Brad Schlaikowski and his husband, Nick, weren’t strangers to the struggles of the gay community, but fostering LGBTQ+ youth flipped a switch. One of their foster daughters had been kicked out of a shelter because she was lesbian, so she couch-surfed and jumped between foster homes for five years. “She would tell us stories about women’s shelters not accepting her because she was gay, and that broke our hearts,” Schlaikowski says. “We were like, what else can we do?”
With no experience in nonprofits and without a dime in fundraising, the Schlaikowskis decided to create their own solution. In 2015, they founded Courage MKE, a collaborative movement that provides housing and services for displaced and homeless LGBTQ+ youth in Milwaukee. The heart of the movement would be a licensed group home, which they purchased in 2018.
The house needed work – a lot of it. Individual and corporate donors, including Kohl’s and Lowe’s, banded together to rehab and furnish the home. Courage House officially opened on Milwaukee’s South Side in March 2019, and Schlaikowski remembers seeing it for the first time. “When I opened the door, I got this feeling in my heart that I hope the kids get when they realize they’re in a place they can call home, maybe for the next several years. It took my breath away.”
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The first resident moved into Courage House in May 2019. All residents are referred from social service agencies, and the only requirement is that they identify as LGBTQ+, even if they’re questioning their sexuality. Courage House can house up to five youth at a time, and each receives counseling, health care, training in life skills, and when possible, family reunification. Courage House residents stay 211% longer than the Wisconsin average for youth group homes – at least in part because they feel accepted for who they are, maybe for the first time.
One of Schlaikowski’s favorite things about housing LGBTQ+ youth is when, a few days after they move in, they realize they can be themselves. A few years ago, Courage House welcomed a trans resident. Not long after her arrival, a staff member sent Schlaikowski a picture of her in a long, flowy yellow dress, twirling on the front porch.
“I think about kids who feel deprived if they don’t get a video game, and I gave this girl a dress and her life is complete,” he says. “These kids deserve to be who they are, regardless of the hand they were dealt in life.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Follow-up statements from Milwaukee Magazine and Courage MKE can be found here.