AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's estimated that roughly half of all homeless young adults in the U.S. are gay, bisexual or transgender. Gay kids have often fled or been kicked out by their families. Well, the Ruth Ellis Center in Highland Park, Michigan, near Detroit, is trying to reach them to help keep them safe and off the streets. Kyle Norris of Michigan Radio reports on one part of the center's outreach strategy: dance.
KYLE NORRIS, BYLINE: First, a lesson on how to vogue.
DONNIE DAWSON: It's all about your wrists and your imagination. You just have to make sure your hands are coordinated with your imagination.
NORRIS: That's 21-year-old dancer Donnie Dawson, who says pretend you're holding a basketball and then mime with your hands the circular shape of the ball. Vogue dancing is sort of like break dancing meets ballet. But if you need a quick reference, think of Madonna's 1990 hit.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VOGUE")
MADONNA: (Singing) Strike a pose.
NORRIS: Madonna was singing about an art form created by poor and working-class blacks and Latinos in New York City's gay community in the '60s and '70s. It's still all about flipping, dipping and catwalking, and the art form is acrobatic, sexual and at times, very feminine in its movements.
Today, we're in a big room upstairs at the Ruth Ellis Center. The floor vibrates because the house music on the speakers is that ear-splitting.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NORRIS: Twenty-two-year-old Matthew Dawson is wearing sunglasses inside, and he's dancing by himself in a corner.
MATTHEW DAWSON: One of the emotions that I say I put into my vogue would maybe be anger. I feel like I put it into vogue so I won't have to put it into other things that are not very constructive.
NORRIS: He says if he danced like this in the outside world, he would not be safe. And the mostly black, queer dancing kids in this room are not safe. The National Alliance to End Homelessness says there are half a million kids under age 24 who are homeless for more than one week; and between 40 to 60 percent of those kids are LGBTQ.
Once a homeless kid hits the streets, whether they're gay or straight, they're at risk for getting involved with all kinds of bad things.
JESSIE FULLENKAMP: Including violence, sexual assault, being propositioned for prostitution, are at higher risk for using substances.
NORRIS: Jessie Fullenkamp is director of outreach services at the Ruth Ellis Center. She says queer kids are often kicked out by their birth families, and they can face discrimination and hostility when trying to get help from formal organizations. That's why a group of professionals created the Ruth Ellis Center.
FULLENKAMP: Attorneys, teachers, social workers who saw LGBTQ youth falling through cracks in all these systems, in our families, in our schools and job opportunities, and realized that we really needed to pay special attention to this community.
NORRIS: So the drop-in center always makes a space available for dancing.
FULLENKAMP: And then that's kind of the hook that gets a lot of the youth in the door initially, and that's why they come.
NORRIS: Then the center can connect them with counseling, health services, tutoring and clean clothes. And these kids need the help: 65 percent of them have traded sex for money or drugs or food. Vogue dancing isn't just this thing that gets kids into the Ruth Ellis Center; it's also its own complex world. And in it, people form teams known as houses, as dancer Donnie Dawson explains.
DAWSON: And when that relationship is really close and really tight, it turns into a family to where it extends far beyond any ballroom. If I'm stranded somewhere, I need some help, I can call you and you'll be there.
NORRIS: His gay mother is Lakyra Dawson. She's a transgender woman. Both Lakyra and Donnie are regulars at the center and he has taken her last name as his own. Lakyra has pushed Donnie and his siblings to pursue their educations, in part because Lakyra dropped out of high school, she ran away from home at 13 and spent 10 years on the streets.
LAKYRA DAWSON: That's a lot of things to not only see and do and experience. So my mistakes, I use that as, you know, the rule book. Like don't do this, stay away from that.
NORRIS: Donnie Dawson says Lakyra has given him so much guidance about his education and life choices.
DAWSON: I call her Mama because the knowledge that I get from her is way far beyond gay life.
NORRIS: The relationship is also incredibly meaningful to Donnie because last year, his birth mother died. The Ruth Ellis staff admits that providing a safe place to dance is a very intentional part of their strategy. The center helps about 5,000 young people each year. The idea is that through dance, they can meet kids where they are, which is on the dance floor. For NPR News, I'm Kyle Norris.