The Homeless

The first homeless shelter for LGBTQ youths in Sacramento opens its doors

If you’ve walked past 21st and P streets recently, you may have noticed an eye-catching newcomer to the neighborhood: The rainbow staircase, transgender pride flag and pastel-tressed unicorn balloon make Sacramento’s new homeless shelter for LGBTQ youth hard to miss.

The vividly decorated entrance will welcome the shelter’s first cohort of LGBTQ youths, a contingent that disproportionately experiences homelessness. The shelter, which is run by the Sacramento LGBT Community Center, is the first of its kind in Sacramento.

The Short-Term Transitional Emergency Program house will fill a void for youths between the age of 18, when most child protective services end, and the age of 24, when brain development ends, according to Pixie Pearl, the Center’s assistant director of housing.

The house’s 12 residents will be offered a bed, meals, case management, workshops and community for up to 90 days, after which they may transition into more long-term options in the Center’s “continuum of care.”

This year’s homeless count found about 1 in 6 homeless young adults in Sacramento County identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or otherwise not straight, while 3 percent identified as gender nonconforming. Nine percent of all unsheltered homeless individuals identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or not straight.

But Pearl suspects the real percentage is even higher. A supplemental survey carried out by the Center and the Homeless Youth Task Force found 38 percent of homeless youths identify as LGBTQ, a figure more consistent with the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law’s finding that between 30 and 43 percent of homeless youths identify as LGBT.

Pearl was among the Center staff members who provided sensitivity training to homeless count volunteers, and noted discomfort with discussing heterodox genders and sexualities. “I had folks in my group who were misgendering me, even as an adult and a professional,” said Pearl.

Because census takers weren’t obligated to ask every question on the survey, and because homeless youth may not have felt safe discussing their identities with strangers, “discomfort in asking or disclosing” may have distorted results, Pearl said. “So I respectfully call BS.”

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Though Pearl doesn’t think the STEP house is a substitute for working on prevention – “While I love this and it’s queer and warm, I don’t want it to have to exist” – it performs a vital role in the continuum of housing the Center provides. A news release from the Center said it’s a “possible entry-point or precursor to the already-thriving 18-month-old Transitional Living Program and the upcoming Host Home Program.”

Youths will also be provided with case management before and after they enter the STEP house in the hopes of forging stable relationships in the midst of transience.

Case manager Moe Copeland wants to build relationships that will offer youths access to bureaucratically convoluted institutions. When he himself experienced homelessness, friends and connections stepped in to “open this door, open that window.”

“It’s the mentorship of it all: Having someone who’s been through it and knows about it, or knows someone and can give a reference or a resource,” Copeland said.

Each aspect of the house had intention, Pearl said. The rooms and beds aren’t numbered, but named – the Rainbow Room, the Shimmer Room, the Mystic Room – to offer a sense of individuality. Bed assignments are made on the basis of personality and needs rather than gender identity, circumventing gendered housing practices that may be discriminatory or poorly suited to transgender and gender nonconforming people. Pets are not only permitted but also provided shots through a partnership with Front Street Animal Shelter. And Pearl handpicked staff who had experienced homelessness in the past in order to facilitate the most empathetic care possible.

Copeland concurred on the importance of a fine-tuned sense of social and political context. “There are struggles within the community itself – the microaggression, the racism. People think, ‘Oh I’m gay, I know everything, I can speak for someone else.’ But you don’t know what someone else is going through.”

Pearl envisions equipping the youths who come under the shelter’s care with the basic life skills that their families couldn’t or didn’t teach them: How to do taxes, how to change a tire, what a 501(c)3 is. Workshops like “Art as Activism” will bring in local artists to run sessions on self-expression, while “Systems Crusader Development“ will provide training in lobbying and direct action.

Pearl also wants staff to collaborate with residents on administrative questions large and small. They’ve set up a resident-chaired housing board called Housing Youth Visionaries that will review policies and procedures as they see fit.

“Our intent is to allow them to ... say how they want to do conflict resolution when harm has happened, say ‘This food is crap!’ – but also letting them know, ‘This is our budget! How can we manage that?’” Pearl said. “I see this evolving constantly, because it needs to. If it’s stagnant, something’s wrong. ... We’re putting all this intent into the foundation for them (residents) to take it to the next level.”

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Chalay Chalermkraivuth, from Yale University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee. She reports on arts and entertainment, the LGBTQ community and social justice. She grew up in Bangkok, Thailand.