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Miller, Mark James

When 5 Cities Hope opens its new office Sunday, it will not only be providing a place for young LGBTQ people to go, it will also bring a message of love and acceptance that young people need as they struggle to find their identity and make their way in the world.

Oceano native Erica Andrade is president of 5 Cities Hope. As is the case with many progressive individuals, the election of Donald Trump roused her to action.

“I realized I had to do something,” she said, something to counter Trump’s message of intolerance. Realizing that young LGBTQ people in the Five Cities area need a place to go where they can be themselves and find support, she founded 5 Cities Hope.

One of 5 Cities Hope’s primary functions is to help young people with the coming-out process, which can be especially traumatic for teenagers.

“Coming out is not just a one-time thing,” said Denise Aguilar, 5 Cities’ executive secretary. “It’s a process that continues. Some teenagers can come out to their friends, but not to their families. It’s never easy.”

As that process takes place, 5 Cities is there to help teens get through it.

The need for havens like 5 Cities Hope certainly exists. The Williams Institute at UCLA Law School estimates there are 3.2 million LGBTQ people in the U.S. who are under 18, and 85 percent of them have experienced verbal harassment, 28 percent drop out of school due to verbal and physical abuse, and 58 percent feel unsafe at school.

LGBT youths are faced with daily discrimination from society, peers, family, even school teachers and administrators. These kind of statistics make the need for a safe place to go even more acute.

But 5 Cities’ focus goes beyond being a refuge for teenage LGBTQ. Erica and Denise want to reach out to the families of LGBTQ youth as well, because the coming-out process brings challenges for them that can be difficult to deal with. Many parents are uncomfortable having a child who is different, and are not ready to accept an LGBTQ person into their home.

“We want to be a place where parents can meet other LGBTQ parents,” said Denise. “That can be healing.”

It can also help avoid another issue LGBTQ youth must face — homelessness. According to a study done at the University of Chicago, LGBTQ youth are 120-percent more likely to experience homelessness than non-LGBTQ, and family conflict is the leading cause.

“Some have to choose between coming out and having a place to live,” said Denise. “Some become homeless after coming out.”

According to the University of Chicago study, 50 percent of teens get a negative reaction from their parents when they reveal their sexual identity to them, and of these one in four are thrown out of their home as a result. Others are given the difficult choice of being subjected to anti-gay therapy or else losing their place to live.

Erica and Denise intend to offer internships at 5 Cities Hope, create support groups, and are planning the first-ever Pride Event in Arroyo Grande. They are very optimistic about the future, and see success for 5 Cities Hope and for LGBTQ people in general.

“People are coming out of their comfort zones and becoming more accepting,” said Erica.

5 Cities Hope is at 1152 E. Grande Ave. in Arroyo Grande. Its grand opening will take place Sunday, starting at 2 p.m. For more information call 805-904-7957, or email You can also find them on Facebook and Instagram.

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Mark James Miller is an associate instructor in English at Allan Hancock College, and president of the Part-Time Faculty Association. He can be reached at