Supes told of LGBT harassment in city shelters
by Seth Hemmelgarn
San Francisco Supervisor David Campos was among those expressing support last week for an LGBT-friendly shelter after dozens of people testified at a Board of Supervisors committee hearing about harassment in San Francisco's shelters.
The abuse is often met with indifference by the facilities' staff, many said, and nearly everyone testifying called for a shelter for LGBTs.
After the Thursday, March 25 meeting of the supervisors' government audit and oversight committee, Campos, who is openly gay, told the Bay Area Reporter that there's "clearly a need" for an LGBT-friendly shelter and supervisors "need to think about it as we're looking at next year's budget."
"The current shelter system is not addressing the needs" of homeless LGBTs, said Campos. Having an LGBT-friendly shelter would be "an important step."
Campos is not on the committee but had asked for the hearing.
Problems in the shelters have been well-known among queer homeless advocates, but the supervisors appeared shocked at the testimony and grilled a staffer from the Human Services Agency, which oversees the shelters.
People testified about being called "faggot," being afraid to use bathrooms or showers, and dealing with staff who at times participated in the harassment, among other problems. Many people said they would rather sleep on the streets then stay in one of the city's shelters.
Jason Skerik testified that on his first night in a shelter he was called a "faggot" and he was pressured to give up his bed. He left the shelter and stayed on the streets.
"Staff had no control over the situation," he said, but "they were doing the best they could."
Orlon Ryel, a transsexual man, discussed the separate quarters for men and women in one shelter and said when he had asked staff where he could stay, his request was met with "giggles and grins."
"They really had no idea what to do with me," Ryel said.
He also said during his shelter experience he couldn't find a safe place to shower, go to the bathroom, or sleep, and he felt under "constant threat."
Beck, who goes by one name and identifies as transgender/queer, is the youth program coordinator for the San Francisco LGBT Community Center. He said he deals with up to 300 queer homeless youth a year, and it's "high time this issue be addressed."
He said every day, someone gets off a Greyhound bus in San Francisco, seeing the city as "a beacon of light," but it often takes months for them to find housing.
Beck said nothing is being done about the harassment people face. Staff can be transphobic, he said, and there's a lack of training. He said youth need a chance to evaluate their own services, and there should be a queer and homeless youth board.
Marcus Arana, a transgender man who's also known as Holy Old Man Bull, is a contract compliance officer for the city's Human Rights Commission. He said the commission has had dozens of trainings for the shelters, but they're hearing some of the same complaints about the same staff members.
He said from 2003 to 2010 there were 40 recorded complaints related to LGBTs. Those included complaints related to transgender women being segregated unnecessarily into separate shower times from non-transgender women; staff and clients using incorrect pronouns or using pronouns in a mocking way; and clients making threats of violence out of the hearing of shelter staff, so that the transgender person felt intimidated and could not sustain a complaint because shelter staff didn't witness the offense, he wrote in an e-mail after the hearing.
Arana also said dozens of other cases were often resolved with a phone call or an e-mail to the shelter.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a longtime queer activist who works with the Housing Rights Committee, said the hearing was "amazing" but also said "we need more LGBT-specific housing and we need it now." He added the people present barely scratched the surface of LGBTs who have had problems at the shelters.
There are currently only a handful of housing slots specifically designated for homeless queer youth. Avicolli Mecca and others pointed out there are housing needs for all age groups.
Karen Gruneisen, associate director of Episcopal Community Services of San Francisco, was one of the few shelter representatives to speak at the hearing. Gruneisen said her agency should be held accountable, but noted employees have due process rights, and said "we can't get rid of homophobia in our community."
After testimony from three other people, Supervisor Sophie Maxwell expressed concern about Gruneisen's testimony.
"If you're getting our money, there's really, really no excuse" for inaction, said Maxwell, who sits on the committee along with Supervisors Eric Mar and Carmen Chu. "As a city, and as a county ... if I'm looking at budget issues, I want to know something's being done" about harassment of LGBTs in the shelters, she said.
In a phone interview the morning after the hearing, Gruneisen told the B.A.R. , "discrimination on any basis is not tolerable in our shelter or anybody else's shelter." She said staff "work to create a culture of respect and understanding" through policies, trainings, and other means.
She and Maxwell had met after the hearing, and Gruneisen said, "I think we came to a better understanding of what I was saying and what she was reacting to." Maxwell didn't respond to a request for a follow-up interview about the hearing.
Gruneisen said that since July 2009, there have been 10 to 15 complaints related to transgender women. Those included complaints from clients who wanted transgender women assigned to a different area.
Scott Walton, manager of adult programs in the housing and homeless division of the city's Human Services Agency, testified that policies and procedures are in place addressing verbal threats, physical assaults, and derogatory language.
But Campos said there was "a very clear disconnect" between the policies and procedures Walton described and the reality that people accessing the system seemed to be experiencing.
Maxwell eventually told Walton, "When people come and the room is full, we have a responsibility to find out what's going on."
In his response, Walton said, "We're hearing things today we're not hearing through our complaints and grievance procedures."
According to Walton, most shelters in the city have reported that no LGBT-related concerns or complaints have been raised in the last nine months.
After the hearing, Campos mentioned the possibility of putting a working group together to address the issues brought up at the hearing that would include people from the LGBT community and city departments.
He said he hoped for another hearing in the next few weeks, once the Human Services Agency and others have had time to collect more information.