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Most vulnerable homeless sector seeks shelter

Within the homeless community there are invisible subgroups that face even greater disadvantages and larger stumbling blocks –monolingual Spanish speakers, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered individuals, and persons infected with HIV. Now efforts are being made to give them the resources they need.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered monolingual Spanish-speaking individuals can seek help at centers like the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center (pictured above), but no shelters exist in San Francisco that offer services targeted to LGBT clients

Mission Neighborhood Resource Center employee, Danilo Pedroso (right), prepares to close for the evening.

The occupied alleys and doorways throughout the City are the clearest indicator that homelessness is a major concern. But within this community there are invisible subgroups that face even greater disadvantages and larger stumbling blocks –monolingual Spanish speakers, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered individuals, and persons infected with HIV.

While the U.S. Census and interest groups are hard at work to get ethnically diverse groups counted, different efforts are being made to help the most vulnerable of the displaced.

District 9 Supervisor David Campos is working with organizations such as the AIDS Housing Alliance/San Francisco to get an accurate count and diversity statistics of the City’s homeless. One possible result could be the creation of the only LGBT homeless shelter in the city.

“Some in the community approached my office about the poor treatment of LGBT people in homeless shelters,” said Campos. “There were complaints about the safety of the queer and trans community that had to be addressed.”

While some services are available for certain segments of the LGBT community, Campos and the AHASF are working to create a safe shelter, staffed by culturally competent employees trained in handling matters that affect LGBT homeless. Brian Basinger, the director of AHASF, stressed that many groups within the homeless community approach shelters with fear or avoid them altogether for many reasons.

“If a person is monolingual or without a social security number or HIV positive they don’t feel like there are services for them or they fear abuse,” he said. “They are boxed out of the housing resources and don’t know where to turn.”

An open discussion took place on April 13 at the Latino Leadership Institute on HIV Health and Prevention/Latino Programs that meets twice a week at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. There, nearly a dozen Latino males discussed their experiences with San Francisco homeless shelters and their concerns about LGBT safety.

“I would go to the shelter at 16th and Capp to help my homeless friends as a translator,” said Antonio Sanchez, a San Francisco resident for 14 years. “But there aren’t enough bilingual services available and some of the transgender girls would get harassed.”

Sanchez often took in young transgender and gay Latinos when they were closed out of shelter services. He would go to sleep with a living room full of displaced bodies and by eight in the morning they would all be gone.

“They were used to leaving the shelters by six or seven a.m. and I was just happy to offer them a place that wasn’t under a freeway,” said Sanchez. “But more needs to be done because they shouldn’t be getting called names or threatened at shelters that are there to help.”

Many of the males in the SFAF group had expressed concern about sexual harassment accusations that are common in homeless shelters and often lead to fights or having the LGBT persons kicked out or banned from a particular shelter.

All of the group members agreed that LGBT shelter services would be a step in the right direction but that it can’t be the only thing that is done.

“You need to educate the other shelter staff so that it doesn’t become a way to deny gay people services from the non-gay shelters,” said Lily, a transgender woman who has had great experiences at a local women’s shelter.

One idea that seemed to gain popularity in the group was that an LGBT shelter with separate dorms for gays, lesbians, transgender and couples would be a great step in making the homeless feel more safe and comfortable.

Until now there has been no official count of San Francisco’s LGBT homeless community, something AHASF is working hard to rectify. The San Francisco Homeless Services Coalition estimates that there are 35,000 homeless individuals in the Bay Area. And while no official numbers have been collected, various Bay Area groups estimate 38-to-40 percent of the homeless youth identify as LGBT.

Some studies have looked at where some homeless end-up when they fear bias. One such study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology in 2006, noted 25 percent more monolingual Latinos than their English-speaking counterparts choose to sleep on the streets rather than risk language and legal documentation barriers in shelters. And nearly half of the homeless Latinos were first generation immigrants, according to the study.

Basinger attributes some of this homelessness and strife on Latino LGBT individuals on the reality that they can’t take advantage of affordable housing opportunities because they don’t have a social security number and, because of their sexuality, they are not able to share housing with others from their culture.

Many people are able to stave off unmanageable rent prices by living with extended family or multiple roommates but LGBT and HIV positive individuals are often not able to take advantage of that option because they fear being attacked or outed.

According to the San Francisco Comprehensive HIV/AIDS Housing Plan, there are up to 2,500 homeless people with HIV/AIDS in San Francisco and up to 13,000 who are at-risk of becoming homeless due to an extreme rent burden. The San Francisco Department of Public Health has found that only 38.8 percent of people with HIV/AIDS had stable housing.

Rodrigo Ibenez, financial services coordinator at AHASF, is dedicated to helping HIV+ Latinos find housing. He believes that it is his community’s deep religious beliefs and silence about sexuality that perpetuate homophobia.

“San Francisco is so liberal that it is sometimes amazing to think that my community has so much homophobia. But we brought it from our countries and hold onto it,” said Ibenez, who moved here from Mexico City 18 months ago.

Ibenez has seen that monolingual HIV-postive Latinos often wait too long before going to clinics or support groups and medical complications could be avoided if there wasn’t such stigma associated with homosexuality in the Latino community.

“They are afraid to go into clinics because they think someone they know will see them and avoid the shelters that may discriminate against them,” said Ibenez. “The fear often leads to people getting further medical complications or risking harm on the streets.”

A recent study published by AIDS Education and Prevention in 2009 also showed the mental and physical health repercussions on Latino MSM’s (men who have sex with men) when they fear self-identifying and seeking out community support. In this study, cultural stigma in identifying as gay or bisexual was linked to increased instances of unprotected sex and negative self-image.

These factors are being raised at City hearings that Campos has been calling. One such hearing held at the end of March was attended by at least one gay day laborer that expressed fear of attacks at shelters, and staff unfamiliar with LGBT issues and safety.

“This is why there needs to be a shelter that can work toward the unique needs of the LGBT community. Including communicating with monolingual Spanish speakers,” said Campos.

Story by: Krystal Peak