Housing equality and homeless youth key topics at White House conference

By Crystal Proxmire

DETROIT -

At the 2012 White House LGBT Conference on Housing and Homelessness, New York's Ali Forney Center Executive Director, Carl Siciliano shared the story of his experience with a previous administration. He said it was about ten years ago that he got a phone call from top officials in Washington.

"They wanted to have a press conference at our shelter, showing the Bush administration's commitment to addressing homelessness," Siciliano said. "For about three weeks we had background checks, meetings, secret service all around. Tommy Thompson [who was director of Health and Human Services, HHS, at the time] was supposed to come. It was a big deal. But as soon as I mentioned that many of the youth we served were LGBT, they scattered...I learned then that if you want the government to leave you alone, just say LGBT and they disappear."

The experience was a far cry from the way President Barack Obama and his administration have connected with the LGBT community.

On March 9, Siciliano sat on a panel addressing the problem of gay and transgender youth homelessness. Top level HUD [Housing and Urban Development] and HHS officials came from Washington to help promote a new rule that prohibits discrimination in HUD-funded programs, and to do other outreach with the gay community.

The conference was a partnership between the White House and Detroit's Ruth Ellis Center, one of only four homeless shelters nationwide that specifically addresses the needs of homeless LGBT youth. Siciliano came from New York along with Theresa Nolan who works with LGBTQ youth in a center called Green Chimneys. Barbara Poppe, the executive director of U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, moderated the LGBT Youth Homelessness Panel, and Ruth Ellis Director Laura Hughes was also on the panel.

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, the keynote speaker for the conference, listed the ways President Obama has addressed the needs of the LGBT community.

"You can see this commitment in the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' Donovan said. "In his first State of the Union, the President called for its repeal. And earlier this year, at the President's third, an active duty Air Force colonel who is openly lesbian sat as a guest in the First Lady's box without fear of being discharged for who she is or who she loves."

Donovan cited the record number of Presidential appointments of gay and transgender individuals to government positions, a Presidential Memorandum on Hospital Visitation stating that care facilities receiving Medicare and Medicaid funding must allow patients to designate visitors of their choosing, and his work giving transgender individuals access to passports. The Office of Personnel Management announced that gender identity is a prohibited basis of discrimination in federal employment under the Obama administration, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the historic announcement that "Gay rights are human rights."

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Law was another step forward, and now the Equal Access to Housing Rule can be added to the list of the President's accomplishments.

The rule prohibits any housing entity from inquiring about a person's gender identity or sexual orientation, prohibits discrimination based on those factors, and protects people from discrimination when applying for a mortgage with institutions that are FHA insured.

President Obama sent several high-ranking officials to the conference along with Secretary Donovan. John Trasvina, Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity for HUD, Raphael Bostic, Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research for HUD, Mercedes Marquez, Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development for HUD, and Bryan Samuels, Commissioner of Administration on Children, Youth and Families from HHS joined U.S. Attorney Eastern District of Michigan Barbara McQuade on stage to talk about how LGBT people are receiving increasing protections through court cases, rules and ultimately laws.

U.S. Attorney McQuade said that despite Michigan not having hate crimes legislation, the Shepard Bird Act gives hopes that cases can be tried at the federal level, and that she's been able to use federal housing regulations to successfully litigate discrimination cases where a perceived gay tenant was discriminated against because he was perceived to have AIDS, thereby making the discrimination based on disability. She also shared the U.S. Attorney's Civil Rights Hotline that anyone can call if they feel they have been discriminated against. That number is 313-226-9151.

Another promising announcement came from HUD Secretary for Policy Development and Research Bostic, who said that his office has begun doing pre-testing tests in 50 cities to get an initial feel for how common discrimination against LGBT couples is. Detroit was one of 50 cities where testers responded to Craig's List ads for housing rentals. For each ad, HUD testers replied twice; once with an email indicating that it was from a same-sex couple, and another indicating it was from a heterosexual couple. In approximately one-third of the cases the same-sex couple did not get a response back even though the straight couple did. These initial findings are helping HUD as they prepare to do LGBT discrimination tests in the future.

After the Washington experts explained the new rule and what their offices were doing, leaders in the fight to save LGBT homeless youth had their turn on the Wayne State University stage.

Ruth Ellis Executive Director Hughes talked about her appreciation for the strides that have been made, but also said that as a community, LGBT people need to understand that "it's possible to work on more than one issue." The center helped over 4,000 young, homeless people last year alone, but still they must turn away hundreds who have nowhere else to go.

The Ali Farney Center in New York is another center with national fame for their work with homeless LGBT youth. "It's hard for me to feel successful because while we are housing 79 people every night, we're turning 200 people away," said Siciliano. "In New York City there is less than one bed for every ten homeless youth. So I hope this day will help move us forward."

Panelists also discussed ways that care for LGBT youth can improve from within mainstream care organizations. Hughes said organizations that serve the public need more awareness.

"One thing all providers need to recognize is that there are LGBT people in your care, whether you know it or not," she said. She encouraged facilities to help people feel comfortable whether they make it known they are LGBT or not. "Have signs of an open environment like a rainbow on your door, let young people know they are welcome...The other thing is to learn the language and use terms that are affirming."

Green Chimneys Director Nolan shared one solution for facilitating dialogue and creating an affirming environment.

"One concept I teach is 'unconditional professional regard," she said. "Not everyone on our staff gets it all the time, even our kids in the community don't know how to respect each other. But if you look at people with unconditional professional regard, it doesn't matter what beliefs we may disagree with, but we treat each other with respect."

The conference sent visitors back to New York and Washington with a better understanding of the needs of homeless LGBT youth in Detroit, and gave local care and housing providers a better sense of "r-e-s-p-e-c-t" the Obama administration expects by implementing rules that demand it for all Americans.

Learn more about the new HUD rule at http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/press/press_releases_media_advisories/2012/HUDNo.12-014.

Learn more about Ruth Ellis Center at http://www.ruthelliscenter.org/.

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