Los Angeles shelter helping homeless college students finish school, find acceptance

Founder Sam Prater helping college students, especially LGBTQ, get their degree.

June 10, 2024, 2:07 PM

A shelter in downtown Los Angeles is taking proactive steps to offer much-needed support to homeless college students.

LA Room & Board, just 3 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, offers a home to young people who would otherwise be without a place to live and would suffer from food insecurity.

The shelter is not just a place to stay, but a stepping stone toward a brighter future. It is dedicated to ending homelessness and strongly focuses on supporting college completion to ensure individuals reach graduation and secure a better life.

VIDEO: Providing a safe haven for queer youth near downtown LA

Sam Prater, founder and creator of LA Room & Board, spoke with ABC News about the importance of starting the shelter. He was motivated to do so after learning from The California Budget and Policy Center that, by 2030, the LA region will face a shortage of 1 million college-educated workers.

The LA Room & Board's Dunamis House looks more like a luxury boutique hotel than a typical dormitory or shelter. It provides 64 beds, an onsite barbershop, a cafeteria with a gourmet chef, study areas and lounges.

"I wanted to kind of create the best parts of my childhood, where there were a lot of people around, a lot of noise and activity and laughter, and make sure that people felt like they could be safe," Prater said.

Prater, who identifies as a gay man, has welcomed many LGBTQ+ people at the shelter. Protecting queer residents hits home for him since he was raised in a religious household.

"Before I even knew who I was, right, and what gay was, I was being called that all the time at home or at school, you know, in the neighborhood," Prater said. "And so I was always like, look, I feel different, I'm different. I don't really quite know what it is. I didn't fully have the language at the time to sort it out. And then, you know, looking back in retrospect, you sort of say, 'well, I understand what it means to be gay now.' Then I didn't."

Prater was homeless after adhering to his father's rule of moving out of the family home at age 18. The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that LGBTQ youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than non-LGBTQ youth.

One of Prater's residents, Sherbert Diaz — who is queer — says families deny people like them because of gender expression, of being gay, transgender or gender non-conforming.

"Like, it's always a problem," Diaz said. "And so when something's a problem, people are always going to give you a hard time. And like, I never felt like the parents that I've had accepted me for who I was."

Diaz arrived at LA Room & Board six months ago after aging out of foster care and having no place to go. He says he prefers the shelter because it encourages him to be himself and makes him feel listened to. He is currently trying to obtain his real estate license.

The LA Room & Board motto is to treat everyone with the same respect no matter what community they are representing. They welcome young adults of all races, religious beliefs and sexual orientations.

Since 2020, the nonprofit has expanded to three locations across Los Angeles, offering nearly 200 bed spaces in three homes: Excelsior House, Opportunity House, and Dunamis House.

A once $500,000 budget has now ballooned to over $5.5 million annually, supported by a mix of public, private and legacy donors.

"I feel optimistic about our ability to sort of like keep that going," Prater said. "But we need -- always need resources."

Those resources help hundreds of students who enter Prater's shelters.

Inasha Venhuda, a junior studying business at Cal State LA, couldn't afford an apartment and was couch-surfing before arriving at LA Room & Board last summer.

She said her experience at the shelter has been wonderful and supportive. Venhuda also got her first 4.0 last semester because of the support they provide at the shelter.

"I don't have to worry about, like, my next meal or, you know, having a roof over my head," Venhuda said. "And the best thing is, like, the family environment that they've cultivated here. And I finally feel like, like I actually have a home for once."

Prater's hard work in creating a safe space for young adults dealing with tough times is paying off. His work is not going unnoticed, and organizations are honoring him.

Better Brothers LA, a nonprofit organization that provides college scholarships to LGBTQ youth, honored Prater's work with a Truth Award this year.

"Coming into this space and sort of like creating this work has given me a sense of purpose that I feel like at any moment, like, 'God, you can take me now,'" Prater said. "I feel like I did what I was supposed to do on this Earth. I made some difference in my community."

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