San Francisco, a city known worldwide as a bastion for LGBTQ individuals, is taking a long-overdue step to address the closely intertwined relationships between homeless and queer rights. On August 15th, the San Francisco Planning Commission gave the final approvals necessary for Dolores Street Community Services (DSCS) to begin construction of an LGBTQ shelter. Surprisingly, this shelter is the first of its kind for the City, even though advocates have maintained for years that LGBTQ residents are ostracized in many public settings, including the shelter system.
The specialized shelter, which will cater to people of all gender identities and sexual preferences, is past due for the LGBTQ homeless community. In 2010, the idea for the shelter first gained momentum after Supervisor David Campos, who is gay, held a hearing at City Hall at the urging of many homeless providers and LGBTQ advocates well aware of the issues faced by queer and transgendered homeless residents. At the hearing, dozens of LGBTQ residents spoke of the negative experiences they encounter daily, demonstrating a systemic problem which necessitated an apposite response by the City. In fact, The Coalition on Homelessness performed a survey several years ago with the results showing “over 70% of transgender residents…experienced some form of abuse, either sexual, physical, verbal or harassment at the city’s shelters because of their gender identity.” The San Francisco Human Rights Commission has also documented violence against LGBTQ shelter residents since 2000. Following the hearing, DSCS, in conjunction with numerous other homeless service providers and LGBTQ advocates, began planning the creation of the shelter.
Technicalities and Funding
Upon attempting to get the necessary permits for the construction, DSCS was hit with bad news that would delay the project for several years. DSCS currently operates a 57-bed shelter for men, typically targeting the Spanish-speaking and Mission populations, on the same site of the proposed LGBTQ shelter, and planned to create an extension onto the second floor for an additional 24 beds as well as improve the existing facilities. However, DSCS quickly learned that not only was a permit for the planned extension denied but they never even had the proper permits for the existing shelter, which has operated for years. Wendy Phillips, the Executive Director of DSCS, clarified their predicament, stating that they did not lack permits altogether but had the wrong ones issued years back.
Throughout the last several years, the permits as well as funding have resulted in a much needed project being delayed time and time again. The overall cost for the construction is around $550,000, but DSCS came up about $100,000 short through their own grant writing and fundraising. Fortunately, Bevan Dufty, of the Mayor’s office of Housing Opportunities Partnership and Engagement, or the office of HOPE, took up the cause and was able to find alternative funding streams. Dufty, a gay man and former City Supervisor who dedicated a lot of his efforts to ending homelessness in San Francisco, has been a supporter of the project from the beginning and acquired a $30,000 grant from the Haas Jr. Fund and “a city community development block grant” to cover the monetary shortfall, according to the Bay Area Reporter.
When approaching the Planning Commission two weeks ago, DSCS sought to have the current shelter legalized and get a requirement for “rear-yard space and the 14 bicycle parking spaces” for such development waived, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Ms. Phillips wasn’t alone in urging the Planning Commission to permit the shelter’s extension, though, and many LGBTQ and homeless residents came to speak in favor of the plans. Fortunately, the Planning Commission listened to the overwhelming support of the project and unanimously voted to approve the permits, 7-0.
One Big Step, a Mile to Go
The Planning Commission’s approval will definitely help, however San Francisco needs to take a deeper look at LGBTQ issues and their inherent overlap with homelessness to develop a larger solution. Shamefully, San Francisco has the smallest percentage of people living with HIV/AIDS who have permanent, stable, and safe housing in the entire United States—only 9.1% . This surely is a tragedy for a city that has some of the best research into HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, but cannot provide the basic needs for those suffering from the virus. Furthermore, the 2013 Point-In-Time Homeless Count revealed that 29% of the homeless in San Francisco identify as LGBTQ—a percentage believed by many to be an underestimate—reflecting a similar national trend where up to 40% of all homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. The Transgender Law Center also conducted a study showing one in five transgender individuals became homeless after coming out as transgendered. All these point to a social injustice that goes beyond inadequate safe spaces for homeless LGBTQ residents. Rightfully, Supervisor Campos told the Bay Area Reporter: “This is not a panacea. It’s not an answer to the entire problem, but it’s a step in the right direction.”