(Editor’s note: The Washington Blade is one of many local media outlets partnering with Street Sense Media, a local news outlet that publishes a biweekly newspaper and other content in a mission to end homelessness in Washington, on its third annual media day.
Inspired by an 88-outlet collaboration in San Francisco in 2016, Washington had its first installment that same year with three outlets. Six outlets joined in 2017. This is the Blade’s first year participating.
Street Sense’s mission is to end homelessness in Washington by empowering people in need with skills, tools and confidence to succeed. The Blade’s coverage spotlights how homelessness acutely affects Washington’s LGBT community. Find out more at streetsensemedia.org.)
The D.C. Department of Human Services, which oversees the city’s homeless programs, has put in place policies and procedures to ensure that LGBT homeless people, both adults and youth, are treated with respect and receive the services they need, according to two department officials.
DHS spokesperson Dora Taylor said that since taking office in 2015, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has made it known that aggressively addressing the city’s homeless problem, including specific issues pertaining to LGBT homeless people, are among her administration’s highest priority.
Taylor noted that among DHS’s actions since Bowser became mayor has been its implementation of the LGBTQ Homeless Youth Reform Amendment Act, which the D.C. Council passed unanimously in 2014. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and then-Council member Bowser (D-Ward 4) were the co-introducers of the legislation.
Among other things, the measure allocates city funds for expanding existing homeless facilities, including shelters, to include additional beds for “youth who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning.”
The legislation also requires service providers, including operators of homeless shelters, to put in place “best practices for the culturally competent care of homeless youth” that identify as LGBT or questioning.
Taylor and DHS Senior Advisor Carter Hewgley said implementation of the law included a policy change adopted by DHS that requires all homeless shelters operated by the city or by city contractors to allow transgender people – youth or adults — seeking to enter a shelter to choose the one that is consistent with their gender identity.
The two noted that under the city’s shelter system, shelters are segregated by gender except for those designated for families with children.
Hewgley said DHS has an ongoing program for training shelter employees, including case managers, on how to appropriately deal with LGBT homeless people.
“The expectation is that you are meeting every person where they are and treating them with dignity and respect,” he said.
According to Hewgley, the shelter system has a comprehensive grievance process for situations where a shelter resident believes he or she has been treated improperly by a staff member or a fellow shelter resident.
He said DHS’s training programs are aimed at greatly minimizing if not completely eliminating reports from LGBT activists in the past about how LGBT shelter clients were bullied or harassed by other shelter residents because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Hewgley told the Blade that DHS and the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs in September organized a joint “listening session” to obtain suggestions from LGBT activists familiar with the city’s homeless programs, along with other experts, on how to improve homeless services for LGBT people in need.
Sheila Alexander-Reid, director of the Office of LGBTQ Affairs, who described the listening sessions as focus groups, said her office has been involved in providing competency training for employees of all city agencies and is especially interested in assisting with trainings for shelter workers.
Hewgley said the listening sessions or focus groups were divided into four subgroups that discussed the needs and concerns of four categories of LGBT people using the city’s homeless shelter system – unaccompanied women, unaccompanied men, couples and families, and transgender and non-binary individuals.
He said the sessions resulted in a decision by DHS to prepare a 10-page report summarizing the findings and recommendations of the participants in the four groups called “LGBTQ+ Homeless Services: Identifying Service Gaps for LGBTQ+ Adults and Youth Experiencing Homelessness and Creating a Vision and Strategy for Improving Support to this Community.”
Among those who participated in the listening sessions were officials with LGBT and other organizations that provide services for homeless clients, including Casa Ruby, Whitman-Walker Health, SMYAL, the Wanda Alston House, Catholic Charities, HIPS, and the Fiscal Policy Institute.
Some of the recommendations of the participants include anecdotal reports by LGBT clients of shelters about instances of less than adequate treatment by staff and other shelter clients showing that improvement is still needed.