Last year, when I went to Sanctuary Palm Springs—a transitional housing program for LGBT young adults coming out of foster care—co-founder David Rothmiller told me a fantastic story about a young man named Henry Lucena.
Henry was 18, straight and transitioning out of foster care. He’d contacted Sanctuary looking for help—but Sanctuary was not yet open. Rothmiller wasn’t sure what to do.
Let’s skip ahead to today: Henry is now an entrepreneur and college student, living in a happy Palm Springs home with his adoptive father, Harry Courtright, a gay man who is a retired library administrator.
Now let’s go back to the start of the story, when Henry was 8 years old.
“I was taken away from my birth parents,” Henry said. “I lived with my foster parents, and it wasn’t the best living situation. I didn’t feel like I was being treated right. I didn’t feel any love from them, and throughout the whole time I stayed there until I was 18, I never grew comfortable enough. I never knew what they did for jobs—only that they were also pastors in a church, but I never really knew what they did for money. I didn’t feel comfortable talking to them. I had six siblings who were their real children. … When I was in high school, I had 3.8 GPA as a freshman, and then it dropped.”
Henry said he never felt comfortable in his foster home.
“It didn’t feel right to ask a question about anything. Whenever I would go into my foster parents’ room to talk to them, they would make comments that I looked around too much,” he said. “They would say that and ask, ‘Why are you looking around so much?’ When they would do that, I wouldn’t really feel comfortable looking anywhere.
“When I first came (to live with Harry), I had nothing. I just had pants, shoes, underwear and a little bit of clothes, and I had to get my Social Security card and my birth certificate. My birth certificate is where I learned my father’s real name, and my foster parents never told me that. They were abusive, and I didn’t want to be around them. They put locks on the refrigerator because the grandmother had Alzheimer’s, and they only gave the key to certain family members. I wouldn’t have it.”
Days before his 18th birthday, Henry decided he would rather be homeless than stay with his foster parents.
“I wasn’t a bad kid, but there were a lot of little problems I couldn’t deal with,” he said. “As soon as I turned 18, I didn’t want to live with them anymore, so they took me out here to SafeHouse of the Desert. … When I turned 18, they said I couldn’t stay there anymore because it was only for kids. My foster dad picked me up asked me what I wanted to do. I still had a year in high school left, and I’d never had a job. … I didn’t want to be in the situation with them. I knew I would finish school; I knew I would get a job—and I didn’t want to do it around them, because I couldn’t be around them.”
Henry ended up at Roy’s Resource Center, and later the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission in Indio.
“When I was at Roy’s, I registered for Palm Springs High School. I was in the shelter and going to school,” he said. “Then I started living at the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission in Indio, and I took three buses in the morning to get to school. … Luckily, I also had a job. I would go back at 11 at night. They knew I had a job and was in school, so they let me come back late. I used the job to get back as late as I could.”
Henry met a friend who let him stay at his place. That friend also gave Henry a news article about Sanctuary Palm Springs. Henry immediately reached out to founders David Rothmiller and LD Thompson.
“My friend cut the article out and knew it applied to runaway (former) foster kids, so I saw it and called them,” Henry said. “I was under all the requirements that their house had, but I wasn’t LGBT, but they said it was fine and that it wasn’t just for LGBT kids. They had me come over to the house and talked about some options for me. I volunteered at one of their events passing around food, and David and LD had me speak at the event talking about my situation—and Harry heard my story.”
A week later, Courtright said, he reached out and offered Henry a place to live.
“One of the questions I asked him at lunch was, ‘How do you feel about living with a gay man?’ because he’s straight,” Courtright said. “He threw his arms up and said, ‘I don’t care. Doesn’t mean anything to me.’
“He moved in, in March 2016. As of Aug. 8, he’s officially my son. We talked about that adoption a couple of times, and he kept saying, ‘No!’ I told him if he changed his mind to let me know.”
Henry said he was hesitant about the adoption at first.
“I said, ‘I don’t think I could do it,’” Henry said. “After my old situation, I didn’t care much about the idea of family. People love family in general, and I had to really think about it. The only reason my situation was so bad was because it was foster parents. I went back to him and said, ‘With the adoption, I’m open to it.’ When I first moved in, I offered to pay rent, and he said I didn’t have to. So many people were pushing me to pay rent, and I tried to push it and he said I didn’t have to.”
Courtright explained why he offered to adopt Henry.
“When I was in my 30s and 40s, I thought about being a foster father,” he said. “… I lived in Harrisburg, Pa., and was the head of the library there. I ran for mayor, and everyone knew me. When I went down to the county and talked to them, they said, ‘Harry, we can fill out the paperwork, but it’ll never get approved, ’” because Harry is gay.
“I want to make sure (Henry) has a family after I’m gone—so he has more family now than he knows what to do with. There are generations of cousins he now has, and they all know who he is.”
Today, Courtright is a proud yet concerned father. “I worry too much. All I’ve told him is to let me know where he is, and that he’s all right. … At night, I’m usually awake until I hear the lock on the door, but that just comes with being a parent.”
Henry is a fan of a Los Angeles clothing store. He buys limited-edition items there—and then sells them online for profit. He once sold a $160 jacket for more $500 on eBay. Courtright proudly bragged about his son’s success.
“He’s going to be rich someday. He’s an entrepreneur!” Courtright said. “… He does this all the time. I told him he’s going to be a millionaire.”
Henry currently is working two jobs and taking classes at College of the Desert. One class helped Henry discover a love for writing, but he’s keeping his options open.
“Right now, I’m taking business, but I know there are so many options out there,” Henry said. “I like to learn, and I know I could do whatever I wanted if I focused on it. I really like to sell stuff and have always naturally been good at selling stuff. In school, I always got a free lunch, and I would sell it for $2, which was the regular lunch price. … I’d bring my own lunch and eat that instead.”
Courtright said he’s watched Henry make some significant and positive changes in his life.
“I’ve told him, ‘I don’t know how you ended up being such a good kid’ after that 10 years he had with the foster parents, but he’s really blossomed,” Courtright said. “He talks a lot more. He asks questions constantly. He’s interested in everything, particularly the news. He registered to vote and voted for the first time. We love each other as father and son—and we say it to each other often.”