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Advocates Raising Money For LGBT Shelter To Serve Northwest Florida

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Homeless advocates say LGBT individuals have been a neglected subset of the homeless community with few resources dedicated to their needs.

The Pensacola LGBT Shelter is a coalition between local organizations to help meet those needs. President of the board, Dr. Alexys Hillman of Pensacola Osteopaths, said the idea started with a conversation at work about LGBT homelessness.

“It just kind of morphed from there, looking more at — what are the logistics or legalities, what’s this, what’s that,” she said. “We started reaching out to other local organizations to find out ‘well, how did you do it? How does this work?’”

Hillman said efforts are still early but gaining momentum. As president of the Pensacola LGBT Shelter board, she’ll be joining the city of Pensacola’s Homeless Reduction Task Force. Even though there is some reluctance from other board members about working with local government, Hillman said it’s important to have buy-in from everyone.

“We need to bring them in and we need to interface with them and we need open communication with them and we need to constantly emphasize trans and voices of color,” she explained.

There is not a lot of data about LGBT homelessness. Opening Doors Northwest Florida, the local continuum of care, says the federal government regulates the survey questions for the annual point-in-time count which asks about gender identity, but not sexuality. All of the questions are self-reported. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 40% of homeless youth across the country identify as LGBT.

The goal of the Pensacola LGBT Shelter is to be a safe space that accepts anyone who comes through the doors, regardless of what is on their ID or their sexual preference.

“There can be a huge difference between what is on your ID and what you’re presenting, what your chosen name is, and what your pronouns are. So, we would definitely go more by what the person identifies as — that’s a really big thing,” said Hillman.

Hillman said the shelter aims to do more than provide a bed, but use resources to help individuals apply for new IDs, update voter registration and look for LGBT-friendly jobs.

“We would be more holistic as opposed to just ‘OK, here’s your cot for the night,’” she said. “We would really work on graduating to independence and being self-reliant and being able to be a fully functioning member of society.”

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Jennie McKeon
Dr. Alexys Hillman is the president of the Pensacola LGBT Shelter board. She's hoping to create a safe space for unhoused LGBT individuals.

Employment is often a major barrier for the LGBT community. Ariel Jean is a trans woman and activist. She recalls being laughed out of interviews in the past.

“It’s really hard when you have one name on paper but you present yourself in a different way,” she said.

Just existing in the world can be dangerous. Especially for the trans community. Last year was the most violent year on record, with 44 fatalities of transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

“I’m lucky enough that whenever people harass me, I can run away to my car and drive away really fast, but if you don’t have a car, you don’t even have a home to lock yourself in to — you’re not safe,” said Jean.

“The shelter could literally save somebody’s life.”

The fundraising goal for the shelter is $250,000. The board is open to renovating a space or building from the ground up. Hillman said she’s received positive feedback so far, including from social workers who have offered their services.

Mike Kimbrel has been a homeless advocate for 10 years. He helped establish the privately owned homeless encampment known as Satoshi Forest. He’s also the director at the Alfred-Washburn Homeless Center. He says the LGBT community has been largely underserved when it comes to homeless resources.

“It’s also probably the most misunderstood segment of our community so it strongly needs to be driven by this community,” he said. “I applaud them for being in the driver’s seat of this.”

There is an overall lack of shelters and housing available for homeless individuals. But for LGBT homeless, the problem isn’t just finding a place to stay, but also a place of acceptance. Some would rather stay on the streets than go back in the closet or be called the wrong gender, says Kimbrel.

“To be able to come into a shelter and not feel different and not feel mistreated is the first step,” he explained. “If you’re an organization that wants to pray the gay away … well I’m not staying in your shelter. You don’t understand me and how I want to live my life.”

From his experience, Kimbrel said the best plan of action for the LGBT shelter is to start small and to keep promises.

“Trust is easy to lose and hard to earn and so we have to keep our promises of we say we’re going to do something we need to make sure we do it,” he said. “If we say we’re going to be there, we’ve gotta be there.”

While anti-trans bills are introduced throughout the country — including in the state of Florida — Hillman said the shelter would show the LGBT community that there are people who care.

“It would also send a message to the community that: Look this a population that has the same needs as everybody else, but also unique needs and you can’t just push them aside and you can’t (say) ‘I don’t agree with your lifestyle.’ This isn’t a lifestyle this is who we are.”

You can find more information about the LGBT shelter by visiting pensacolalgbtshelter.wordpress.com. Board members also will be at PensaPride this weekend at Cordova Square.