This story is part of our contribution to the 2018 #DCHomelessCrisis news blitz. Local media outlets will be reporting and discussing stories about ending homelessness in the nation’s capital all day. The collaborative body of work is cataloged at dchomelesscrisis.press.
The first LGBT youth-focused shelter in D.C. is continuing its legacy of serving one of the most vulnerable demographics.
The Wanda Alston House and Foundation, now in its 10th year of service, serves LGBT individuals ages 16-24. The residential home-turned-shelter currently houses eight people, and hundreds have been through its doors over the last decade. The house is named after the late Wanda Alston, a D.C.-based LGBT activist who was murdered near her home in 2005.
Individuals enter the program based on their level of vulnerability and what kind of care the city’s homeless management providers think will best fit that person’s circumstances. The facility provides 24-hour support for residents through counseling, mental and medical health services. Tuition assistance and professional development is provided and other life skill services such as learning how to balance a checkbook, shop for groceries and manage a credit score are also offered. Residents receive three meals a day, clothing and toiletries as well as other necessities like Metro cards.
Full-time staff is trained, culturally competent and trauma-informed to ensure that all residents are supported. The operations manager and case manager work full-time at the house to make sure that everything runs smoothly and a clinical supervisor is also full-time to provide assessments and connect residents with the support they need.
The staff works together as an agency and as individuals to connect with the youths and help them cope, give support and help them navigate their lives. Sometimes that can be difficult and residents can respond by acting out.
“We are dealing with homeless youth that are isolated and rejected by the community,” says June Crenshaw, executive director of the Wanda Alston Foundation. “They’re forced to survive some unspeakable situations. Most, if not all, arrive having experienced some severe trauma. This can show up in less-than-positive ways like addiction, inability to cope with stress or not being able to navigate positive communication skills. But they’re human and they’ve had to endure circumstances that most of us couldn’t survive.”
Crenshaw, a self-identified “old-fashioned” lesbian and woman of color, says most youth in the program are women of color.
“When I started in this role two years ago, a resident came to me and said she never saw a person that looked like me in a leadership role. That stuck with me,” she says. “I’m proud to be a brown woman of the community that’s working hard to make things better.”
The program at the Wanda Alston House is slightly different from the programs at other LGBT shelters, she says. There are certain requirements that the residents must participate in that help them accomplish their personal goals within the 18-24 months they live there.
“We provide connections and care in all the ways that a person would need,” Crenshaw says.
After leaving the house, individuals stay connected to the care at the facility for 90 days-six months. Staff continues to support them however they need it — like buying groceries, clothes or Metro cards and finding housing and employment as well as providing case management to help them navigate other support and services available.
Crenshaw says there’s an “epidemic of LGBT homelessness.” Around 50 percent of the homeless youth in D.C. are LGBT-identifying. At the Wanda Alston House, residents “talk and share experiences around being treated differently, misgendered, disrespected, attacked and discriminated against.”
She says the city is committed to the youth but that in homeless centers that are not culturally sensitive to LGBT people, “grave mistreatments” can occur.
“Our population is trending as the most affected by homelessness and mental health issues,” she says. “We have a responsibility to do better by our youth, make sure they stay safe and are allowed to thrive. Facilities like ours are needed as long as these circumstances exist.”
The facility costs slightly over half a million dollars to run each year and most comes from local government offices such as the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs. Grant dollars are used to run the shelter and pay staff, but that doesn’t cover all the expenses. They also rely on fundraising and the LGBT community and allies to support them. Donations amount to 25 percent of the budget.
Although D.C. has some of the most progressive laws in the nation and has been widely noted as one of the U.S. cities LGBT individuals can feel most open and supported, the competitive job market and high cost of living creates difficulties for LGBT people. LGBT people of color are more likely to be unemployed and represent a large portion of impoverished individuals and victims, Crenshaw says.
D.C. has the highest number per capita of LGBT individuals compared to other American cities. Crenshaw says not enough of the resources the city provides for homeless people are going to LGBT organizations and there is a lot of work yet to be done to resolve this epidemic.
The Wanda Alston House, however, has survived the turbulence of 10 years of operation and Crenshaw says they are ready and looking forward to at least another 10.