlisted the help of Deanna Havey and Sebastian Hassell. He readily acknowledges that they have been essential in making this dream a reality. Deanna, who set up the Gofundme page, talked to people in finance on becoming a nonprofit and getting loans. Sebastian helped by mapping out what could happen once the doors open, namely how to support the youth residents in getting through school and life.
DaMontae sees his mission as meeting the basic need of housing first so that youth can begin to access counseling and build a support system. He envisions having mentors so youth can see the other side of life and begin to imagine their own futures. “The end goal is to make sure our future generations feel like someone cared about them. I want to get them ready to go out into the world and change it. They are already starting to.” He pictures a young queer youth with great ideas, but due to a bad situation, they have nowhere to go with it. The shelter would provide that stability so that they could reach their dreams.
Just as DaMontae was building momentum in getting his vision off the ground through planning fundraiser events, COVID-19 and the Safer at Home orders began. The inability to create an in-person event was not only a barrier for fundraising, but also in lending visibility to the project. DaMontae continues to search for grants and other potential funding sources in the meantime, reaching out to local organizations for partnership. A Gofundme page for the project can be found under the name “Casa Del Rainbow Group Home” in Madison, WI.