Over 4.2 million youth experience homelessness—and young people ages 18-27 who identify as LGBTQ+ are 120% more likely to face homelessness. That’s what motivated Cyndi Lauper to co-found True Colors United (TCU) in 1986. Since 2008, this national nonprofit has been tackling the issue through training, resources, advocacy, and innovative solutions. And since 2022, TCU has been one of Cotopaxi’s impact partners. Since homelessness and poverty are often inextricably linked—particularly for marginalized communities—we're excited to partner with organizations tackling these issues from different angles. And together with HOKA—in honor of our new collab—we’re making an additional donation to further support their commitment to ending youth homelessness.
We chatted with a couple members of the TCU team to find out what the nonprofit’s been up to recently, and how anyone can support their upcoming annual #TrueColorsDay. Selina Lee is Associate Director of Development, and has been with the organization for over seven years, focused mostly on fundraising. Whitney Bunts has been Senior Director of Public Policy for about six months. And Phoebe VanCleefe has been Senior Program Officer of Youth Action for about a year.
What inspired you to first get involved?
Selina: As someone who grew up in a large city where homelessness was always visible, TCU’s mission really spoke to me. Once I learned more about youth homelessness and how it’s considered an “invisible issue” because young people are more likely to couchsurf or stay with friends than live on the streets, it really opened my eyes to the scope of the issue.
Phoebe: My prior experience with homelessness and wanting to change that experience for people who looked like me.
Whitney: From a young age, I was zealous about changing the systems and policies that were impacting people on the margins—young people, specifically, because they are the future. As a Black queer woman, I remember being a young person, and my voice was often stripped from me by people who thought they knew best for me. In reality, they were creating more trauma. I got into this work to make room for young Black and Queer people to use their voices and provide transformative solutions to the issues they face every day.
“... we want to inspire people to think of homelessness as an experience, not an identity, and an experience that can be overcome, rather than a source of despair or hopelessness.”
What are a few things TCU accomplished in 2022?
Phoebe: We collaborated with Experian on a one-pager on financial literacy, and finalized our work on a holistic policy agenda.
Selina: We expanded the National Youth Forum on Homelessness to 20 members, which was awesome. The Forum is an advocacy group of youth and young adults with lived experience of homelessness that supports TCU’s work, from creating toolkits to setting policy agendas every year.
We also released new free resources, including two online courses on racial equity and youth action, and a racial equity toolkit about the racist history of this country’s housing systems. This toolkit offers ways for organizations working on housing justice to create solutions rooted in equity. It’s important to understand why there are so many racial disparities in the homelessness population, so hopefully this toolkit can be a constructive part of that conversation.
Selina Lee, Associate Director of Development
What are your top goals for this year?
Selina: In August, we’re planning to launch something that’s been in the works since before COVID: a multi-day Youth Action Summit. This is an opportunity to convene all 20 members of Youth Forum and 50-100 members of the Youth Action Society, which is a national league of youth advocates working on the issue in their communities. We’ve been planning this for so long and it’ll be super exciting to finally see it come to fruition!
Whitney: As the advocacy division begins to embark on a new journey, one of my biggest goals is to make youth voices an integral part of our work. The young people will advise and collaborate with us to create a transformative vision for ending youth homelessness. Additionally, we understand homelessness is not a siloed issue for young folks, so we will move into cross-cutting areas such as decriminalization, public benefits, and holistic wellness.
“Advocacy and activism aren't the only ways to make a difference … just use your platform, because we all have a voice.”
What has been your favorite part of working with TCU?
Selina: This sounds cheesy, but TCU has the best team. It’s such a fun and supportive work environment, which is so important since so many people on staff have a personal connection to the issue.
Whitney: My favorite part is I can show up as my whole authentic self. For most of my life, I have had to prioritize identities, but here, I can be fully BLACK, QUEER, AND WOMAN with radical views, ideas, and perspectives. More importantly, I don't feel stifled or silenced. So far, I am only limited by my own imagination.
Phoebe: TCU is one of the most affirming and accommodating places I've ever worked. I also get to do work that ties directly to my history and uplift the voices that aren’t always heard.
Whitney Bunts has been Senior Director of Public Policy
How does the concept of "colorful" inspire and intersect with your work?
Selina: There are lots of dimensions to this! First of all, we’re cofounded by Cyndi Lauper, so her song “True Colors” is the obvious connection. There’s also the idea of your “true colors,” i.e., not being afraid to be your authentic self, whether that’s coming out as LGBTQ+ or embracing another aspect of your identity.
We purposely embrace bold, bright colors to connote youth and optimism. Our messaging always focuses on hope and empowerment rather than fear or shame, which is the prevailing mood that comes to mind when people think of homelessness. We want to inspire people to think of homelessness as an experience, not an identity, and an experience that can be overcome, rather than a source of despair or hopelessness.
You’ve been staging #TrueColorsDay since 2015—tell us about this global advocacy day.
Phoebe: It'll be beautiful and affirming spaces curated for youth to share space, ideas, and resources. And most importantly: Fun! Fun! Fun!
Whitney: It’s a day to celebrate people who are working to ensure LGBTIQ people have housing no matter the challenge. It’s a broader advocacy strategy to build a movement, engage people through social media, and spread awareness. One component of #TrueColorsDay is Hill Day.
Phoebe VanCleefe has been Senior Program Officer of Youth Action
What does the Hill Day aspect of #TrueColorsDay involve?
Whitney: During Hill Day, TCU is partnering with A Way Home America to meet with over 15 congressional offices to educate them on homeless youth. We are also hosting a Hill Briefing, sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, to discuss the state of homeless youth. Our goal is to build more relationships with Congress and their staffers, as well as to educate and provide resources, tools, and recommendations on preventing and ending youth homelessness.
How can we join in supporting your work on #TrueColorsDay?
Selina: We hold livestreamed events and panels to make sure young people are at the table to speak about their experiences and give voice to the solutions they’d like to see. Our supporters can get involved by sharing our posts on social media and using the #TrueColorsDay hashtag to help raise awareness.
“It’s important to understand why there are so many racial disparities in the homelessness population, so hopefully this toolkit can be a constructive part of that conversation.”
What would you tell someone wanting to get involved or make a difference?
Selina: Be persistent, be creative, and remember that you don’t have to go at it alone.
Whitney: Advocacy and activism aren't the only ways to make a difference. Do something that makes sense to you and your life. Educate, paint, donate to a cause, help out someone individually through mutual aid, do something artistic—just use your platform, because we all have a voice. As the activist Assata Shakur said, "It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and protect one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains."
Phoebe: Ask all of your questions! The best way to make a difference in the movement is by finding out what's needed and how you can support.
Interested in getting involved with TCU or learning about the state of youth homelessness? Reach out to Whitney at firstname.lastname@example.org.