‘A Place For Us’

LGBTQ+ housing activists look to create a shelter


In 2019, SJ Therese fled an abusive home situation and checked in at the City Rescue Mission’s women and children's shelter.

Therese, a lesbian, stayed there for a couple of weeks before going to the hospital due to a disability. While she was there, she said she felt as though she faced “two different forms of discrimination.”

 “I experienced some pretty intense ableism and disability discrimination, but I did also experience some queer discrimination,” she said. “It was a very uncomfortable atmosphere, and it seemed like it was known among the people staying there that it just wasn't something you talked about. So, I didn't.”

Therese’s experience wasn’t particularly unique for homeless LGBTQ+ individuals. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “Members of the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to become homeless, and once homeless, more likely to endure discrimination and harassment that extends their homelessness.”

Luna Brown, a trans woman living in Lansing, is especially familiar with that trend. In the past three years, she has temporarily housed five transgender individuals who were either already unhoused or at risk of becoming homeless. Last October, Brown decided to form the A Place For Us coalition with the goal of establishing an LGBTQ+-friendly shelter in Lansing.

“This has been something that was brewing inside me for a long time, because I keep having to take in trans friends who have nowhere else to go,” Brown said, adding that some of them had left shelters or in-patient rehabilitation centers due to discrimination.

Brown, 35, believes A Place for Us is needed in part because many who fall under that umbrella may feel uncomfortable staying in a religiously affiliated shelter like the City Rescue Mission of Lansing. It operates a men’s shelter at 607 E. Michigan Ave. and a women and children’s shelter at 2216 S. Cedar St.

 “A lot of people who need the help aren't Christian and aren't comfortable going through Christian outreach,” Brown said. “And even if they are, that doesn't mean they're going to mesh with the message specifically being given at places like the City Rescue Mission.”

 Brown noted that many LGBTQ+ people, including herself, were raised in a religious environment that exacerbated their traumas. For them, she said, a stay at the City Rescue Mission, which generally requires guests to attend a daily chapel service, may be problematic.

For Therese, this was a legitimate concern.

“At the time, I was identifying as spiritual and exploring Buddhism. I mentioned that once in the shelter and had a woman stand over me with a Bible telling me how wrong I was to have a different view,” Therese said.

Mark S. Criss, the Rescue Mission’s director, said he’s “sure it’s happened.”

 “That's our religious conviction,” Criss said. “That's what we’ve been practicing here for 113 years. Our main purpose is actually the gospel and sharing the good news of Christ, and our second is the food and shelter,” he explained.

The Mission saw a record number of guests last year, averaging 244 people per night. That figure has dipped to under 200 this year. Starting next year, the mission plans to begin moving into buildings at 415 and 421 W. Kalamazoo St. that will add more than 26,000 square feet of shelter space.

 “We have almost 2,000 people come to the Mission on an annual basis, which is a lot of unique people,” he added. “There’s going to be some who are just not satisfied with how we provide services, but those people don’t have to come here. They can vote with their feet, quite honestly.”

 In Criss’ estimation, LGBTQ+ guests make up around 15% of the mission’s intake, or roughly 30 guests per night. However, Mission spokesperson Laura Grimwood noted that the mission doesn’t “track those numbers.”

“They may want to share the issues that they have experienced, and we appreciate that, because it's helpful to know so we can take the best possible care of the individual. But we're not asking, and we don't have any data,” Grimwood said.

 “They might also want to share their pronouns, which happened here with some guests yesterday,” Chris added.

 Even if LGBTQ guests don’t experience discrimination from staff during their stay, Brown said many still face harassment from their peers.

 “We definitely need a secular, preferably public-owned, shelter, but even if we did have that option, there are potential discriminatory issues with other residents that could mean those places could still be unsafe,” Brown said.

 It happened to Chelsey King, a guest at the women’s and children’s shelter in 2017.

 “I’m non-binary, so I dress fairly masculine despite being assigned female at birth. I literally did nothing but smile at this lady in my dorm and she went on to threaten me multiple times,” King said. “One day, I was leaving the shelter and she followed me out, wanting to fight me. I guess she just didn’t like the way I looked.”

When King complained, the staff put the woman she found threatening into a private room.

 “In my eyes, they rewarded her for being a bully,” King said.

 The staff was generally “a mixed bag,” King added.

 “I could tell there were some really kind-hearted, open-minded staff members, but a lot of the older ones were very curt with me for no reason,” King said.

 Brown believes A Place For Us would address these concerns, though she understands it may take some time to build a proper foundation.

 “It'll be a lot easier to roll out if we can first create a good model with the intention of making it usable throughout the state,” Brown explained.

Right now, Brown and her allies are working on securing nonprofit status. They’re also researching similar concepts around the country, building a social media presence to attract a greater following and reaching out to local politicians and stakeholders to discuss potential grants and funding.

“I don't expect it to be a huge shelter. The more beds we can get, the better. But I think six to 12 beds is a realistic goal at this point,” Brown said.

 Criss isn’t so sure the concept is viable.

 “We're already exceeding the capacity of this new alleged LGBTQ shelter. I would say the history has kind of proven that separate but equal is not legal, and not kind or loving either,” Criss said.

Brown questioned his assertion.

“I don't even understand the argument,” she said. “If we have services exclusively for women, homeless moms with children or sexual assault victims, but none for men, what would be the difference for LGBTQ-specific shelters?”

Criss urged skeptics to reserve judgment until they see the services the Mission provides firsthand.

“If the argument is that another shelter is needed because we're not providing the proper services, I think that's just false,” he added. “It's unfair and a little bit ignorant thinking to say that we don't help people. I think if those people came and saw what we do and how we do it, they would change their mind.”

 Brown has been a vocal critic of the Mission’s policies, including a section of their mission statement that forbids staff or volunteers from committing “sexual sin” including “homosexuality” and “transsexualism.” But she also also recognizes the growing need for shelters in general.

 “The thing is, I don't want to get this shelter shut down. We need as many beds as we can get. I just want realistic public alternatives,” Brown said.

Therese agreed, calling A Place For Us “insanely necessary.”

 “Some of the most vulnerable members of our homeless population are people in the queer community. They are the ones who feel the most alienated, discriminated against, rejected and who have problems at home,” she said.

LGBTQ, housing, homeless, shelters, Luna Brown, Mark Criss, Laura Grimwood, City Rescue Mission, SJ Therese, Chelsey King, nonbinary, gender, identity, service, religion, Christianity, secular, unhoused


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