LNFY Executive Director Rick Westbrook with David Paris, who biked from Florida to Canada to raise money for the nonprofit. (Courtesy LNFY)

Lost-n-Found Youth (LNFY) just opened a 4,000-square-foot drop-in center on Lambert Drive, between Cheshire Bridge and Piedmont roads, more than quadrupling its former space. The new larger center is the fulfillment of a promise three years in the making from the nonprofit to Atlanta’s homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth.

“We do everything in our power to meet them where they are on their journey and try to help them figure out next steps,” said LNFY Executive Director Rick Westbrook. Adding, “The drop-in center is a place LGBT youth come to sleep if need be, get a shower, food, new clothes, wash old clothes, relax, or just be themselves in a safe space.”

Programming at the center helps at risk and homeless LGBT youth up to age 25 build skills to live independently through expert lead cooking classes, spoken word, art classes, group therapy, job readiness programs, financial and informational classes, and support groups. In addition to the center, the nonprofit offers street outreach, a crisis hotline, and transitional housing. It’s the only Atlanta-based agency with this LGBT-specific service model.

When Diamond Carter first came to Atlanta in 2013 and was looking for support, she researched LGBT youth organizations and found LNFY. “This program has been phenomenal. It opened a lot of doors for me as a black transgender woman,” Carter said. “I’d never been in a place so accepting of me.”

Carter now works as a community activist at Solutions Not Punishment, a black, trans-led, collaborative working to tear down barriers in Atlanta, especially within the criminal justice system.

Inside the new LNFY drop-in center.

Carter’s message to homeless or at risk LGBT youth is simple, “Go to LNFY. They’ll take you the next level in your life, because they’ve done that for me.”

And the need for services for youth like Carter has grown dramatically since LNFY’s founding five and half years ago. “So many of them are out there on the streets,” Westbrook said.

At the nonprofits start, 900 square feet inside its Chantilly Drive thrift store were sufficient to welcome 75 youth visits a month. It soon became a more sought after refuge.

In 2015, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states cannot ban same-sex marriage and Caitlyn Jenner made headlines, youth visits more than tripled to 300-plus per month. Last year that number spiked to more than 700 visits per month.

That increased demand is consistent with the shocking number of homeless youth in the city and neighboring suburbs, counted in the 2015 Atlanta Youth Count and Needs Assessment (AYCNA) led by Georgia State University. Researchers counted more than 3,300 homeless youth in metro Atlanta with 28 percent self-identified as LGBT.

Westbrook said LNFY’s new larger space makes it possible to offer more crisis care, on-site HIV testing, mental health evaluations, and life skill trainings.

“There are offices to meet with counselors, space for group activities, privacy for HIV testing, room for arts and crafts, and even more bathrooms,” Westbrook stated.

While excited about the new space, Westbrook says that homelessness, especially among LGBT “is not going away – it’s getting worse.” He’s in favor of the city working with the private sector to treat the homeless more humanely and find a way to help them.

LNFY volunteers and youth celebrate the opening of the new drop-in center.

That idea may soon be realized with the City of Atlanta recently announcing a $50 million Homeless Opportunity Bond that will fund ClearPath, a five-year plan “to make homelessness rare and brief.” One of the goals of the public-private partnership between the City of Atlanta and United Way for Greater Atlanta is to create 254 new housing interventions for homeless youth within the next three years.

“I hope the city actually collaborates with the people that are on the street and in the trenches actively doing the work. That will insure that the money will be utilized to its fullest potential,” Westbrook urged.

He also encourages Atlantans to volunteer, donate, or visit the LNFY drop-in center. “We like to show what we do,” Westbrook said.

For more about LNFY and to fin out about voluteer orientation sessions on Aug. 10 and 12, visit lnfy.org.