Albert H. Fulcher | Editor
Mayor brings interfaith discussion to LGBT–affirming congregations
The Interfaith Shelter Network (ISN) has been an effective program for the homeless throughout San Diego County, so far helping 8,000 homeless individuals gain access to resources and services to get their lives back on track.
San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer joined the (ISN) in asking LGBT-friendly congregations to join the network and open their doors to homeless individuals at the ISN Summit on March 5 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral.
“We know there are a number of LGBTQ individuals experiencing homelessness and they need our help. That’s why we are asking LGBTQ-friendly congregations, who understand their needs, to join our care network and provide a temporary place for them to begin turning their lives around,” said Faulconer in a press release.
The ISN Summit discussion panel consisted of The Very Rev. Penny Bridges, dean, St. Paul’s Cathedral; Trisha Brereton, ISN executive director; Fernando Lopez, San Diego LGBT Pride executive director; Gary Owen, ISN volunteer; and Jonathan Herrera, senior advisor on homelessness coordination for the city of San Diego.
“You all represent the fabric of our city for wanting to do the right thing and helping people get back on their feet,” Faulconer said when addressing the summit. “This is a network that works and with your help and participation, I think you will see the benefits in so many ways. That is why I am optimistic about our opportunities to begin making a real difference.”
Faulconer said that combatting homelessness is about creating that safe space for those in need, regardless of someone’s race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, age or disabilities.
“What we are focusing on today is that we are LGBTQ-friendly, but it is another completely different thing to understand what that fully means, what these individuals are going through, and how we can help serve their needs,” Faulconer said. “We are spending more time, effort and resources probably more than we ever have because we need to. And that’s the bottom line.”
Bridges added that people of faith already know that hospitality is the first and greatest virtue of all faith communities.
“At St. Paul’s, we have been a part of the ISN for about four years and it really has been a blessing for our volunteers, our staff, and to be able to open our doors to people that are in need of shelter,” she said.
Brereton said ISN has provided 250,000 nights of safety — with security, warmth and meals — for homeless individuals for 32 years. The ISN provides rotational shelters from one congregation to another every two weeks, with more than 120 active congregations in the network. Of those, 67 act as housing hosts. ISN utilizes case managers throughout the county, which is broken up into seven geographical areas.
“Each person that comes through our shelter, a case manager works with them to create a personal plan to be able to get out of their situation as quick as they can,” Brereton said. “We work with a group that we call situational homeless, mostly people that have been on the street two years or less. The reality is that these people are highly motivated, because they faced homelessness not necessarily through their own choices, but because of situations like family illness, job loss, or a death in the family. If you didn’t have a paycheck for two months, would you be able to maintain your home and not become one of the homeless?”
ISN also provides educational workshops with tailored programs to fit the needs of families and individuals to get them back on their feet as quickly as possible.
“We have more than 4,200 volunteers that work with us year after year after year. And they come back because it feels good,” Brereton said.
“We are looking for additional congregations of faith work, different civic clubs and organizations that would like to host or help with being part of this network,” she continued. “We have always been affirming with all our congregations being open to the LGBTQ community … and today, this is the beginning of that coalition, of this conversation.”
Lopez shared his personal story of how he became a homeless LGBT youth. As an “interfaith baby,” Lopez said he was the product of a Russian Jewish woman and a Mexican Roman Catholic man. As a Jewish/Latino, he said discrimination was something he got used to at a very young age, but that his parents prepared him. They sent him into the world with their own stories of discrimination that they had faced themselves.
But they were not quite ready for a gay son, he said.
“How is [being] LGBT different from being any other minority?” Lopez asked. “If I’m Jewish, I’m born into a family that is prepared to handle that. If you are Latino, you are born into a family that is prepared to handle that. But if you are a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, questioning, asexual, ally or pansexual, you are not born into a family that necessarily understands you. Which means that from a very early age you are already disconnected from your friends, your faculty at school, your family and your institutions of faith.”
Lopez said these networks that many people rely on are the very threads that connect us to the world can be severed for LGBT youth — often with disastrous consequences.
“These social severances lead to higher absenteeism, lower grades, diminished educational opportunities, higher rates of depression, suicide, unsafe sexual behavior, self-denigration, substance abuse and addiction,” he said.
Lopez experienced this personally after his family broke up and he was left at home alone with a homophobic father. When he came out to his father, he became a homeless LGBT youth with nowhere to turn.
What followed was long nights sleeping on couches and in cars. He said he knew sticking to his education was the best thing he could do, so he graduated, and then moved to San Diego and enrolled in college. He got a brief respite from homelessness while in a relationship, but it soon became abusive and he had to leave. So, he decided to go to Hillcrest as a last hope in finding a community that he could belong to. By this time, Lopez was suicidal.
“I thought only death would bring me peace at that point,” he said. “I sat crying in front of The Living Room cafe, when a stranger touched my arm and in two sentences, changed my life and set the person that I wanted to model my life after. ‘What’s wrong, and what can I do to help?’ The voice of that person was a local LGBT leader, Benny Cartwright.”
Cartwright and his mother took Lopez in for one month and during that time, he received a promotion that allowed him to get his first apartment. He met the love of his life, got married and had two children.
“The eyes that are looking at you now are the same eyes that looked at the world with no hope,” Lopez said, “I know that you are here today to lend your lives to the helping of others. There are more than 90 LGBT open and affirming congregations in this region and I know we are all ready to act.”
Volunteer Gary Owen is the coordinator at St. Paul’s for the hosting of the ISN.
“I identify with the homeless to a degree,” he said. “More than once I have been in a situation that could have led to the lives of those people that are sleeping on those cots.”
Owen said St. Paul’s has limited space for a shelter, but that is immaterial if you get a good coordinator, volunteers and help for food. He said consistency, fairness and firmness are the essential rules to success of operating any shelter. Those are the things that provide the secure base that homeless people need to go forth, he said.
“This [housing the homeless] is doable by almost any congregation,” Owen said. “You do not have to be a big church or a wealthy church. Our job, in the course of this job, is not feeling good — it is doing good. If we can provide the basics of meals, showers, and a secure, safe place to store their stuff and sleep, we’ve done our job. It does not have to be fancy and it does not have to cost a congregation a great deal.”
Jonathan Herrera, senior advisor on homeless coordination for the city of San Diego, said he hears stories like Lopez’s day and night, and they motivate him to address the homelessness issue on the front line.
“These stories that I hear, you take home with you, it’s not a job that is 9 to 5,” he said. “As a city, we are definitely spending a lot more time and resources on addressing this issue, because we have to and it is the right thing to do. It is really important to understand that we cannot do it alone.”
Every community that has had success in addressing the crisis of homelessness has had assistance from political leaders, the private sector, philanthropic resources and faith-based organizations. They all play a critical role, Herrera said.
“Many have physical, mental and spiritual needs, and that opportunity is absolutely essential in engaging the faith-based community to provide these people the opportunity to rebuild themselves,” he said. “The ISN is something we are really proud to support.”
Lopez provided statistics concerning the LGBT homeless situation on a national and local level.
Forty percent of all homeless youth are LGBTQ identified. LGBTQ youth are 120 percent more likely to be homeless; Latinos, 33 percent; and African-Americans, 83 percent. Every year, 1.6 million youth are homeless and 40 percent of those are LGBT. Not necessarily knowing it, 99 percent of homeless service providers are already working with LGBT homeless youth.
Released in 2016 by Chapin Hall, a research and policy center at the University of Chicago, the report included data from the San Diego region. Lopez shared these results to give a clearer picture of the problems of homelessness within the LGBT community: 7 percent of homeless identified transgender; 34 percent identified were LGBT; LGBT youth experience 7.5 times more sexual violence than their heterosexual peers; and more than half (62 percent) attempt suicide.
With the amount of LGBT homeless people, the goal of this summit was to bring LGBT-affirming congregations into the discussion of San Diego’s homeless problem. The ISN is open to any religious or civic organizations and is asking them to become part of the network in any way possible. To become a participating congregation, supporting congregation, donor, or volunteer, visit interfaithshelter.org.
— Albert Fulcher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.