Oscar Lobos, BA, communication, ’18, has combined his own challenging life experiences and academic background to become an unwavering advocate for LGBTQIA+ homeless youth in San Bernardino County.

As a communication studies major, Lobos was integrally involved in campus life – he was on the dean's list, an active member of the debate team and served as the president of the Communicating Spirituality and Interculturally Club.

“I thought was going to become a communication professor,” he said, but watching friends a few years older who were struggling in graduate school changed his mind. “I had an existential moment of, ‘I don't want to be a professor anymore, where's my life going to go?’” he said.

After graduating, he learned of a job at the Family Assistance Program’s youth shelter, called “Our House” located in Mentone, working with 11- to 17- year-olds. Family Assistance Program (FAP) provides a structured, yet compassionate environment for homeless youth in need. Family reunification is a goal of the program when possible and when safe, Lobos said.

The work had an immediate and tremendous impact on him. “It changed what I wanted to do completely. For the first time ever, I felt gratified in the work that I was doing,” he said.

Lobos’ passion for this work is deeply rooted in his own experiences as a youth who identified as “gender queer, gender fluid, or gender non-conforming” and was not accepted by his family.

“I was a homeless kid myself at age 16, 17. I was couch surfing. I still had connections with family, but I wasn't living at home for some years,” he said. “So, this work, I felt that pull and that connection with the youth right off the bat.”

The day-to-day responsibilities were extremely challenging, but highly rewarding. “It was really hard in terms of emotional labor. I've had to make calls to Child Protective Service. I've seen kids initiate other kids into gangs or get them into human trafficking situations. Even under the closest supervision, kids can encounter these situations at school or simply through using cell phones.

“But there would be days when the work would be a lot more gratifying. You may be finger painting with a kid, and they'll tell you their life story, open up, they'll say that's the first time they've cried, or that you’re the first person to actually see them or connect with them,” he added. 

After two-and-a-half years, when FAP opened a drop-in center called “Open Arms,” Lobos transitioned to a new role as an outreach worker, identifying youth in need and providing them with essential resources.

“My job was community outreach, going to the schools or parks or anywhere where youth congregate and try to roadmap who is unhoused or low income and on the verge of being unhoused and trying to navigate and give resources to those people,” he said. He also facilitated connections to public assistance, financial literacy, employment support, and access to documents.

Lobos continued to evolve within the organization, and after 18 months, he became the case manager for the Transitional Age Youth (TAY) program, focusing on 18-to-24-year-old unhoused youth. In this capacity, he nurtured their personal and financial growth, helping them secure jobs, access government assistance and develop financial literacy.

“Part of my job is really learning and trying to establish what emotional barriers are keeping people from being able to receive services to the full extent. So, I focused on the youth’s mental health, advocating for therapy or medication if needed,” he said.

But, he emphasized, all of this is done with a respect for the youth’s autonomy. “It's important that the advocate or the case manager to treat the individual with kindness, understanding that after experiencing a lot of trauma in their lives, it has left many people doing unhealthy or risky behaviors that need to be acknowledged and worked through.”

Last December, Lobos become the manager of "Welcome Home," FAP’s groundbreaking LGBTQIA+ specific program. This program is described as a seven-bed, housing-first initiative designed to provide a safe haven for LGBTQIA+ youth facing homelessness.

“I make sure that all the employees are taken care of and make sure that the clients are taken care of. I still am the active case manager, even though I'm also the shelter manager,” he explained.

“I oversee all the case management, making sure the clients are working on goals, and focus on things like gender-affirming care, accessing hormones if they need it, getting their gender changed on IDs if necessary, while still doing the basics of making sure that they're working toward getting full-time employment and getting out of the cycle of chronic homelessness.”

Many of the youth, Lobos said, have been disowned by their families because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and many “disowned their family for not accepting them for who they are at face value.”

Despite the challenges, Lobos remains deeply committed to his clients. He emphasizes the importance of understanding that everyone's journey is unique, acknowledging that some will falter despite the resources and time provided. In these cases, he is dedicated to finding alternative long-term programs that better suit their needs.

Lobos reflected on his own experiences as a youth, and the importance of the advocate who made a difference in his life. “What made me want to become a professor to begin with was that one of the first people who really ‘saw’ me or made me feel seen and accepted was my high school theater teacher,” he shared.

“Seeing an adult who was outside of my family and who was able to just ‘get it’ and be there for me was a good motivator when I was going through homelessness.

“So, I've had this driving force ever since of what I call that ‘pit,’ of trying to help people get out of their own pit and to be that person for them that I had when I was a freshman in high school, of being that voice that I needed in high school. I think that what makes me successful as an advocate — I'm able to connect with them on those levels.”