Founder of Arkansas’s only nonprofit for homeless LGBT youth steps down
After serving homeless LGBT youth for years, Penelope Poppers is ready to do her part in other ways.
Years ago, Penelope Poppers had no idea just how many people experiencing homelessness also happened to identify as LGBT. That changed when she started hanging out with them.
As she grew closer with Little Rock’s homeless youth, she noticed a lot of them had come out to her as transgender or same-gender attracted. It was only then that she realized she was witnessing a pattern. Young LGBT people with no resources or support networks end up on the streets, and most of the time, it’s because of their identities.
Her goal since then has been to make a positive impact on the lives of LGBT youth experiencing homelessness. What she didn’t expect, however, was how this deeply personal work could impact her own life. As she nears her eighth year as the executive director of the nonprofit Lucie’s Place, she says she’s ready to turn over a new leaf.
Lucie’s Place is named after Lucille Marie Hamilton, a close friend of Popper’s who passed away in 2009. Hamilton never experienced homelessness herself, but her sudden death left a lasting impact on Poppers.
“I’ve never been the same,” she says.
Penelope Poppers knew that if she was ever going to honor Lucie somehow, this would be the best way. Two years later, she founded Lucie’s Place with the goal of providing resources and guidance to LGBT young adults experiencing homelessness.
Poppers says she first recognized a need for LGBT-specific resources when she worked with Food Not Bombs to serve the general homeless population.
“I ended up befriending a lot of people,” she says. “And I started to realize that a lot of them had come out to me as queer in some way.”
Poppers recalls hearing stories from her friends about the negative treatment they received at homeless shelters due to their LGBT identities. Some were simply turned away, while others said they’d rather sleep on the streets than in shelters where they faced the risk of harassment and assault. As a transfeminine person and a member of the LGBT community herself, Poppers couldn’t ignore her friends’ struggles.
“I just saw a need and I felt like if I didn’t address it, then nobody would,” she says.
Born and raised in Little Rock, Penelope Poppers became familiar with local nonprofits from a young age. As a teenager, she helped develop a youth program at a small grassroots LGBT-centric nonprofit called the Center for Artistic Revolution. After studying theater design, she worked at another nonprofit: the Arkansas Arts Center. Poppers says proudly that she’s never worked at a for-profit company before, and she doesn’t intend to anytime soon.
As she’s helped build Lucie’s Place from a small grassroots organization to the state’s largest LGBT-centric nonprofit, she’s says she finds it impossible to avoid feeling personal about the impact of this work. It can take months or even years to see changes in people’s lives, and these changes are often imperceptible, she points out. Success doesn’t always look the same.
But there’s no shortage of rewarding moments. She recalls a few times when former Lucie’s Place members have contacted her to thank her for helping turn their lives around.
“One time, one of our first residents, who had a self-identified drug addiction and got kicked out of the house, actually came back here a year later and said thank you,” she says.
Despite those moments, Poppers says she’s not likely to continue doing LGBT-specific nonprofit work. After stepping down as executive director of Lucie’s Place, she plans to work for LGBT-inclusive nonprofits like Planned Parenthood. However, she says that working directly with the LGBT community affects her too much emotionally. As a member of the community herself, she says she feels too much of a personal connection to the work she does.
“The biggest challenge with Lucie’s Place is that this work is very personal, and it’s hard to separate myself from it,” she says. “For a long time, Penelope was Lucie’s Place and Lucie’s Place was Penelope. Now I’m ready to just be Penelope.”