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Megan Rapinoe turns attention toward youth homelessness

She doesn’t want to #StickToSports. She’d prefer to use her platform to support LGBT youth.

Reign FC vs. Sky Blue FC: Photos

As part of #SeaHomeless, a one-day media event spotlighting the issue of homelessness, we’re highlighting Megan Rapinoe’s efforts to support local LGBT youth.

As Pride Month wraps up, and Seattle’s professional sports teams take down their rainbow flags and streamers, one local soccer player continues to use her platform to help others in the LGBT community.

Seattle Reign FC’s Megan Rapinoe has enjoyed the spotlight not just in Seattle, but as a representative of her country on the U.S. Women’s National Team. She’s scored big goals on the grandest of stages. She’s won World Cup trophies, NWSL Shields, and an Olympic gold medal. But that’s not enough for Rapinoe.

Increasingly, she’s pushing the “stick to sports” adage out the window, and is looking for ways to use her voice to empower young people struggling in some of the ways she did throughout her childhood, when she was afraid to fully express herself.

Rapinoe didn’t tell friends or family she was gay until college. Just before the 2012 Olympics, she came out publicly. At 31, Rapinoe is now an openly gay athlete and role model for young girls — with a boisterous, proud personality that encourages fans to “Be Your Best You.” That confidence and comfort in herself has a lot to do with the support Rapinoe had growing up, but she recognizes that not all young people are so fortunate.

“My family is very supportive of me, and for me to just take that and enjoy all the privileges, I think is very selfish,” Rapinoe said in a Players’ Tribune video focused on youth homelessness. “There’s LGBTQ people that are struggling every day just to stay alive. Just to live. Just to be happy with who they are.”

There’s no single reason a person becomes homeless, but up to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT, and family rejection on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is a frequent factor contributing to homelessness.

As Rapinoe stated in a blog post last fall, “Living in Seattle, it’s a comfortable narrative for people to say that homeless youth want to be homeless. There are kids who have been kicked out of their homes, kids that come from broken homes, or kids that have dealt with abuse in their homes.”

Athletes aren’t immune to homelessness, either.

In fact, it was once the reality for Christina Burkenroad, who played for the Orlando Pride and is now plying her trade in Norway. As the Orlando Sentinel reports, Burkenroad’s mom died when she was 4 after battling Lou Gehrig's disease. Her dad held it together as long as he could for his three kids, but he slowly began to unravel when Burkenroad was in high school. They fell into homelessness — sleeping in his truck, or a hotel room for a night or two, or resting under a tree in the park.

A rising soccer star, Burkenroad began drinking to cope with the loneliness, stealing to buy fast food, and skipping school to escape. Luckily, she found the courage to ask for help, and a local family took her in. Thanks to this family and a community of people around her, Burkenroad not only made it through high school — she went on to attend Cal State Fullerton on a full-ride soccer scholarship.

“Soccer is the one thing my entire life that kept me grounded. It was the one consistency in my life that I knew I excelled at, wherever I went,” Burkenroad shares in this video for Rethink Homelessness in Orlando.

Today, Burkenroad is able to live her dream of playing professional soccer, and Rapinoe wants to help more young homeless people achieve their dreams.

Through the Players’ Tribune “First Step” video series — profiling athletes who take the first step to improve lives and impact their communities — Rapinoe visited Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets (PSKS) in Seattle, which provides support and services to Seattle area homeless youth and young adults. The organization serves more than 500 young people per year.

In Seattle, the issue of homelessness has risen into the public conscious at an alarming rate in the last few years, as housing costs have jumped dramatically. Tents are visible on hills near I-5 and along sidewalks as fans march toward CenturyLink Field on match day. Still, despite the increasing visibility, many misconceptions exists about who falls into homelessness, and why.

Nearly one-third (31%) of the homeless population in the United States is under the age of 24. As Rapinoe shares in the video below, these are people who need an “opportunity to be safe and be who they are.”

PSKS isn’t the only organization in Seattle working to support youth and young adults who experience homelessness.

In fact, King County is one of three counties in Washington state that embarked on “100-Day Challenges” to rethink how they address youth and young adult homelessness. Hosted by A Way Home Washington, these challenges encourage county governments and their partners to set audacious, but achievable, goals to get them on a more solid path to ending youth homelessness.

“We knew we weren’t going to solve homelessness in 100 days, but we pushed ourselves instead to ask what’s possible and examine how we could do things differently to expedite progress and support and empower our young people,” A Way Home Washington executive director Jim Theofelis said in a blog post.

King County is halfway through its challenge, and hopes to place 450 young adults into safe and stable housing by the end of the 100 days. Furthermore, because they are historically more affected by homelessness, the county wants at least 60 percent of those housed to be youth of color or LGBT young people.

At the end of the day, beyond the numbers, it’s about the community coming together to take ownership of the solution. As Theofelis notes, the goal is to build a future where, if a young person reaches out for help, “our communities will have the systems and services in place to respond with an enthusiastic ‘Yes!’ and meet those needs.”

Rapinoe agrees. “If I can do something small — if it’s just a matter of talking about it to say, ‘Listen, we’re here and we’re going to help you,’ and it makes such a big difference — then quite frankly, it’s my responsibility to advocate and do what I can for this community.”

Homelessness can hit anyone, at any time. I once met a young woman who became homeless after getting medical complications from donating a kidney to a family member. She lost her job, then her housing, and it took some time to get back on her feet again.

Rapinoe continues to dominate for Seattle Reign FC, but as she steps on the field Wednesday evening to take on the Chicago Red Stars, she’s playing for more than just the sport. She’s playing to give a voice to those who need it most. It would benefit us all to take a moment to listen.

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