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Guest Opinion: SF needs more LGBTQ shelters

by by Brenda Cordova

Imagine you are walking down the street in San Francisco enjoying the view until suddenly you come across a sidewalk full of homeless encampments. What do you do? Do you avert your eyes trying not to make eye contact because perhaps you will see a person behind those eyes, a person just like yourself that just happens to find themselves in a difficult situation? Do you think to yourself, "Well, if they really wanted to they could go to a shelter."

The reality is that it is not always that easy. There are only 1,203 adult shelter beds available in the city, which has over 7,000 homeless individuals, and to get a bed for the night there is a waitlist with over 1,000 individuals hoping for a spot.

For the LGBTQ homeless population, it is even more difficult to find a safe shelter. Many are still harassed in shelters and feel unaccepted by other shelter residents. Many of them feel safer in the streets than in the shelters. In the streets, they can choose who they sleep next to and most build their own tent communities with other LGBTQ homeless individuals. This is a vulnerable population and many of them are already fleeing homes after feeling unaccepted. There is only one shelter in the city where LGBTQ individuals feel safe and accepted, a 24-bed facility named Jazzie's Place. LGBTQ homeless individuals account for 30 percent of the total homeless population in San Francisco, according to the 2017 Point-In-Time count. The number of LGBTQ people who are homeless is too high. Something must be done.

If ignoring the problem is not the answer then what is an alternative, calling 311? Last November, Proposition Q passed, making it unlawful to place tents on sidewalks without a permit, but before removing encampments the city must give tent residents 24-hour notice of removal and find shelter for all residents. Problem solved, right? Not exactly. What happens after someone calls 311 to report an encampment? Well, San Francisco Public Works is called out to physically clean up the encampment and if workers encounter residents residing in the encampment, the San Francisco Police Department is called. The SFPD then offers tent residents shelter services. If the tent residents refuse shelter services, then they are asked to pack up their belongings and clear out of the area, usually moving a couple blocks down. If the residents accept services, then the Homeless Outreach Team is called. The tent residents are then transported to a Navigation Center or placed on the shelter waitlist. Except for Navigation Centers, which allow couples to stay together with their possessions, there is no guarantee that someone will be sheltered with their partner or those they may have been sharing their tent with. For LGBTQ individuals who have faced harassment at other shelters, there is apprehension to stay at a shelter. According to LGBTQs on the street, there is a waitlist of about a month to stay at Jazzie's place.

Why is it that LGBTQ homeless individuals must be forced to pick unsafe options, either stay on the streets or feel harassed emotionally and even physically at a shelter? In a city that has been a pioneer for LGBTQ rights it is unacceptable for there to be so many LGBTQ community members out on the streets. There are only 24 shelter beds targeted to the LGBTQ homeless population of over 2,000.

What we need are more LGBTQ-targeted shelter beds. The number of LGBTQ safe shelter spaces is disproportionate to the homeless population that identifies as LGBTQ. Once an individual has a shelter bed, more focus can be placed on housing-led interventions. Someone who has a safe place to sleep for the night has a much better capacity to accept assistance and be proactive in acquiring assistance for housing, employment, mental health services, and substance abuse services. It all starts with a safe night's sleep.

So what can we do to help the thousands in our LGBTQ community who are experiencing homelessness? We can start by demanding that the city provide more safe LGBTQ-targeted shelters. Don't wait until it is a problem in your neighborhood, on your sidewalk, or even outside of your door, act now. Let's help the LGBTQ members of our community have a safe place to sleep at night. Call Mayor Ed Lee's office at (415) 554-6141 and demand more LGBTQ-targeted shelters.

Brenda Cordova is a current resident of San Francisco and has been here since 2012. She is currently completing graduate school for a master's in social work at the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

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