[Ed. Note — This writer is a former youth member of Time Out Youth.]

CHARLOTTE — In June, Charlotte LGBT youth support group Time Out Youth will mark 20 years of service to the community — a full two decades of work supporting teens struggling to come to terms with their identities or those facing homelessness as the result of wrathful or misunderstanding parents and caregivers.

Steve Bentley serves as executive director of the group, affectionately dubbed “TOY” by its staff and youth members. He says the group’s survival is an amazing feat in and of itself, as it now welcomes in a whole new generation of young people who weren’t yet born when the group opened shop in 1991.

“The whole idea that this organization has survived for 20 years is amazing, given the nature of the organization, the time in which it started and how difficult it is to get and keep funding,” he says.

TOY has faced its fair share of challenges.

“In the context of non-profits in general, we haven’t been through anything other organizations haven’t gone through or will go through,” he says. “It’s just that when you are small and you don’t have any outside funding — city, state or federal funding — it makes your survival that much more precarious.”

Time Out Youth has planned several events to fete its 20th anniversary.

Gala: A Celebration of 20 Years
June 10, 7:30 p.m.
Extravaganza, 1610 N. Tryon St. 

Greatness: Living My Life Like It’s Platinum
June 11, noon
Time Out Youth, 1900 The Plaza

Glam: A Time Out Youth Prom
June 11, 8 p.m.
Grand Central, 1000 Central Ave.

Grace: In Every Step
June 12, 9:15 a.m.
Myers Park Baptist, 1900 Queens Rd.

For more detailed information or to purchase tickets, call 704-344-8335 or visit timeoutyouth.org.

The economic downturn has been among the group’s latest and most concerning challenges. The biggest drop in funding has been from corporate donors. To fill the void, Bentley and TOY’s board depends on individual contributors.

“Our supporters are faithful and generous, but they are just a small group of the greater LGBT community,” Bentley says.

Speaking of TOY’s various services and their costs, a sense of frustration grows in Bentley’s voice. “Our budget is exactly the same as in 2000,” he says. “That’s not good. Things are a lot more expensive now than they were 10 years ago.”

He says his greatest dream for TOY is that it will eventually be able to serve each of the unique needs of the young people who come through its doors. To do so, TOY needs greater community support.

“Step up,” Bentley says to community members, “and support this organization in a way that allows us to operate effectively as a social service agency. The resources do exist in this community. Our young people deserve better.”

The need for basic services like housing is real, Bentley warns. A dozen young people staring down homelessness and poverty have sought assistance just this year alone.

“[LGBT youth homelessness] is absolutely a reality in Charlotte,” he says, noting that the group is currently working with two youth in need. “What scares me is how many we don’t know about.”

Nearly 200 beds across the nation are devoted to LGBT young people without shelter. Fifty of those beds are in New York City. Nationally, as much as 40 percent of the country’s nearly 2 million homeless children are estimated to identify as LGBT.

Bentley says a housing facility for LGBT young people is “little more than a pipe dream” for an organization so small — TOY’s budget sits at about $150,000 each year. “The better route for us is to be able to work with other housing providers to make sure that they have open and welcoming spaces for LGBT youth,” Bentley explains. “Part of that challenge is that Mecklenburg County doesn’t have any housing dedicated to youth.”

Despite funding and housing challenges — serious issues, no doubt — Bentley says he sees signs of encouragement and improvement across the community.

TOY’s relationship with individual schools, teachers, counselors and social workers has been on the incline since the group reached out to middle and high schools across the metro region last year; a grant from the Wesley Mancini Foundation enabled them to send resource pamphlets, an introductory letter and other resources to over 1,000 education professionals.

Bentley also sees progress with other LGBT community groups, many of which have begun to work with TOY and open their doors to participation from young people. Some, Bentley says, are even considering ways to offer youth leadership opportunities.

Bentley says he’s excited and looking forward to TOY’s several anniversary events, slated for June 10-12.

“We have attempted to create an array of events that both celebrate the history and accomplishments of Time Out Youth and draw attention to the work yet to be done,” he says. “We’ve combined an opportunity to celebrate and fundraise … with an opportunity for our community to have a conversation about what is and needs to be.” : :

Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.