Unusually cold weather combined with program funding cuts for everything from SNAP (food stamps) to outreach efforts have increased the demand for "winter gear' distributed by Pittsburgh's LGBTQ Community Center (GLCC) to homeless and other vulnerable members of the community.
Says GLCC Chair Lyndsey Sickler, "It is 15 degrees and I have 25 blankets to serve hundreds of homeless people right at the holidays. We are desperate for blankets and adult sized coats L, XL and above."
The GLCC offers a range of programs and is the physical location for Service Access for Youth (SAY), a collaborative of 22 organizations and private partners working to address the needs of homeless youth ages 13-24. The Wednesday SAY drop-in clinic is the only such program in the region. Services include medical care, case management, housing, employment and education.
The Winter Gear drive was established to meet another need - physical warmth during cold weather. Clients and members of the community in need have been able to select donated items, including coats, clothing and blankets thanks to the generosity of hundreds of donors. While LGBT youth make up nearly 40% of homeless population, items are available to anyone in need.
"For 3 weeks I bounced around from friend to friend, but they didn't know what was going on. The only person who knew (that I was gay) was my best friend and Lyndsey (Sickler)," said Terrance, a formerly homeless gay youth during an interview with WESA 90.5 in Pittsburgh. He turned to Sickler for housing alternatives after the 3 weeks.
The recent dip in temperature prompted a large distribution through the SAY partners to shelters and other homeless programs. Changes in programs such as SNAP (food stamps), housing subsidies, utility assistance and more as well as the holiday season have put a significant strain personal budgets leaving little room for the purchase of clothing or a sturdy winter coat. Funding cuts to human service programming do not allow for most agencies to provide these items except through donations.
"The LGBTQ community has been incredibly generous - donating more than 1,000 items since October," says Sickler. "We have been able to share with our partner agencies, many of whom provide shelter for our clients. And we'll continue to do that."
Pittsburgh recently dipped down to 12 degrees, more than 10 degrees below the average for this time of year. The extended forecast calls for continued cold weather and mixes of snow and rain for the remainder of the month. This has put a strain on the Center's resources.
"We have clothing, but most of it and all of our remaining coats are smaller adult sizes," explains Sickler. "It is heartbreaking for me to have all these items available and send someone out into a 20 degree afternoon without a coat that fits or even a blanket to wrap themselves."
According to Sickler, many homeless individuals 'go through' clothing more quickly than the typical person. They lack regular access to laundry facilities or the money to wash their clothes regularly. Those who are housed in shelters or with friends still spend a lot of time in the elements walking or using public transportation. Laundry soap is not covered by SNAP (food stamps) so in many cases it becomes a luxury.
"It is not for lack of caring or wanting to be warm and presentable," argues Sickler. "It is because they don't have the resources many of us take for granted."
The impact of poverty and homelessness in the LGBTQ community is profound and often misunderstood.
- In Allegheny County, there are 1700 homeless school-aged children. This does not include very young children or youth ages 18-21. (Homeless Children Education Fund) Conservative estimates are that 300-400 of those youth are LGBTQ.
- Transgender people are four times as likely to have a household income under10,000 and twice as likely to be unemployed as the typical person in the U.S. (Williams Institute)
- 14.1% of lesbian couples and 7.7% of gay male couples receive food stamps (SNAP) (Williams Institute)
- Nearly 25% of children living in gay male households and 19% of children living in lesbian households live in poverty. (Williams Institute)
As the holidays draw near, Sickler reminds us that a warm coat or a sturdy blanket can be a truly lifesaving gift.
Those in Pittsburgh who can contribute gently used coats, blankets or other winter gear are encouraged to bring items by the GLCC at 210 Grant Street between 12 and 9 PM Monday through Saturday. Donations can also be made via the website.
This problem is not limited to Pittsburgh emphasizes Sickler. She encourages everyone to share what they don't need with an LGBTQ community center or a homeless outreach program in their area.