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Queer homeless rate flat, but youth figures rise

by Seth Hemmelgarn

Jeff Kositsky, director, Department of Homelessness and<br>Supportive Housing, speaks about the city's latest homeless count figures at a<br>June 16 news conference. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
Jeff Kositsky, director, Department of Homelessness and
Supportive Housing, speaks about the city's latest homeless count figures at a
June 16 news conference. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland  

At 30 percent, the portion of homeless people in San Francisco who identify as LGBTQ is almost unchanged from 2015, but almost half of the city's homeless youth say they're LGBTQ, marking an increase from two years ago, according to new reports from the city.

Asked about the lack of change in the overall LGBTQ homeless population, Sam Dodge, deputy director of San Francisco's Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said, "I think there's the same issues that we've always had, where there's lots of the country where it's very hard to be LGBTQ-identified. San Francisco is still a place that people find refuge."

The figures come from the 2017 San Francisco Homeless Count and Survey and the city's 2017 Homeless Unique Youth Count and Survey, which were collected earlier this year and released Friday, June 16.

Overall, the number of homeless people in the city is virtually flat: from 7,539 in 2015, when 29 percent identified as LGBT, to 7,499 people this year.

But the survey shows that a disproportionate number of San Francisco LGBTQ residents are homeless. According to city estimates, 14 percent of residents identify as LGBTQ.

The report says that 41 percent of homeless individuals identify as bisexual, 25 percent are gay, 14 percent are lesbian, 11 percent are queer, and 9 percent are transgender.

"Our whole system needs to be LGBTQ-friendly," said Dodge of the city's network of shelters and other facilities designed to help homeless people.

"We're making sure we're doing training and education with all our providers to continue improvement about how to make spaces more welcoming and staff more competent when it comes to the myriad identities we work with," he said.

Dodge also mentioned the 2015 opening of Jazzie's Place, a 24-bed shelter designed to be welcoming especially for LGBTQ adults.

"I think there's a lot of fronts we're trying to move forward on," he said.

Youth

Skylar, who declined to give his last name, holds a sign asking for money at 18th and Castro streets. Photo: Seth Hemmelgarn

In 2015, 43 percent of the city's homeless population under the age of 25 identified as LGBTQ. This year, that number rose to 49 percent.

Told of the youth figure, Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a longtime queer activist who works with the city's Housing Rights Committee, said, "I'm actually in shock."

"I've been like Cassandra for years, saying, 'We have a crisis, we have a crisis,'" said Avicolli Mecca, referring to the Greek mythological figure whose prophecies weren't believed. "The mainstream community has not been listening. I hope this will make them do something."

He said he wants gay District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy to push for the respite center that he had proposed for the Castro neighborhood.

"It's obvious we need a place for LGBT youth to go where they feel safe" and where they can get food, help finding shelter, and "eventually permanent housing," said Avicolli Mecca.

Asked about the youth-related data, Dodge said that he sees more ways for people to identify sexually "and more comfort in claiming some of these identities. ... That's both a generational thing and also a dynamic about who finds themselves drawn to San Francisco."

Both the youth and general street counts took place January 26. The data specific to subgroups of homeless youth are based on surveys of 229 youth administered in February. The margin of error for the extended youth survey is plus or minus 6 percentage points.

Overall, there was a 13 percent drop in the homeless youth population, from 1,569 in 2015 to 1,363 in 2017.

District 8

Asked about the percentage of homeless people who are LGBTQ being relatively flat, Sheehy said, "We are housing people, we're just not housing them fast enough."

Due to an error in processing data, it's not clear how many homeless people are in District 8. But the new report shows that there were 342 people without any shelter at all in 2015, and 236 in 2017.

Sheehy said that the data on LGBTQ homeless youth "just confirms what I've been saying and validates the effort I've made to try to get more resources for that population."

For months, Sheehy has criticized Mayor Ed Lee's administration for not adequately funding services for the city's homeless youth.

Lee responded recently by proposing $1.54 million in additional funding for services targeted at the city's youth, particularly those who are homeless. Most of the money will go toward housing subsidies, but it will also be used to expand drop-in hours for the San Francisco LGBT Community Center's youth program and the center's meals program.

Sheehy said that "the next thing we need to do" is make the city's next Navigation Center targeted for young people. The city's Navigation Centers offer homeless people a place to bring their belongings and pets and stay with their partners.

However, he said there's no funding for the respite center that Avicolli Mecca mentioned and that Sheehy proposed in May.

 

HIV/AIDS

According to the new report, 11 percent of homeless respondents "reported having an AIDS or HIV-related illness," which is up from 7 percent in 2015.

Brian Basinger, who's living with HIV, is co-founder of San Francisco's Q Foundation, which provides housing and other services to many people living with HIV.

"It is outrageous that we see a 50 percent increase in the rate of homelessness of HIV-positive homeless people," said Basinger of the recently released data.

He noted, "Those numbers are from people who are disclosing to a stranger their HIV status," so the figures are likely an undercount.

One of the main factors behind the increase is "the seismic upheaval" in the market for single-room occupancy hotel units, said Basinger.

"The prices for SROs have doubled in the last two years, so whereas in the past a disabled person with HIV could find a room in an SRO with their disability check coupled with a little bit of help from Catholic Charities or some of the other subsidy providers, that doesn't work anymore," he said. "Even with the shallow rent subsidies and a disability check, people with HIV don't have access to any kind of housing."

Referring to the 2011 deal to coax the tech giant Twitter and other companies to remain in the city, Basinger said, "It's all because of the Twitter tax giveaway."

He pointed to SROs being "gutted," and converted into dorms for tech workers or Airbnb rooms for tourists.

"I think that this is a wake-up call to the leadership of every HIV organization in the city and every LGBT group that we need to organize, mobilize, and become more focused and louder in our demands that the LGBT and HIV communities in San Francisco get their fair share of housing resources," said Basinger.

He added that he hopes people will contact the city's supervisors to urge them to vote for rental subsidies for seniors and disabled people that they're considering.

There was some improvement in the youth-related report, however. The data show that while 13 percent said they were living with an AIDS or HIV-related condition in 2015, 9 percent reported that problem in 2017.

 

Sex work

Sex work continues to be an issue confronting young people who are homeless.

The youth survey says that 24 percent of homeless youth reported trading sex for a place to stay, compared to 20 percent in 2015.

Skylar, who's bisexual, was leaning against a stack of crates outside the Walgreens at 18th and Castro streets last Friday holding a sign that said, "Too ugly to prostitute, too honest to steal."

The 25-year-old said, "The later it gets," the more he gets approached by people who turn the sign into a pick-up line, eventually asking him, "Do you want me to pay you to prostitute?"

Skylar, who declined to share his last name, turns down their offers. He said he became homeless three months ago after his ex-girlfriend stole his money and is staying in a friend's RV.

About half a block up Castro from Skylar, Joseph Roberts, 26, sat on the sidewalk with a guitar case to his left and a hat holding some change.

Roberts, who's bisexual, said he supports himself by playing his guitar. Trading sex for money or a place to stay is "something I'm not against, especially if it's a mutual need," he said, adding that female couples are among those who've approached him.

He said he comes to the Castro because "I believe what the Pride flag used to stand for ... equality, acceptance, and pride." He said that's still what the rainbow flag means to him, but he wishes more people would recognize that.

Like many of the young people who come to San Francisco, Roberts, who said he's been "houseless" for six years, is passing through. He's been in San Francisco for a month, and he just plans to stay a few more weeks.

Jason "Jay" Flanagan, 31, who was standing at the top of Castro with his Chihuahua, Mamas, and a suitcase, said he ran away when he was 17 "because my parents didn't like me being gay."

Flanagan, who's living with HIV, has been homeless for three years, and for the last couple, he's been staying in a park close to the Castro. He said that he's resorted to sex work before but now he makes money from cleaning houses, landscaping, and panhandling.

"There's a lot of love here, even though there's a lot of bullshit," Flanagan said when asked why he comes to the Castro. He said that even though nobody's asked him to leave the neighborhood, people have looked down on him.

"Remember, we're all the same," said Flanagan. "Just because someone's homeless for a moment doesn't mean we're a piece of shit our whole life."

 

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