McKinley Forbes’ story may wrench your heart a bit. But she says she’s luckier than a lot of people in her situation.
About six months ago, Forbes came out as transgender to her conservative Appalachian family in southwest Virginia. She said her mother had probably always known, and took the news well. Her father, however, did not. He kicked McKinley out of the house with a few possessions and very few options for where to go.
That’s something I don’t want other people to deal with.
Forbes stayed at a friend’s dorm room for a few days. Then, her cousin reached out to help and she stayed at his trailer for a few days before another friend picked her up a week or so later.
“From there, I stayed with her on and off when I could for the next six months, bouncing around to different places,” said Forbes, who is 21 years old. “I was staying in Boston for a short period. I stayed in Chicago for a short period. And I stayed in D.C. for a short period. While doing this, I was applying for jobs in the tech industry.”
What set her apart from many people in similar situations was that she had friends in her network to help, a growing resume of tech skills and she knew she wanted to work in the tech industry. After bouncing from couch to couch, she landed a job in Austin as a support engineer at BigCommerce.
“And that type of story is not common — as far as the end result,” she said. “One of the really bad things, especially for trans women who are homeless, is they often turn to survival sex and prostitution due to it being a necessity to keep them off the streets… I got lucky and got a job fairly quickly and had a decently OK support network. And that allowed me to develop myself as a person and really work on myself and put myself out there as who I am to companies and show who I am, not just as trans, but how I am with tech and programming and how I want to be an engineer one day.”
Now, she and co-founder Kee Tobar, who Forbes met at Startup Weekend HackOUT last month, are working on an app to help connect transgender individuals who have nowhere else to turn with vetted property owners who have available rooms or homes on platforms like HomeAway and Airbnb.
The app they’re developing is called Safenight, and it will connect well-vetted hosts who can offer a safe place to stay for up to five nights with queer youth who need temporary housing. Forbes and Tobara also hope to create a support network to help people with their transition to permanent housing, as well as career and financial coaching. The concept won first place — as well as the Hustle Award — at the HackOUT.
And this type problem is massive. A 2012 study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimated 40 percent of 1.6 million homeless youth identify as LGBT.
Forbes said there aren’t many options for queer youth who are in crisis situations. While, yes, there are Facebook groups, homeless shelters and some housing programs, Forbes said many of them aren’t well organized and often don’t carefully match roommates.
For example, Forbes said she was placed with a roommate by a housing organization after arriving in Austin. Forbes is highly allergic to peanuts and cats. The roommate she was placed with boiled peanuts in the house and had a cat.
“The fact that that wasn’t something they checked in advance and there was no backup place to stay… it was an extremely poorly done thing,” she said. “That’s something I don’t want other people to deal with.”
Forbes went on to find an apartment to rent with a co-worker. That’s one of several chance encounters that have helped her find a path in Austin.
A DIY Path to Becoming a Founder
Forbes went to the HackOUT at HomeAway’s offices at the Domain last month as a developer looking to join a team and learn the ropes. She hadn’t built anything big before. The organizers asked for additional ideas, and Forbes shared her thought about emergency housing for displaced LGBTQ youth. She shared her story and pitched the potential solution.
Then, Tobar, who is an attorney with experience in juvenile justice, went up and talked about how many kids emerging from the juvenile justice and foster care systems end up homeless, especially if they identify as LGBTQ. So the two merged their ideas and moved on to the next round, eventually winning the competition, which comes with one year of office space at Capital Factory.
They plan to carry the idea forward as a nonprofit, and Forbes said the startup has already received a great deal of interest from people willing to offer their spare room when the app is ready. She is also planning to meet with the Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and continue ongoing discussions with potential investors and look into grant opportunities.
Forbes’ interest in technology started around age six when she almost successfully installed a scanner she bought at Goodwill on her grandmother’s computer.
“I still don’t know what I did wrong. That being said, I can still barely install scanners and printers. That’s the worst thing in tech ever,” she joked.
Forbes said she used to call the Internet “the dot com,” and, as student, she figured out how to get around the firewall that blocked students from accessing Facebook. It’s part of a long path of problem solving in tech, toying with coding and exploring the world of code behind the curtain that led Forbes to her to excel in math and programming.
In college, Forbes pursued an associates degree in computer science. It didn’t click. “I got really bored. I was working 50-plus hours a week (at a grocery store, restaurants and later at a glass factory).”
She was equipped with a lot of piecemeal tech skills, many of which she taught herself.
“I’m very self critical,” she said. “But tech is one thing I understand I’m good at. I’m not good at a lot of things. I can’t cook. Can’t really talk to people that well. But I’m good at math and programming.”