PLANO, Texas — A lot of us spent 2020 walking and thinking. But one of Jason Vallejo’s daily walks changed his life and likely saved other lives.
“Something I’d do every day to just get my mind off things and clear my mind,” Vallejo said.
More than two years later, he retraced the steps he took on a May 2020 walk.
He passed Plano’s Haggard Park and then spotted a young man asleep in a nearby vacant lot, just across the street from the DART station.
“It became real that, yes, this is the very reason. This is why I need to do something,” Vallejo said.
He believes he was about 5 years old growing up in Victoria, Texas when he first knew he was gay.
But it would take 25 more years before he let anyone else know.
“I was about 30 years old when I finally came out,” he said.
After college, Vallejo battled depression and even attempted suicide.
But he says his family, a deep love of God, and a rediscovery of his faith guided him through.
He went to seminary and became a pastor.
He fell in love with a man he met at a bible study.
Vallejo says people at his church made it “uncomfortable,” saying unkind things about their relationship and marriage.
He and his husband left the congregation.
“But I never let that stop my relationship with God,” he said.
“When people come to me and say I cannot be Christian and gay - you can have your thoughts and your opinion, but I know my truth. And I know the truth that says I’m loved and accepted just as I am. And I feel like I’m doing the work that God has called me to do," said Vallejo.
Vallejo and his family remain close.
But he says his husband’s father hasn’t spoken to him in years.
That might have been on his mind when he discovered that young man sleeping in that overgrown grass in Plano on that walk in 2020.
“He said his name is John. And I said, ‘Hey John what are you doing out here? It’s hot.’”
John told Vallejo he was homeless with no family.
He had spent one night in a Dallas shelter, but he was only 21 years old and he didn’t feel safe there.
So, John took a DART train to the suburbs and fell asleep.
When Vallejo and his husband moved to North Texas, he had taken a job working with homeless people in Dallas.
He knew people between 18 and 24 faced unique difficulties because shelters often felt unsafe for people that age.
Vallejo took John to a McDonald’s, found him help through an existing agency, then went straight home and began sending emails and making calls.
That was the moment he knew he wanted to build his own nonprofit – specifically aimed at helping homeless youth.
“We are the first emergency shelter serving 18- to 24-year-olds,” he said.
Since Elevate North Texas launched, it has provided 91 youth with short-term hotel rooms, counseling, and case managers.
They’ve also offered leads on jobs and found some long-term housing with host families.
Vallejo says 60 percent of his 91 clients identify as gay.
“The national stat shows that 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ plus. So for us to be seeing 60 percent is just really quite telling of where we are politically because of a lot of the hate speech and rhetoric,” Vallejo said of the climate in Texas.
He’s helped youth he said were on the verge of suicide and some who’d been victims of sexual assaults while sleeping in parks because shelters felt unsafe.
“Try to imagine for a second what it would be like to have your family say, 'I want nothing to do with you, neither does God and we’re taking everything away, we want you out of the house,'” Vallejo said.
“I know that a lot of youth end up taking their lives or end up homeless because of family rejection.”
To those struggling to find love or acceptance, Vallejo says to keep the faith and contact him.
He knows the pain of hiding who you are. And the joy of finally living it.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is always open. Dial 1-800-273-8255 any time of day.