3 min

Icon bar opens as youth shelter

Former gay club becomes inclusive housing

GAY TEENS GET BOOST. Sue Pihlainen (l), coordinator of the Evelyn Horne young women's shelter and Stacey Lauridsen, coordinator of the newly opened men's equivalent, stand in the shelter's kitchen. Credit: Pat Croteau

You’re 16. Your parents just found out you’re gay and they’re asking you not to come home anymore. Or perhaps their place has become so unsafe — because you’re gay or for other reasons — that you can’t stay there anymore.

Where do you go? Icon.

Icon, the gay dance club that closed its doors in Dec 2004?

The answer, strangely, is yes.

The building was bought by the Youth Services Bureau in 2005 and gutted top to bottom. It’s austere new front gives way to an interior that looks more like a college dorm than a shelter.

Unlike traditional homeless shelters, teens have free reign over the kitchen and laundry room. There’s a lock on every bedroom door. And it’s just for young men, making it the only shelter of its kind when it opened in May.

“Many have couch-hopped or slept on the street because they didn’t feel safe at other facilities,” says Ernie Gibbs, a queer youth counsellor at the Centretown Community Health Centre.

It’s hardly surprising that a gay teen wouldn’t feel comfortable bedding down in one of the city’s religious-based shelters, whether the Ottawa Mission or the Good Shepherd, where there are no locks and no one is saying, “It’s okay to be gay.”

“There had been no visible promotion of young men’s space where people can self-disclose and that said ‘we’re inclusive, this is a safe place, we’re going to look after you’,” he says.

But that changed with the opening of the Youth Services Bureau’s latest venture: a shelter for young men aged 12-20. It’s got two tiers, an 11-bedroom ground floor for emergency sheltering and 20 units of “transitional” housing, where clients get their own bachelor apartment, including a kitchenette and bathroom, says Stacey Lauridsen, coordinator of the Young Men’s Emergency And Transitional Housing Services. The transitional housing is set to open at the end of June.

“They clearly can’t return to home for safety reasons, the youth that we’re seeing. They have a lack of supports in their life, no one’s there for them. Youth that we’re seeing literally have no place to go,” says Louridsen.

The initial cash for the facility came from the 2004 federal Liberal-NDP compromise budget under Paul Martin’s minority: Ottawa got $7 million to put toward building this shelter and a new space for young women, which opened on Nelson Street in 2006. YSB has been operating a shelter for young women in Ottawa since 1995, according to Sue Pihlainen, coordinator of the Evelyn Horne young women’s shelter.

“In my time it was more of an issue, being 43, I didn’t come out until I was 24. We have young women who identify as lesbian or bisexual and for some of them that’s not the issue at all. They’re comfortable with who they are,” Pihlainen says.

But orientation is sometimes one piece in a larger puzzle, Louridsen adds.

“There’s multiple challenges for queer youth. I think it’s always important to remember that each person is an individual so how do you support that individual. Because it could be a rural youth that’s not used to living in the city and that’s been asked to leave because of their orientation and suddenly find themselves in the city. That’s a big challenge for their safety,” he says.

The staff were trained in part by YSB’s rainbow youth advisory board, who gave presentations to Louridsen.

“In terms of our safety expectations when you come into YSB, we engage all young people and let them know that we need to maintain a safe environment and that’s about healthy expression, that’s about making sure that everyone’s safe in being who they are.

“In working with young men, we have to be sexually positive, not skirting away from issues. A lot of these men have experienced that these issues are taboo, especially with adults. So staff model that too, that it’s okay to talk about sex.”

For some youth, housing issues are compounded by mental health issues, traumatic backgrounds, addiction, or a history of involvement with the Children’s Aid Society or the justice system. That’s left many young people skittish about dealing with authority figures and adults in general.

“The focus is how can we support them towards living independently but in a safe way. In terms of length of stay, that’s going to vary. I would say a lengthy shelter would be three months. In our transitional housing program, they can stay up to a year.”

From there, youth can move to one of the three YSB-run long-term housing apartments or out on their own.

“For some, they’re not ready for that yet. But that’s okay, we’re trying to meet them where they are.”