October 21, 2019 at 11:05 am EST | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Activists call meeting with mayor, DC Council chair ‘productive’
SMYAL, gay news, Washington Blade
SMYAL Executive Director Sultan Shakir is among the activists who met with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson on Oct. 11, 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

More than a dozen leaders and members of local LGBT advocacy groups met on Oct. 11 with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large) to discuss what they said were challenges facing the most vulnerable members of the LGBT community.

The meeting, which was not publicly announced and was closed to the press, was held in a conference room at the John A. Wilson Building, where the mayor’s and Council offices are located.

According to activists in attendance, others present were D.C. Council members Robert White (D-At-Large) and Brandon Todd (D-Ward 4) and at least seven directors of city agencies or offices, including Sheila Alexander-Reid, director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs.

“I thought the meeting with the mayor, Chairman Mendelson, and members of the Council was productive and a positive next step in addressing some of the frustrations from local organizations — frustrations both about the budget process as well as with engaging with agencies that are key to the health and safety of the LGBTQ community,” said Sultan Shakir, executive director of the LGBT youth services group SMYAL, who spoke at the meeting.

“We’re looking forward to working with the mayor on recent funding requests as well as with D.C. agency directors to engage around how we can collectively address some of the real and urgent issues that are impacting the LGBTQ community,” Shakir told the Washington Blade.

He was referring, among other things, to a request earlier this year by representatives of local LGBT groups that the Council approve $3.5 million in additional funding for the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs for a competitive grants program. The request called for the grants to help support LGBT organizations that provide services for LGBT youth, LGBT seniors, and members of the transgender community who are often in need of such services, including housing and employment.

The Council did not approve the requested funds, and Mendelson and other Council members said back in March that they were unaware of the request. Organizers of the funding request dispute that claim, saying they sent letters to the Council members specifically asking for the funds.

Since that time, leaders of several local LGBT groups, including members of the Rainbow Caucus of the city’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, said they were asking Bowser to consider reprograming funds from other city agencies to come up with the $3.5 million for the LGBT related grants. Members of the Rainbow Caucus, meanwhile, have said they are requesting that the funding proposal be increased to $5 million, which they said they will ask the Council to approve for next year’s city budget.

People attending the Oct. 11 meeting with Bowser and Mendelson said the mayor told them she would consider the funding request but she emphasized that specific city agencies rather than the Office of LGBTQ Affairs would be better suited to provide funds to LGBT groups providing services to members of the community.

Mendelson told the Blade in a telephone interview on Oct. 14 that he thought the meeting, which he helped organize, accomplished one of the main objectives of the activists.

“The goal of the meeting was for the community leaders to meet with the agency heads and to say to them, look, we need a relationship,” he said. “You guys in the Department of Human Services and the Department of Aging — your actions to help our community have been weak,” Mendelson told the Blade. “And I think that goal was accomplished.”

Rainbow Caucus members said Alexander-Reid announced at the meeting that the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, which she heads, is helping to distribute 10 housing vouchers for LGBT seniors. Alexander-Reid told the Blade the housing vouchers would be for both LGBT seniors and LGBT returning citizens.

Among those calling for more city help for LGBT seniors at the meeting was Dr. Imani Woody, founder and executive director of Mary’s House for Older Adults, which plans to open a housing facility for LGBT seniors.

Woody told the Blade she stated at the meeting that LGBT seniors are less likely to feel welcome in places where many older people live and socialize, such as senior centers, despite what she said was the LGBT supportive policies and programs at the D.C. Department of Aging and Community Living.

“The D.C. government has made some important investments in FY18, 19, and 20 in combating social isolation among LGBTQ older adults in mainstream organizations, but more needs to be done,” she said in a statement delivered at the meeting.

Among the LGBT representatives who spoke at the meeting in addition to Shakir and Woody were Monika Nemeth, a transgender advocate and member of the ANC Rainbow Caucus; Ruby Corado, founder and executive director of the LGBT housing and services center Casa Ruby; and Rainbow Caucus members Mike Silverstein, Kent Boese, and Japer Bowles.

“I think it was a very good meeting,” Nemeth told the Blade. “Mayor Bowser listened attentively and was quite engaged in the discussion.”

Alexander-Reid said that among the things that came out of the meeting were the vouchers to help LGBT seniors and returning citizens meet their housing needs. She said the mayor also “directed community members to contact agency directors with their needs.”  Others who attended the meeting, including Rainbow Caucus member Silverstein, told the Blade Bowser stated during the meeting that LGBT community members should “interface directly with agency heads in matters of reprogramming and future budget requests.”

According to Alexander-Reid, among the city officials attending the meeting were directors of seven city agencies or departments, deputy directors of another two agencies, the chief of staff for the deputy mayor for health and human services, and the Deputy General Counsel and Special Assistant to the Mayor Karuna Seshasai.

“The agencies are the ones that provide the funding in many instances,” she said. “So, we’re going to make sure that access pipeline is available.”

“I think it went really well,” Alexander-Reid said of the meeting. “In my opinion, it was a good open and honest forum to talk about the intersectional needs of the LGBTQ community,” she said. “We’re excited to work with the community partners through the budget season and get a start and talk about the ideas that they’re bringing forth.”

Asked if he thought the Council would be open to considering a request of between $3.5 million and $5 million that the LGBT advocates are seeking in the city’s budget for various programs, Mendelson said yes.

“If the question is whether the Council would be receptive to the LGBTQ community getting more money in the budget, my answer is absolutely,” he said. “If the question is whether to do that through the Office of LGBTQ Affairs, I would say it probably would be open for discussion as to whether that is the best way the money gets to the community.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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