By Linda Childers
Tommi Avicolli Mecca, director of counseling programs at the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, still remembers the day six years ago when a young homeless gay Latino man came to his office in tears.
“His face was bruised, and he told me he’d run away from his family, and had been living in a homeless shelter,” Avicolli Mecca says. “He was attacked at the shelter for being gay, and was scared to return.”
The National Coalition Against Homelessness says violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons in homeless shelters is all too common. They report that members of the LGBT community typically have a greater difficulty finding shelters that accept and respect them, and are at a heightened risk of violence, abuse, and exploitation compared to their heterosexual peers.
In June of 2015, San Francisco opened Jazzie’s Place, the first adult LGBT homeless shelter in the country, named in memory of Jazzie Collins, a San Francisco transgender woman who fiercely advocated for LGBT housing and services until her death in 2013.
“Homelessness is a huge health issue in San Francisco,” says Avicolli Mecca who says many young LGBT adults who flee hostile home environments find themselves on the streets. San Francisco is well-known as an LGBT-friendly city, but it’s also one of the most expensive cities in the country.
“Even with a minimum-wage job, it’s hard for many people to make ends meet,” Avicolli Mecca says.
Looking for Answers
While Jazzie’s Place, overseen by Delores Street Community Services, is a good starting point, the 24-bed adult shelter is far too small to serve the majority of homeless LGBT adults. This leaves the city’s homeless advocates desperately seeking additional solutions.
A 2015 Point-in-Time Count found that 29 percent of San Francisco’s homeless population identifies as LGBT, a number that doesn’t surprise Bevan Dufty, who served as the city’s director of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement (HOPE), until his resignation earlier this month.
“Homelessness is a huge problem in SF that outstrips the ability of local government,” says Dufty who endorsed Supervisor David Campos’ decision in early March to ask the city Board of Supervisors to declare a state of emergency on homelessness in San Francisco.
The debate between Supervisor Campos and the Mayor’s Office about how to best serve San Francisco’s homeless continues. Meanwhile, Dufty says initiatives such as the city’s Navigation Center are providing valuable resources to the homeless.
The Navigation Center, a pilot program, opened last year in the Mission District, and offers the city’s homeless a complex where they can live with their pets, partners, tents and carts while they are connected to long-term housing and social services. The project has been so successful that Campos and others are hoping that SF Mayor Lee will approve two additional Navigation Centers in the city.
Carolyn Goosen, a legislative aide to Supervisor Campos, says that if emergency legislation passes, the city will be able to move more quickly in allocating public land for navigation centers.
“The legislation would allow the city to build shelters on public land that does not meet existing health and safety standards, streamlining the permitting process for those sites,” Goosen says.
Low-Cost LGBT Senior Housing to Open
Perhaps those most vulnerable to homelessness are the city’s LGBT seniors. Upwards of 20,000 LGBT seniors ages 60 and older live in San Francisco, a number expected to reach 50,000 by 2030.
A 2013 report by the city’s LGBT Aging Policy Task Force, found that 30 percent of the seniors surveyed were at risk of homelessness with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, and two-thirds were concerned they would be unable to remain in their current housing and could be forced to relocate.
Avicolli-Mecca says that while the opening of new affordable LGBT for seniors at 55 Laguna Street is exciting, it won’t go far in providing low-income housing for the city’s LGBT seniors.
Sponsored by Openhouse, the San Francisco-based LGBT senior agency, the 39-affordable studio, 1-bedroom and 2-bedroom homes will open this fall at 55 Laguna in Fall 2016. An additional 79 units will open at 95 Laguna in 2018.
Anti-discrimination laws prevent the city from setting aside the units solely for LGBT seniors. Anyone, no matter his or her sexual orientation or gender identity, is eligible to apply.
And while affordable housing is critical for many seniors, an Openhouse study found that lesbian and gay seniors often don’t have the same kind of safety net as their heterosexual peers. The study found that LGBT seniors are more likely to be childless, single and to live alone, and to also face discrimination in medical and social services, retirement homes, and nursing care facilities.
“There are so many great organizations in San Francisco that are working hard and trying to make a difference in the homeless community including the AIDS Housing Alliance, Project Homeless Connect and more,” Avicolli Mecca says. “And yet housing options for the homeless still remain in short supply.”