Lisa Pederson at Alpha Project in the East Village on April 4, 2023.
Lisa Pederson at Alpha Project in the East Village on April 4, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

As a transgender woman living in San Diego, Lisa Pederson has heard her share of insults. During her first few months in a shelter, as she later recalled, a group of women knocked her against a bathroom door and told her she wasn’t welcome there.

Though Pederson, 53, decided to stay put, she considered taking her chances on the outside. “At least when people attack me [there],” she said, she can defend herself. 

The downtown shelter where Pederson was staying divides residents by male and female, but in her view, there should be separate spaces reserved for people who identify as trans. Shelter beds in general are in short supply in San Diego, but fewer are set aside for LGBTQ+ people. 

Pederson chose to stay. But others in her shoes have left. 

It’s not only an issue that impacts homeless LGBTQ+ people — couples who don’t want to be separated and pet owners also often refuse shelter — but individuals like Pederson and LGBTQ+ youth are especially vulnerable. 

The city often weighs the needs of specific populations such as veterans and seniors, and in recognition of the difficulties LGBTQ+ may face, the San Diego Housing Commission plans to hear a new proposal on Thursday. 

That proposal includes a contract with the San Diego LGBT Community Center to operate a shelter and outreach program for transition-age youth shelter. Under the contract, the LGBT Community Center will work with the YMCA and San Diego Youth Services, which operates an emergency youth shelter for runaway and homeless children aged 12 to 17. 

A report published by the William Institute at UCLA’s School of Law in 2020 found that between a fifth and half of all homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+. The researchers concluded that LGBTQ people of all ages experience higher rates of poverty and homelessness, and face an “array of stigma and discrimination” that undermines their ability to stay housed.

Fernando Z. López, executive director for San Diego LGBT Pride and a formerly homeless youth, said California shelters are legally obligated to support and welcome LGBTQ+ folks, but “unfortunately that’s not always the case.” It’s not just other residents who create additional barriers. Sometimes, López said, it’s a caseworker or volunteer who doesn’t support the community.

There is another issue: creating separate shelters for LGBTQ+ people exclusively runs the risk of violating federal rules.

“Fair housing law basically says you can’t deny anybody access to housing based on their sexual orientation, gender, identity, race, or religion,” said Darla Bardine, executive director of the National Network for Youth, a group based in Washington, DC. “Just like if a program were to deny access to LGBTQ youth, then the flip side of that is an LGBTQ program can’t deny access to a straight cisgender young person.”

There are currently no designated shelter beds for LGBTQ+ adults at shelters funded by the city or the Housing Commission. 

Councilmember Stephen Whitburn speaks to members of the press at the Old Central Library that has been converted into a new shelter for women in downtown on Jan. 26, 2023. The new shelter has 36 beds and is being operated by Imperial Counties under contract with the City’s Homeless Strategies and Solutions Department and National Alliance for Mental Illness of San Diego.
Councilmember Stephen Whitburn speaks to members of the press on Jan. 26, 2023, at the Old Central Library, which was converted into a new shelter for women in downtown. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

In a statement, San Diego City Councilman Stephen Whitburn, who represents downtown, said he’s going to advocate during the upcoming budget cycle for additional funding for an LGBTQ+ non-congregate shelter with services.

“By investing in LGBTQ homeless shelters, we can ensure that every person, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, has access to the resources and support they need to thrive,” he wrote. 

Priscilla Boksan, who’s nonbinary, agreed that the city’s shelter system isn’t always a safe place, in part, because the facilities are understaffed — in San Diego, where the pay is relatively low, and throughout the state. “They don’t handle things well, and they’re always burdened since there’s too much going on,” Boksan said. 

Some adult LGBTQ+ couples have also complained that they’re not always recognized as such. 

Justin, a gay man currently living on the streets with his partner, said they don’t feel shelter staff have been accommodating to them wanting to be close to each other. They also have a dog, which weren’t always welcome in shelters in the past, but from their experience it seems straight couples get placed in close proximity. 

“One of our friends has a girlfriend and he also wants to shelter as well,” Justin said. “And they put them together.” 

In an email, Scott Marshall, vice president of communications and government relations at the Housing Commission, said contracts with shelter providers require that staff be trained on things like cultural competency, trauma-informed care and services for youth. 

The wider lack of shelter beds extends well beyond San Diego, which is why LGBTQ+ groups in other cities have begun setting aside space of their own. People in New York looking for a safe place to lay their heads can turn to the Ali Forney Center, which has six emergency housing sites with a total of 66 beds. Elsewhere in Southern California, they can turn to the Los Angeles LGBT Center, which provides transitional housing and other wraparound services.

Levi Giafaglione, a housing navigator at the National Alliance on Mental Illness in East Village, said there are only 12 shelter beds for LGBTQ+ minors in all of San Diego (while they’re not specifically dedicated to LGBT minors), which are located at San Diego Youth Services — but they’re only available five nights a week. That means a 19-year-old nonbinary person might have nowhere else to go on the weekend, “the most trifling times of the week when they could really get into danger and trouble,” Giafaglione said.

Housing navigator Levi Giafaglione of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in the East Village on Dec. 20, 2022.
Housing navigator Levi Giafaglione of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in the East Village on Dec. 20, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

The Housing Commission will consider its new proposals with San Diego Youth Services and San Diego LGBT Community Center at a special meeting on Thursday. 

Marshall said the Housing Commission consults with its legal counsel on each shelter program to ensure compliance with fair housing laws. The transition-age youth program, he noted, is LGBTQ-affirming but will serve any eligible transition-age youth regardless of how they identify. 

Tianrui Huang

Tianrui Huang is an intern at Voice of San Diego.

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  1. Absurd. This is why the government never solves a problem. Provide temporary shelter for the vagrants. Their choice is use it or move along, not filet mignon and grey poupon. Free stuff should not come with options and an appetizer.

  2. Happy to see that the city is addressing this. It’s shocking that there’s only 12 shelter beds for LGBTQ+ minors in the entire city!

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