The beloved co-founder that helped build from scratch a non-profit to care for homeless LGBT youth in Atlanta was demoted in a staff shakeup that has infuriated some longtime supporters of the organization.
Rick Westbrook, co-founder and executive director of Lost N Found, was demoted on Thursday in a move that first became public on Monday through social media. Westbrook is now outreach director and had his impact at the organization cut by two-thirds as the board also created two other new positions – operations director and programs director – to help lead the organization.
In a statement issued late Monday, Lost N Found pitched the leadership changes as a reorganization that will "create more efficiency and effectiveness in our operations." But longtime Lost N Found advocates, past volunteers and supporters of Westbrook blasted the move on social media as a slap at the heart and soul of the non-profit.
The statement from Lost N Found praised Westbrook's leadership but did not include any comments from him. Westbrook did not respond to a request for comment from Project Q Atlanta.
"Rick’s notable stewardship of LNFY and steadfast dedication to the metro region’s homeless LGBT youth is unquestionable. He has been the driving force for much of this organization’s development and has drawn much needed attention to an issue that had largely gone unnoticed," according to the statement.
Westbrook has deep roots in gay Atlanta activism. He is a member of the Atlanta Sisters known as Rapture Divine Cox and is one of the driving forces behind the East Point Possums Show. The charity fundraiser held its 19th annual rendition in June and in recent years, the popular outdoor drag show raised funds for Lost N Found.
Westbrook formed Lost N Found after a public confrontation in 2011 with Terence McPhaul during a town hall with Mayor Kasim Reed and Atlanta police officials. McPhaul was then executive director of YouthPride, a non-profit that cared for LGBT youth that later collapsed under McPhaul’s leadership.
Westbrook’s statements about homeless gay youth prompted an exchange with McPhaul:
“Please come to Wednesday’s meeting. These kids are out there now freezing and starving,” Westbrook said.
“We know that they are out there and we know what they need,” McPhaul responded.
“I know you do, but you don’t get them off the street,” Westbrook retorted.
“We don’t want to set them up in a bathhouse to get housing for the night. We want them to be somewhere safe,” McPhaul shot back.
Westbrook and other volunteers went on to launch Lost N Found as a non-profit caring for homeless LGBT teens. Westbrook has held an annual vigil in a box truck to call attention to the issue of homeless gay teens and is known for his emotional discussions when he holds court about LGBT youth, Lost N Found and its mission.
Westbrook has even licked the amputated toe of a drag queen for the cause.
In November 2013 – two years after starting Lost N Found – the organization opened a 13,000-square-foot thrift store off Cheshire Bridge Road to raise funds to support the group's mission. And in late 2013, the group inked a 20-year lease with Saint Mark United Methodist Church to take over a 7,000-square-foot building (second photo) on Juniper Street to expand the number of gay youth it could care for. Westbrook recently announced that the organization had permits in place to begin the long-awaited renovation and launched a $1.1 million campaign to fund the project.
The shakeup comes as the number of homeless LGBT teens in Atlanta has increased and the organization will soon face new competition for its thrift business.
Earlier this year, a study from Georgia State University pegged the number of homeless LGBT youth in metro Atlanta at 950 – a significant increase from past estimates of 750 teens. Westbrook said then that visits to Lost N Found's drop in center had jumped from 75 youths per month to more than 300. The shakeup at Lost N Found comes just weeks ahead of the planned opening of a competing thrift store. Out of the Closet Thrift Store – operated by the controversial AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which is the parent of AID Atlanta – is scheduled to open on Sept. 17 with a store on Cheshire Bridge just blocks from LNF's thrift store.
In its statement issued on Monday, Lost N Found hinted at the growth of the organization under Westbrook.
"To meet the growing and diverse needs of our community, we have grown and expanded as well. In addition to the new leadership roles, we’ve hired four new house managers who are all trained social workers. We recently kicked off a new $1.1 million capital campaign for the Juniper Street building. This 5,900 square-foot youth center and transitional housing facility will triple our capacity to help local youth get off the streets," according to the statement.
In addition to Westbrook, Project Q also reached out to several LGBT board members – including board Chair Charlotte Cagle, Marci Alt, Jesse Peel and Bruce Garner. They declined to comment, could not be reached or referred to the statement the organization issued on Monday.
Late Monday, Peel – a gay Atlanta pioneer who helped establish several HIV agencies in the early days of the epidemic – responded to blistering criticism of the personnel moves by suggesting that Westbrook's demotion may be re-examined by the board.
"There will be a called meeting of the Board later this week to reconsider this action. Please give us time to sort this out. Rick has our support," Peel said in the post. Advocates for Westbrook are planning to show their support on Friday at Lost N Found.
The full statement from Lost N Found:
Lost-n-Found Announces Reorganization for Leadership Structure
New roles created to meet future growth of organization
ATLANTA – On Thursday, August 18, the Lost-n-Found Youth Board voted to reorganize the leadership structure into three new roles to create more efficiency and effectiveness in our operations. Rick Westbrook assumes the title of Co-Founder and Director of Outreach. Clayton Skinner, formerly Chief Operating Office, is now Director of Operations, and Brittany Garner is the new Director of Programs.
Brittany Garner, who possesses a Masters in Social Work, will oversee the programs of the organization that involve counseling and treatment. Clayton Skinner, an attorney, will oversee the operations of the organization focusing on budgets, requisitions, strategy, policies and procedures.
Rick’s notable stewardship of LNFY and steadfast dedication to the metro region’s homeless LGBT youth is unquestionable. He has been the driving force for much of this organization’s development and has drawn much needed attention to an issue that had largely gone unnoticed.
Over the years, the role of Lost-n-Found Youth has significantly grown and expanded. Sadly, we have seen an increase of LGBT youth on the streets. We have witnessed the life altering devastation of getting kicked out of a parent’s house simply because of your sexuality. LNFY social workers have been on the front lines to stop suicide attempts and get people’s lives back on track. We have helped hundreds of young people who were left homeless and abandoned by their families with nowhere to turn for guidance and assistance.
To meet the growing and diverse needs of our community, we have grown and expanded as well. In addition to the new leadership roles, we’ve hired four new house managers who are all trained social workers. We recently kicked off a new $1.1 million capital campaign for the Juniper Street building. This 5,900 square-foot youth center and transitional housing facility will triple our capacity to help local youth get off the streets.
One thing is certain – the critical mission of LNFY is bigger than one individual. It truly does take a village to keep our young people safe and off the streets.
As the co-founder of Lost-n-Found Youth, Rick started us on this journey to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in our community and we will never lose sight of his vision. That’s why he will remain with LNFY; his salary and benefits are unchanged. In his new role, he will continue engaging the community and the youth to ensure we have the funds to operate and serve the needs of our LGBT youth.