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The Interfaith Shelter Network opens first LGBTQ homeless shelter

By Gary Warth

Originally published in The San Diego Union-Tribune

Kelsey Martinez, outreach coordinator for the Interfaith Shelter Network, stands near one of the cots set up at a church hosting a shelter for homeless LGBT people Monday.(Gary Warth)

Homeless people in the LGBT community have a new place to find shelter.

On Monday, the Interfaith Shelter Network opened its new Hillcrest branch, the first with a specific focus on homeless people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

“There’s a very large population of LGBT people in Hillcrest who often times are uncomfortable approaching other branches,” said Abigail Shrestha, rotational shelter program manager for network.

Shrestha said all shelters in the countywide system are open to LGBT people, but the Hillcrest branch is the first to make the population a specific focus.

 

It’s also the first branch to open in July within the network, which was formed 34 years ago to provide shelters during cold and rainy months. Participating churches set up cots in the evening and provide food and shelter for 12 people over two weeks during winter.

With shelters at a shortage and thousands of homeless people on the street, Shrestha said the network has been adding participating churches with hopes of becoming year-round. The number of participants has increased by 12 percent in the past few months and is now at 120. Not every church has room for a shelter, so some participate by providing meals and volunteers.

Names of participating churches are not made public, and clients are not walk-ins but referred by partnering agencies such as Family Health Center and the LGBT Community Center, which are working with the Hillcrest branch.

The branch hosted only two people on its first night Monday. Only one agreed to be interviewed, and he gave his name as Sean.

 

The 30-year-old man said he is bisexual and had moved to San Diego from New Orleans just four days earlier, drawn by better weather and better-paying jobs.

“As soon as I stepped off the train, I saw a massive amount of homeless people living on the street and digging through trash,” said Sean, who had a job interview earlier in the day and hopes to be working soon. “I’ll never do anything like that.”

Sean said he had not experienced discrimination in New Orleans, which he described as a progressive community, but he had heard of people being disowned by family members because of the sexual orientation, so he understood the shelter’s mission.

The Cushman Foundation donated $100,000 to help start the Hillcrest branch and provide housing, and San Diego Pride donated $5,000.

Fernando Lopez, executive director of San Diego Pride, said he empathized with people who may need the shelter, having been homeless in San Diego at 17 after moving away from El Centro and the family that rejected him because he was gay.

“When I heard about the opportunity to support the shelter, I knew it was something we had to be a part of,” he said, adding that 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT.

“If you are marginalized and attempt to enter a space that’s homophobic, that can be re-damaging,” he said. “Having an intentional space that has compassion toward your identity is so vital to the health and success of LGBT folks who are experiencing homelessness.”

With the addition of Hillcrest, the network has eight branches throughout countywide with plans to open a ninth in La Mesa in May, Shrestha said, adding that a 10th branch is planned for Poway.

Most branches run shelters from October to April, and together serve about 300 people a year. Shrestha said the network serves people who are situationally homeless rather than chronically homeless, and about 55 percent of its clients leave for permanent housing.

The situationally homeless may include people who still have jobs and a car, but have lost their home, she said. Without help, they are at risk of spiraling downward and having their homelessness continue over a longer period, she said.

The maximum stay in the network is 12 weeks, and Shrestha said the average stay is between five and eight weeks.

Each branch worked with at least one outside agency that provides case managers who meet with clients in the shelter once a week, Shrestha said.

The Hillcrest branch has seven churches, and Shrestha said five more may be added soon. For now, there are enough churches to keep the branch open through September, when churches in other branches will open.

Donations to the Interfaith Shelter Network may be made through the nonprofit’s website, interfaithshelter.org.

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