It was a happy moment at the end of a listening session that waded into some of the most serious issues facing the local LGBT community: how to endure Oregon’s housing crisis while bracing for an attack on their rights under President Donald Trump.
About 20 people gathered for the informal dinner and talk on Saturday, March 18. They came from groups that advocate for a spectrum of LGBT communities, but particularly for transgender community members and queer people of color who might also be immigrants.
The idea for the meeting was hatched as part of ongoing efforts to expand shelter capacity in the community. But it landed amid growing uncertainty around tightened immigration enforcement and potential shifts in LGBT civil rights. It also comes as Kafoury works to craft the county’s next spending plan, due out April 20.
“It’s about having a voice at the table,” said Justin Pabalate, one of the Q Center’s executive co-directors.
Kafoury said she wanted to show her “support for the community” and insisted Multnomah County would stand apart from the political views being espoused in Washington, D.C. The county will reaffirm protections for transgender residents and fight discrimination in all forms, she said.
“We’re going the other way,” Kafoury said. “We’re taking a hard turn to the left.”
Malo Ala’ilima, who works with Asian Pacific Islander Pride, asked how the county’s decision to declare itself a sanctuary for refugees and immigrants will play out on the streets.
She wondered what would happen if an undocumented immigrant wanted service at a clinic. Would the lobby be fair game for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents? Do health officials share information with law enforcement agencies?
Kafoury said the sanctuary label comes with limitations. It doesn’t “stop ICE from coming in” to a public place like a lobby, she said. Instead, it’s meant to ensure local law enforcement officials and government agencies uphold Oregon laws and not use their resources to do the ICE agents’ work.
“I don’t want people to feel safe when they’re not,” she cautioned. “But we don’t share information.”
Kafoury said it’s unclear if federal authorities might resort to subpoenas to pry loose health records. But “we want to do whatever we can” to fight back, she said.
Already, Kafoury said, she’d heard stories of people who needed vital services but were too afraid to seek them out. A domestic violence survivor who’d left her abuser and was looking to marry her new partner refused to come to the courthouse for the ceremony, Kafoury said. Instead, a judge agreed to come to the couple.
“Trump is standing in the way of love,” Kafoury said, “and that’s just wrong.”
Before the election, the hotline had maybe two calls a week. After the election? “That was not the case,” said Wegener, transgender services coordinator at Outside In.
In a span when the service would normally help a dozen people, it helped 66. The service asked for emergency funding to help.
She said people keep saying they’re “scared this is going away.”
Stacey Rice, the Q Center’s other executive co-director, said that kind of political support is special. She came here five years ago from the South. Portland stands out as a sanctuary for trans folks who “didn’t feel safe” where they came from.
“We shouldn’t ever take that for granted,” Rice said. “This city and this county support our community in such strong ways.”
LGBT anxiety compounded by housing crisis
Advocates say that fear is compounding the pain felt by LGBT people experiencing homelessness -- and especially those in the transgender community, who already worry that traditional spaces such as shelters aren’t safe or understanding.
Walter Robinson II, a community outreach specialist for the Joint Office of Homeless Services, asked how the office and its partners “can better engage the LGBT community when it comes to homelessness.”
Rice said shelter providers should strive for “trans competent” services. Wegener said common complaints include slow responses to abuse by other shelter clients. Or sometimes, the advocates said, staffers might fail to honor someone’s preferred pronoun, or refuse service altogether.
And, although many more lower-barrier shelter beds have opened this year, many are still designated for men or women, which leaves out people who don’t identify as either gender.
“You can’t simply choose that shelter as a non-binary person,” said Raina Daniels, the Q Center’s program manager.
Competency is “such a huge need,” said Rice. “That’s one of the biggest things.”
Information on which providers are sensitive to LGBT needs often travels by word of mouth. The Q Center last month launched a resources and referrals database that complements its existing services hotline.
Agencies and groups that fund shelter services “should demand to see non-discrimination policies and demand that they’re posted,” Daniels said.
Shane Penunuri, who works with New Avenues for Youth’s Sexual & Gender Minority Youth Resource Center (SMYRC), said conflicts between people in shelters happen more often than we realize.
Youths staying in shelter are usually in “survival mode,” dealing with trauma. And they aren’t always thinking about how best to sensitively engage with people with different needs.
“That’s not on the top of their list of important things to do,” Penunuri said.
Those issues come up in domestic violence shelters, which also serve people dealing with trauma, says Stephanie Ng Ping Cheung, the LGBT programs coordinator at Bradley Angle. Sometimes people who can’t learn to get along respectfully are asked to leave the shelter, she says.
Beyond that, Cheung said, LGBT people experiencing homelessness usually need more help than others to get back into housing. Housing with support services attached, including access to mental health and addiction recovery programs, can make sure someone who does find housing can stay there.
But Karen Castner, a Q Center board member also representing the group Women of All Colors, said there’s already too little housing to go around -- for everyone, and not just the LGBT community.
“You could have your own LGBT place where a lot of these problems wouldn’t come up,” she said. “But when there’s scarcity, again, LGBT gets the short end of the stick.”
County-city partnership boost shelter beds, rent assistance
Kafoury noted the community’s “unprecedented” investment in housing and homelessness services over the past year: some $30 million in combined new spending from the city of Portland and Multnomah County.
Because of that infusion, more money has been spent on rent assistance. And available shelter beds in the community have doubled. Before that, Kafoury said, there hadn’t been a new shelter bed in 10 years.
She said shelters, which have been added in neighborhoods throughout the county, often stirred mixed feelings when they first went in. Eventually, though, “the communities have rallied around them.”
“If people open their hearts,” she said, “it can be a positive experience.”
But she also acknowledged the challenge of helping neighbors with serious needs out of shelter and into homes of their own. That’s a job for affordable housing with attached support services, and Kafoury said that needs to be more of a focus.
“That doesn’t help people who need more services,” she said of short-term programs and emergency shelter. “A lot of people aren’t going to get by with a couple months of rent assistance.”
Casey Filice of the Multnomah Idea Lab described the county’s A Place for You pilot program, which aims to provide accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, for homeowners willing to host homeless families for five years. More than 4,600 people were placed into housing last fiscal year, and the program would offer another outlet for that work.
Daniels, of the Q Center, said a program like that could work for the LGBT community by giving LGBT people in housing a chance to help those who aren’t. Right now, that connection happens on Facebook community boards and Craigslist.
“Our community is ready,” Daniels said.