For Salvation Army, a new LGBTQ homeless shelter is a natural extension of its services. But it’s a hard sell for LGBTQ activists who have long viewed the charity as anti-gay.
The new shelter in Winnipeg, Canada will bring 15 rooms to LGBTQ homeless individuals.
According to Rob Kerr, divisional secretary of public relations and development for the organization’s Prairie Headquarters, the shelter comes as a response to census data suggesting high rates of LGBTQ homelessness in Winnipeg.
A 2015 census found that LGBTQ people made up roughly 11 percent the city’s homeless population. That number jumped to 23 percent for people 29-years-old and younger.
“A number of them are not using shelters because they don’t feel comfortable in some of the sheltering environments,” says Kerr. “They don’t feel that other people are treating them fairly, or they are just being unkind to them in many ways or they are in danger. So they aren’t using shelters.”
Kerr says Salvation Army has long served homeless LGBTQ people.
But that price of that service has often been called into question. Bil Browning, Editor-in-Chief at LGBTQ Nation, has long called on LGBTQ allies to boycott Salvation Army’s iconic Christmas donation kettles. Two decades ago when he was homeless, Browning says, Salvation Army told him he and his boyfriend would need to break up before they would agree to shelter him.
Browning notesthat Salvation Army has actively pushed anti-gay legislation in the U.S. and abroad, including opposing anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBTQ people.
“I think they are trying to gloss over their anti-gay past that they have never apologized for, and they’re making another half-assed effort to look like they’re actually doing something when in reality, it’s just as horrible,” Browning tells INTO. “They don’t get that, and they never will until l they have a real dialogue with the community.”
Last year, the New York City Human Rights Commission filed a complaint against a Salvation Army substance abuse center for discriminating against transgender women.
Wayne Besen, the founding executive director of Truth Wins Out, long criticized Salvation Army’s anti-gay stances. In 2013, he lobbied to have the organization remove “ex-gay” ministries, which claim to “cure” people of homosexuality, from its website.
He feels that Salvation Army has made progress but says the charity needs to heal old wounds if they want to create a safe shelter for LGBTQ people.
“I think the Salvation Army needs to do a major apology recognizing that they have harmed LGBT people, that they have not been a friend and that they disavow their past completely,” Besen says. “That’s how you make people comfortable. I think the onus is on them.”
Kerr says he is not in high enough position to offer such an apology.
“I would say that what we toward is creating an environment that’s safe for everybody,” he says.
According to Kerr, the new shelter will be opt-in only. LGBTQ people can self-identify and request placement in the space or remain with the general population.
Kerr says shelter staff are undergoing cultural competency training specific to working with the LGBTQ community.
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