They’re teenagers. Their shared backstories are eerily similar – abusive homes, neglected, high rates of violence and poverty. They’re kicked out of the household for their sexual orientation. Or for identifying as transgender.
A real bathroom — not a gas station — and hot, home cooked food are absolute luxuries. They’re targeted by traffickers and disconnected from social supports including their families, schools and economic opportunities. They come from all over Columbia.
About 20 of these adolescent and young adults gather monthly for a hot homecooked meal, a bathroom with toilet paper, a place where they can trust others and relax. They’re attending Columbia Reformation Lutheran Church’s Safe Space Dinners, a program for homeless LGBTQIA adolescents and young adults to gather.
Two and a half years ago this program existed only on paper – it had donors, a board and an idea. Enter College of Social Work professor Candice Morgan, whose students invited a program proponent to one of her classes. The speaker, she said, was riveting.
“They were creating a social network for kids that’s not filled with street life,” says Morgan. “There’s competition for scarce resources for these kids and they proposed diners showing up to a dining community with good home-cooked food, healthy family-style type dinners that would be inclusive and welcoming with no religious pressure.”
Out of that one day, Morgan proposed a practicum placement – a pilot opportunity for a social work student to be a part of the dinners – to find donors, speak to community leaders and bring awareness to the program. In fall of 2022 first-year social work masters student Stacy Phillips spent her field practicum raising money, speaking to clubs like Rotary International to bring awareness and attending the dinners as part of the group. Morgan was the field placement supervisor and worked closely with college field placement director Melissa Reitmeier and Safe Space leader Michael Watson. She attended several monthly dinners as well.
“Initially the program was treating them like guests but some of the work I did with the field student was around self-determination and empowerment, which meant I needed her to engage with those kids when they come in and see what they want to see, what kind of food they want, what they want to drink, what they want to do and really personalizing and humanizing it for them,” says Morgan.
The dinners average about from about 20 guests up to 32, and each diner sits at a well-dressed table – a filling, home-cooked meal like lasagna, pretty tablecloths, a private restroom and no judgment from fast food managers or store clerks. Each diner receives a bag of helpful day-to-day items but also gift cards to sit-down restaurants like Panera. The diners have also received haircuts and played with foster kittens – other experiences that allow them an opportunity to feel like a part of a community.
Morgan is well versed in the issues of LGBTQIA isolation and the stigma of homelessness. She teaches a diversity class within the college and has followed news trends as states continue to restrict health care for transgendered individuals and other vulnerable populations. She says the meals not only provide a safe space for the diners, educating them to the various services available from organizations around the Midlands, but also supply a personal element of involvement they might not get elsewhere.
“A lot of people in this town don’t know that there are literally children on the streets who need services because their services are few and far between,” says Morgan. “We had city leaders at a meeting come up to us and say ‘We had no idea. This could be anybody’s child.’ It really brought some awareness to people who don’t know about this group and didn’t know about the need for help.”
As a part of her field practicum, Phillips accompanied program leader Michael Watson, spending time attending weekly community organizations meetings, talking to community leaders and speaking about what they do and what they need for the diners. Phillips found her experience a positive one.
“Interning for Safe Space Dinners was incredible. Before starting there, I never expected to enjoy community level social work or working with a nonprofit organization so much. As their first intern, I was lucky to be able to see and help Safe Space Dinners grow into a stronger organization and to expand on their mission.”
Phillips enjoyed the community partnerships and furthered her public speaking skills, communications and grant writing experience. Perhaps more importantly, she says, the dinners illustrate how communities can improve.
Watson is one of Reformation Lutheran Church’s program coordinators for the dinners. He says the program provides additional vital services including an on-site mobile healthcare provider and a book mobile from Richland Library. A church member hairstylist provides free haircuts.
Along with the College of Social Work, Safe Space Dinners partners with over 30 local organizations. Most of them are household names in the Midlands – Palmetto Place Youth Shelter, Transitions Homeless Shelter, the United Way and the Richland County Public Library. Watson says one of the best aspects of community partnership is the reactions of those who didn’t know about the program.
“They respond with surprise and excitement that such a program exists. They're usually especially surprised that it's a ministry of a church in a very conservative state. I think everyone can relate to helping youth in great need or in danger. I've never received a reaction that was not supportive. In most cases, I'm asked about opportunities to be further engaged,” says Watson.
Watson is very appreciative of the partnership with the college and says it’s been central to help the program grow. This fall the program will have two practicum placement students who will engage with the youth and learn expertise in fundraising and grant applications.
“The partnership with the College of Social Work has been thoroughly beneficial to all involved and will continue for years to come,” says Watson. “During interviews with candidates for placement, I always tell them they are given the opportunity to affect the trajectory of the ministry. This program's future will be whatever the youth, volunteers and interns make it. I'm glad that's something I can't predict.”
Morgan says she will continue to help provide a safe space to an extremely vulnerable group on the streets – those youth who identify as LGBTQIA. The best aspect, she says, is that the diners are developing a sense of community.
“They are linking to each other. They’re creating a social network that’s not filled with the stuff on the street. I’m an educator. I can work with people over 18 but kids, this breaks my heart. If I can sort of be an appendage to this work, it’s worth it.”
How to help
- More information, go here
- Items to donate
- If you know of a youth in need, direct them here
- Monetary donations to assist the program can be made through
- PayPal - (firstname.lastname@example.org)