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Understanding their LGBTQ clients is important to the people at Friendship Place

Columnist

January 4, 2022 at 1:29 p.m. EST

The Pride flag is pretty, but if there isn’t an understanding of how to treat the people it represents, that rectangular rainbow is just a well-intentioned piece of fabric. That’s the mind-set behind an effort by the homelessness charity Friendship Place to better serve its LGBTQ+ clients.

“It’s important to look at the whole person as they are,” said Jean-Michel Giraud, the nonprofit’s president and chief executive. “ ‘Come as you are’ has always been a driving principle for us.”

Friendship Place, a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand, was founded in 1991 to alleviate homelessness in Northwest D.C. In the summer of 2020, the nonprofit revived an earlier effort to examine and strengthen its commitment to embracing sexual and gender diversity. Friendship Place’s LGBTQ+ work group is aimed at its own staff members, board members and volunteers, as well as at representatives at other District human services organizations.

Forty percent of young people experiencing homelessness identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, Giraud said. People are coming out at an earlier age, he noted, something that can put them at odds with their families.

“They often have been made so uncomfortable in their home, they have to leave,” Giraud said. “Sometimes they’re told to leave.”

Turned out of their homes, they may seek help at charities, even the most well-meaning of which can suffer from unexamined biases. This is especially true with members of the transgender community, Giraud said.

“Transgender folks, for instance, are met with a lack of comfort — sometimes, more than that,” he said. “It really is upsetting to some of us, to think some person experiencing homelessness — someone out in the cold — goes some place for services and will be met with a negative reaction just because a staff member has not checked their own feelings about the community.”

The 10 members of Friendship Place’s LGBTQ+ work group meet monthly. Last summer they produced a five-part webinar series that included such topics as “LGBTQ+ 101: Basics of Welcoming & Inclusion” and “Understanding the ‘T’: Understanding Transgender Experiences.” (You can find the videos at friendshipplace.org/lgbtq/.)

The idea is to give participants a crash course in the history of the LGBTQ experience, the community’s activism, as well as the microaggressions members can face. The hope is that potential clients of groups such as Friendship Place will be made to feel welcome, trusting that they can come forward for case management, the catchall term for everything from addiction counseling to help finding housing.

In the 1980s, Giraud worked in mental health institutions in New England. Back then, very few of the patients self-identified as LGBTQ “because they had received this message in state hospitals that you just don’t talk about this,” Giraud said. The bias and prejudices of the staff had carried over to the clients.

Society has come a long way since then, and yet, Giraud said, “Every generation in human services needs to do its part.”

One place Friendship Place puts that into practice is the Brooks, the temporary family homeless shelter it operates in Ward 3.

“It’s the way we welcome folks,” said Orelia Lesh, acting program director at the Brooks. “It’s the way we refer to relationships in nongendered ways.”

Better, Lesh said, to start with “partner” or “spouse” rather than “husband” or “wife.”

“Do we know what name someone goes by and what their pronouns are, so we can have those conversation with folks,” she said.

The aim is to provide a basic level of respect for people who may have experienced far too little of it — and to go beyond that.

“Because we know that they may have extreme difficulty in their lives, of course because they’re experiencing homelessness, but also because of the discrimination and biases of other people they have encountered,” Lesh said.

Said Giraud: “It’s about embracing their humanity.”

 

Helping Hand

Won’t you support the work of Friendship Place? You can give today through The Washington Post Helping Hand. To donate, visit posthelpinghand.com.

To give to Friendship Place by mail, send a check to Friendship Place, 3655 Calvert St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20007.

The campaign ends Friday.

Read more from John Kelly

 

 

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