How Lonnie Walker’s Own Hardships Fueled His Dedication to Helping Others

JOY Baltimore seeks to support vulnerable children and end youth homelessness, with a focus on the LGBTQ+ community.
—Photography by Benjamin Tankersley

Lonnie Walker understands what the homeless and displaced youth who are served by JOY Baltimore are going through—that’s because he’s been there himself.

He grew up in Brooklyn, New York’s infamous Red Hook public housing project, a community that was ravaged by the 1990s crack epidemic. Walker’s younger years were marked by adversity. His single mother was not only raising her own three boys, but often took in and cared for their relatives. The family’s resources were stretched thin and neighborhood violence impacted their daily life. Remarkably, Walker overcame these hardships and they fueled his dedication to improving the lives of others.

“I love people and I want to help them,” says Walker.

When Walker first arrived in Baltimore about 20 years ago, it troubled him to see so many young people who lived in foster care or were homeless. He wanted to help, so he became a director of a group home. He grew to love the kids in his care and eventually resigned from the group home to make it possible for him to pursue adopting some of the children who needed a stable parent figure. In a twist of fate, he found himself jobless and a step away from homelessness—but his reduced circumstances only increased his passion for helping others.

“I stepped out in faith, without any funding. I just started doing the work, helping those in foster care who I had worked with in the past,” recalls Walker.

This “work” included sourcing donations from his own network of essential supplies like hygiene products, food, and clothes, and getting these items to the children who needed them.

Walker’s grassroots efforts gradually gained recognition and funding and evolved into JOY Baltimore. JOY stands for “Just Our Youth,” but “joy” is also an apt characterization of Walker, a charismatic and proudly gay man who exudes positivity and optimism.

JOY Baltimore seeks to support vulnerable children and end youth homelessness, with a focus on the LGBTQ+ community. Its JOY Drop-In Center provides access to vital services including medical care, access to emergency shelter, food, toiletries, bus passes, treatment, counseling, crisis intervention, and more. JOY Baltimore also hosts a free bi-monthly market called The Boutique, which provides necessities like clothing and access to community services. Finally, the organization facilitates the mentorship programs Black Men United (BMU) and Black Women United (BWU), which connect young African Americans with older adults mentor- ship, guidance and access to opportunities.

Another hallmark of Walker’s work is his respect for the dignity of each participant. At special holiday events, for example, Walker insists on family-style dining on nice table- cloths. This access to fine living extends to the experiences he’s able to provide the youth in his program, such as special meals at some of Baltimore’s most exclusive restaurants.

“The studies say that people climb as high as they can dream,” says Walker. “I want to make sure that young people know that there are no specific people that these nice things were created for. You can do all of this.”