Sarah Mikhail is dedicated to supporting LGBTQ young people at Time Out Youth
It’s been almost a year since Sarah Mikhail became the executive director of Time Out Youth, the only LGBTQ youth-serving organization in Charlotte.
Founded in 1991, Time Out Youth serves as a safe space for young people in the LGBTQ community and offers a variety of free services to aid the physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing of LGBTQ youth. Alongside discussion groups, Time Out Youth provides free therapy and has a housing program to help 18 to 24 year olds find a secure place to live.
The organization also conducts trainings in the school system and has dedicated spaces for transgender and nonbinary youth, those on the asexual aromantic spectrum, and youth of color. Young people who are interested in interacting with the LGBTQ community online can access Time Out Youth's Discord server.
In addition to its programs, Time Out Youth has showers, a laundry room, a food pantry, and an emergency financial assistance fund. Young people who are living in a shelter temporarily can visit the organization and shower, clean their clothes, and have their meals, Mikhail said.
"It's a space where young people have said to me they can come in and sort of take a deep breath, because at least when they're in our doors, they're not worried about what's happening out there, which is my highest goal for our young people," she said.
Time Out Youth is particularly interested in increasing its outreach for youth of color, Mikhail said. About 54% of the 1,500 people served by the organization are youth of color. Almost 100% of the people served by the housing program are youth of color. That’s why Time Out Youth prioritizes the experiences of Black youth in Charlotte who usually have more barriers when accessing services for housing.
Mikhail started her career as a social worker in New York almost eighteen years ago. While working in foster care, Mikhail developed an interest in the ways in which systems are not set up to support LGBTQ youth, especially youth of color.
It is difficult to access systems like public assistance, unemployment, the housing system, and federal support, both literally and emotionally, Mikhail said. Young people often need help, but from the beginning many who identify as LGBTQ aren't receiving the support they need from the adults in their life. Sixty percent of queer youth live in non-affirming homes, and 40% of youth who experience homelessness are LGBTQ.
"Maybe you're a straight cis white person, and you still need access to shelter support, but the barriers you'll face won't be because people don't understand what your name is, or what your pronouns are, or what it is that is uniquely impacting you that when you walk in the world, you're already a little bit under attack," Mikhail said.
In New York, Mikhail did training in the foster care system to increase acceptance of LGBTQ youth and created parameters so that people could not be a foster parent if they would not accept an LGBTQ young person in their home. Mikhail then spent a few years working on ending homelessness for LGBTQ youth with a focus on youth of color.
"There is a concept called targeted universalism, that if you help those that are most impacted, then you're actually helping everyone," Mikhail said. "Our systems, even systems meant to help young people, are consistently more difficult if you are undocumented, if you have a disability, if you're trans, any of the things that we are behind in learning how to support."
For Mikhail, her work at Time Out Youth is a part of her goal to help LGBTQ youth be supported and seen as more than their struggle. At Time Out Youth, Mikhail and the majority of staff members have a degree in social work and approach their mission with a trauma-informed lens.
"They're engaging with young people all day with the presence of mind to know that maybe when they walked in our doors, that everything that happened before they got here was very difficult, and we have a chance to intervene and be a soft place to land," she said.
Time Out Youth doesn't do all of its work alone. The organization partners and builds connections with different groups; most recently, Mikhail and Time Out Youth's clinical services director met with local therapists to see if they could be a good referral for LGBTQ youth. Mikhail also applauded the dedication of her staff, who worked through the height of the coronavirus pandemic delivering food and doing laundry for young people in the community.
While LGBTQ young people are disproportionately marginalized, Mikhail emphasized the importance of holding joyful, welcoming environments and celebrating LGBTQ identities. Time Out Youth is decorated with art and pride flags, and there are different spaces where young people can create art, play video games, sing karaoke, or simply relax. Time Out Youth's staff are also invested in making sure the youth who visit the space feel welcomed.
"I've heard a young person describe our love as sometimes overwhelming because we're like, in your face like, did you eat last night? What's going on? Tell me about your boyfriend," Mikhail said. "Everyone will leave whatever they're doing if there's a young person in the space because that's what we're here for."
Mikhail's ultimate goal for the future is queer liberation. For now, she would like to build a department specifically for transgender and nonbinary youth, hire more queer-affirming clinicians and provide more funding for its housing program so Time Out Youth isn't as dependent on federal funding.
"I would love to be a one-stop-shop for LGBTQ youth, I'd love for them to come here and be able to see an affirming therapist, doctor, whatever it is that they need," Mikhail said. "Because we know when we ask a young person to go somewhere else, we're decreasing the likelihood that they'll be able to do it because of all the reasons that that's hard."
Time Out Youth is building an advisory group for youth of color to communicate what they need, creating an Instagram series to introduce the community to its staff, and a Tik Tok account may be on the horizon.
"Our young people are impacted by their queerness because of the world, but not because it's not the best thing about them, because it is," Mikhail said. "And I think that we wouldn't have so much beauty in this world without queer and trans people sort of living through this, and the other people in the world who are afraid of our magic."