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Gay-friendly homeless shelter planned

'Not many places that GLBT youth can go,' says youth in Sally Ann shelter

A group of volunteers working with the homeless wants to open a gay-friendly shelter in Vancouver. 

Members of the Metro Vancouver Dream Centre Society (MVDCS) envision a 100-bed transitional living facility and emergency shelter in the West End where homeless and street-involved people would have a safe and welcome place to stay. The centre would offer job training, skills development and continuing education for participants.

At present, the MVDCS, which is connected to the Rainbow Community Church, runs a hot buffet meal/food bank and clothing/bedding recovery program in cooperation with St Michael’s Anglican Church. But members say this is not enough.

“We want to do more than just give them a meal once a week,” explains Hans Groot, a social worker and Dream Centre committee member. “We have a lot of gay kids, bisexuals, transsexuals, coming who said they did not feel at home in the other [shelters].”

The vision of the Metro Vancouver Dream Centre is to get homeless people from all walks of life, regardless of age or sexual identity, off the streets and help them become self-sufficient, productive members of society.

There are more than 130 Dream Centres around the world, including organizations in Calgary, Edmonton and one being built in Oakville, Ontario. The Vancouver centre would be unique in its gay-friendly approach.

“So far all the Dream Centres have been Christian, and fairly conservative, so an LGBT centre would totally just rock the mould,” says Jeff Kirkey, spokesperson for the MVDCS.

Participants would also be expected to work at the centre as volunteers, rather than just being offered a bed and a meal, an approach Bruce Antecol, the society’s volunteer coordinator, describes as “hands up, not hands out.”

“They have to participate in the whole program,” Antecol explains, which includes helping serve meals and clean up at the centre. “They’ll feel better about themselves rather than if they got everything handed to them.”

Before this can happen, the MVDCS needs a building. Members want to buy a hotel or other large facility — of about 10,000 square feet — in the West End that could house the beds, a food bank, a hot meal program, a counselling centre, a multi-purpose room and other facilities.

“If we get a building or land then we can really generate excitement and it would pick up from there,” says Kirkey.

Kirkey says the society needs to raise $15 million to get the centre up and running. So far it’s garnered $40,000.

“We’re raising as much money for the building fund as we can right now. But we know that our biggest push is really going to come when a major donor steps forward.”

MVDCS members say there is an urgent need for a shelter for gay homeless people, who are often ostracized in traditional shelters when other participants discover their sexual orientation.

“Once they find out that they’re gay, they’re kind of pushed away and all the kids harass them,” says Antecol.

Studies indicate that gay people are overrepresented in the homeless population. The Vancouver Youth Options Study, conducted in 2007, found that more than half of homeless or at-risk youth (aged 16–19) identified as queer, while the rate for older youth was 36 percent.

Research also suggests that gay homeless people are more at risk than their straight counterparts. A 2009 report from the United States’ National Alliance to End Homelessness found that gay homeless youth were more than twice as likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual peers.

Despite the statistics, there is not much out there to accommodate the queer homeless, though this is not the first time a gay-friendly shelter has been proposed. In 1999, Adele Kafer planned to create a Pride House for homeless queer youth in Vancouver, but the project never got off the ground.

Kafer blamed the community for its lack of support, but board members cited poor management and in-fighting as the main culprits.

Of the few dozen shelters in the Lower Mainland, none is specifically geared toward the queer community.

Michelle Clausius, media contact at Covenant House, a 54-bed shelter and transitional living program for youths aged 16–24, says young people of all sexual preferences are welcome at the shelter. She acknowledges that clashes between gay and straight participants occur, but says staff don’t condone the behaviour.

“We run a pretty tight ship in terms of respect for all, so that kind of behaviour wouldn’t be tolerated.”

This has not been the experience of Chantell Joseph. Joseph, who is 24 and bi, is staying at the Salvation Army Belkin House. Joseph says many people she’s met at shelters ostracize her when they find out her sexual identity.

“I kind of got isolated. It was like I was contagious or something, like I had some sort of disease.”

Joseph also says that certain staff members began treating her differently when she told them she was bi, and that some made her feel guilty and conflicted about her sexuality. 

“Sometimes staff out there don’t understand… especially if they’re heavily against being gay. They end up shaming me in a way for being into girls.”

Joseph says Vancouver needs a gay-friendly shelter because “there are not many places that GLBT youth can go to, especially in the older community.”

Jeff Kirkey agrees. “It would be unique to have a centre that truly welcomes everyone openly — lesbian, gay, bi, transgender, heterosexual, everything in between,” he says. “Truly, it’s just love in action. It’s about loving everybody. And we mean it.”