In our work at the shelter and our community education efforts, we understand that we can't talk about poverty without talking about issues of race, gender, sexuality, ability, access, age, mental health, substance use and class. We refer to these overlaps of complex issues as "intersections of oppression". Most of our shelter guests experience challenging combinations of these issues in their daily lives making it incredibly difficult to navigate the world with little to no resources.
We are a values based organization and aim to make all programmatic, strategic, fundraising and political decisions grounded in our core values. We know that we won't meet our mission if we stray from our values. One way this looks day to day is that we strive to provide adequate compensation to our workers so that we can keep their skills, heart and dedication in our community serving people on the streets. We prioritize hiring people that demographically reflect the population that we serve. This includes people of color, people with lived experience, former guests, and LGBTQ identified individuals. Today, I want to focus on issues surrounding LGBTQ individuals that stay with us and work at the shelter.
Depending on the study, close to 50% of youth experiencing homelessness are LGBTQ identified. Services working with LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness have improved greatly over the years. We are lucky to have very adept organizations doing this work locally--CYS, PiPE, Stonewall Youth, EGYHOP and others. The adult homeless service network however, is generally pretty far behind the times when it comes to LGBTQ competency in adult programs. This doesn't really add up to me--people don't age out of their identity. So when they age out of youth programs and there are not competent resources for them in adult programs they are underserved and at much higher risk for experiencing mental health and substance use challenges, discrimination and violence because of their identities. We have prioritized addressing this important issue through our shelter program because many of us on staff identify as LGBTQ and also because on any given night at our shelter between 10-20% of our guests are as well.
How this looks in real life is that lesbian couples can stay in the women's dorm, gay men in couples can stay in the men's dorms, all genders and makeup of couples can stay in the couples dorm, and transgendered people can sleep wherever they feel most comfortable. We have a gender neutral restroom and our men's and women's bathrooms are gender inclusive (meaning that all guests that identify with that gender can use the bathroom that matches their identity).
It isn't perfect. Not at all. People still experience discrimination in our shelter, both guests and staff are misgendered (to refer to someone, especially a transgender person, using a word, especially a pronoun or form of address, that does not correctly reflect the gender with which they identify) frequently and experience hateful language and prejudice. People don't always feel comfortable or safe no matter how good our intentions are or how hard we try to make it a safe space. We are stretching the historical view of what adult sheltering looks like and to change a strongly formed mold is never easy. What gives me hope is that many of our LGBTQ guests and staff have stuck around. They keep coming back for the most part--even when it isn't perfect.
By hiring people with lived experience we know that this job can expose all of our vulnerabilities and past trauma. As staff we have all dealt with feeling targeted at times and drained from the layers of oppression that play out in our workplace. Over the past few months we have been working on a plan to better support our staff by providing them benefits in addition to their hourly wages.
June 28th, 2016 was an important day for us at the shelter. It was the first day in our program's history that we introduced paid holidays for our staff. This means time and half for shifts worked on 8 holidays out of each year. As a team we decided upon our list of 8 annual holidays and like everything we do... it was a values based decision.
June 28th, 2016 marked 47 years after the first night of riots at the Stonewall Inn. This event is seen as one of the most definitive moments in the fight for LGBTQ liberation in this country. The Stonewall Inn is a gay bar in Greenwich Village, NYC and at the time was known to serve the most poor and marginalized members of the LGBTQ community including homeless youth. The protests and riots are widely believed to have been kicked off by Marsha P.Johnson, a Black transwoman who performed as a drag queen, and Silvia Rivera, a Puerto Rican transgender woman. Other gay, lesbian, crossdressers, transgendered folks and patrons of the Stonewall Inn took to the streets after a routine, forceful police raid to declare that they were no longer going to stand for the violence and discrimination they had faced for so long.
As a shelter team, we decided that this moment in history is one that we want to publicly declare as an official paid holiday of the Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter. Thank you to the beautiful people that stood for justice in the Stonewall riots, pushing forth the efforts for LGBTQ liberation and equality. While we have so far to go, we are proud to work in our little corner of the shelter world to try and make it more livable and safe for LGBTQ people to be met exactly where they are with unconditional respect and positive regard.
Growth is uncomfortable and change never comes without clash. I am honored to work with a team of individuals that actively work to understand the intersections of oppression that our guests face. This helps us be able to discuss issues that are hard, that make us grow and keep us rooted in our slow moving progress towards social justice. We understand it because we each uniquely live it in our own daily lives.
Thank you to the Stonewall protesters, we honor you.
Meg Martin, MSW, MHP, is the Shelter Program Director for The Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter.