Meet The Residents Of The Nation's First LGBTQ Homeless Shelter

Photographed by Tory Rust.
For Isaiah Wallowingbull and Troy Nichols, San Francisco was the place where their dreams would come true. "We came here to get married," Wallowingbull says. The men met on June 28, 2014, and had planned to tie the knot in San Francisco on their one-year anniversary.

What they didn’t plan on, however, was becoming two of the earliest residents at Jazzie’s Place, the nation’s first homeless shelter for exclusively serving the LGBT adult population. The shelter, in San Francisco’s Mission District, opened its doors on June 17.

The couple met while working together at a hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah. Nichols grew up in North Carolina and had come to Utah to find work, while Wallowingbull grew up on a Native American reservation in Wyoming and, after attending Job Corps in neighboring Montana, decided he needed to escape the downtrodden life of his hometown. "The poverty and drinking and drug addiction and stuff that went on there. It’s just the cycle that never stops," Wallowingbull tells us. "I didn’t want to have to go back and deal with that again."

The hotel job the men had in Utah paid just $100 per week — not enough to live. But Wallowingbull’s sister lived in San Francisco and offered to house them while they found their footing. "Everything fell into place and was all laid out for us to come," says Wallowingbull.

They made the trip and moved in with Wallowingbull’s sister and her boyfriend. But after a series of arguments between the sister and her boyfriend, he kicked her and the boys out — Wallowingbull and Nichols were now homeless. They didn’t yet have enough money to get a place of their own, so they were forced into a shelter. In early February, the couple were admitted to a shelter overseen by Larkin Street Youth Services. "We were really nervous when we started in the shelter system," Wallowingbull admits.

We were really nervous when we started in the shelter system.

And for good reason: As soon as they started staying at Larkin, they were harassed for being a gay couple. Although the majority of the staff was kind and accommodating, a few staff members at Larkin targeted them. “One guy called us tutti-fruttis, barged into the bathroom [when we were in there], called us out for being together, and said it was making people feel uncomfortable," says Wallowingbull.

This sort of mistreatment forced them to contact the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. The Human Rights Commission relayed their concerns to Larkin and even helped them land jobs together through the Office of Economic and Workforce Development Youth Services. The men started working on April 4, cleaning public areas of the city, but were only two months away from their 120-day deadline to leave Larkin. They still didn’t have enough money to get their own apartment. They needed a new place to stay.

"And that’s when we heard about Jazzie’s Place,” says Wallowingbull. About 29% of San Francisco’s homeless population identifies as being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Jazzie’s Place, named after Jazzie Collins, a former affordable-housing and LGBTQ activist who died in 2013, is the first shelter in a pilot program aimed at assisting the city’s burgeoning LGBTQ homeless population.

"We were the first people on the list — the first through the door," says Wallowingbull. He and Nichols were not alone in their plight. According to the Coalition on Homelessness, 70% of the LGBT homeless population has encountered violence in shelters.

"There were a lot of complaints from the LGBT community about not feeling safe in the shelter system,” says Wendy Phillips, director of Dolores Street Community Services, who oversees Jazzie’s Place and has worked in the homeless-services and tenants'-rights sectors in Mission District for over a decade. But the complaints don't just involve staff.

Keeaira Wells, a 28-year-old gay woman from Baltimore, Maryland, said the first time she felt safe in the San Francisco shelter system was when she was admitted into Jazzie’s Place in June. At other shelters, she said, she and her partner were harassed by fellow residents for being gay.
“One lady screamed at me, ‘You don’t belong here!’ I was crying and stuff, because people targeted me because I was gay.” After being recommended to get on the waiting list at Jazzie’s Place, Wells was confirmed for a bed. "I definitely feel safe at Jazzie’s Place," she says. “You can actually get some sleep there.” Wells added that she recently landed a job at a local Target and will be leaving Jazzie’s this week.

These types of complaints started coming to affordable-housing and homelessness organizations in San Francisco in 2010. "Five years ago, a client came into my office," says Tommi Avicolli Mecca, director of counseling programs at Housing Rights Committee. “The side of his face was all bruised. He was crying. He said he was at a shelter and was attacked for being gay. He didn’t want to go back but was homeless and had nowhere else to go." Avicolli Mecca sent him to another local shelter, but the story had a lasting effect on him. "When he left, I thought to myself, Something has to be done about this. This wasn’t the first time I heard reports of this happening."

I thought to myself, Something has to be done about this.

Shortly thereafter, in March 2010, Avicolli Mecca, along with Brian Basinger of the AIDS Housing Alliance, organized a hearing at City Hall with Mission District Supervisor David Campos (a gay Latino man) at which members of the homeless LGBTQ community shared their experiences in the shelter system. Nearly 50 LGBTQ homeless and formerly homeless people testified about their negative experiences, and Campos proposed a separate, LGBTQ-only shelter. "This happened to coincide with the city closing an existing shelter program, so Campos asked the city to allocate the funds that were paying for that shelter to [an LGBTQ] one," says Wendy Phillips.

From there, Dolores Street Community Services was tapped to oversee the new shelter. After almost five years of bureaucratic red tape and necessary planning, the 24-bed facility opened to the public with two dozen current occupants and nearly 70 others on a waitlist. Residents are eligible to stay at Jazzie’s Place for 90 days, with a possible 30-day extension. "Our homeless LGBT residents deserve to feel safe and welcomed in our shelter system, and the opening of Jazzie’s Place is an important milestone," David Campos said in a public statement at the opening.

"The staff has been really great in accommodating us — a couple," says Wallowingbull. "They are really nice and really giving," he adds, saying that the increased privacy makes them feel safe and respected. "We’ve even started applying to live in a few low-income apartments."

Like all shelters in San Francisco, Jazzie’s Place acts as a temporary option for people hoping to transition to permanent housing. "Shelter beds are not housing," says Avicolli Mecca. "They are an emergency measure that you take. The goal is to get people that come in here, eventually, into affordable housing. That’s the larger goal."

With a temporary roof over their heads, a steady job, and their steadfast companionship, Wallowingbull and Nichols feel they are well on their way to starting a new life together. "We just plan to continue to work and get a place together and get settled down," Wallowingbull says. "We are a team and have always been a team and have only gotten this far because of that."

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