Safe Haven provides housing for Baltimore’s older queer community

Diane Battle sat by a dining room table, her husband Earnest Battle looking at her attentively. The couple had moved into the house a little over a month ago, but the white-colored brick building with a green door felt like home from their first day.

“The atmosphere ... was just so nice, you know, it was a warm feeling,” Diane Battle said. “I knew that from the get-go.”

“We’re doing very well. Probably the best we’ve been yet.”

The Battles are among the first residents helped by a Baltimore Safe Haven housing program dedicated to transgender, lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and non-binary people over the age of 40. The program, dubbed Legacy House, provides Baltimoreans in that community who are experiencing homelessness with shelter, food, clothing and other services, including access to hygiene kits, HIV testing and peer educators, with a goal of helping them eventually secure permanent housing like the Battles.

The launch of Legacy House this summer is just part of Baltimore Safe Haven’s efforts to expand transitional housing for TLGBQ people in Baltimore City — whose needs, advocates say, aren’t adequately served by more traditional homelessness services. The nonprofit uses the acronym TLGBQ, rather than LGBTQ, and provides resources and opportunities, including transitional housing for youth and seniors in that community.

In July, the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services announced the city would work with the Safe Haven on a new transitional housing project for queer youth between the ages of 16 and 24.

Safe Haven has an unique impact on the community, said Iya Dammons, the organization’s founder and executive director. The programs are largely ran by Black trans women like Dammons, who knows exactly what queer people of color like herself go through and what kind of resources they need, especially Black trans women doing sex work to survive.

“We can lead by example, by lived experience,” Dammons said.

TLGBQ people face disparities and discrimination when it comes to access to housing, health care services, and safe and affirming work and educational environments, according to the Center for American Progress. Queer people of color see even harsher barriers.

Dammons stressed that there’s still work to be done in Baltimore, especially when it comes to housing, rights and opportunities for TLGBQ people over the age of 25, as there tends to be more intervention opportunities at younger ages. In Baltimore, over 80% of emergency shelters, transitional housing and unsheltered populations are over the age of 25.

That’s why Safe Haven felt the need to establish housing services specifically for an older age group.

The long-term discrimination and lack of family support can lead TLGBQ elders to deep economic insecurity, creating barriers to housing, health care and employment opportunities, experts say. One in three older queer adults are living at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, according to a report by SAGE, an advocacy group for elders in that community. Many, especially trans people, reported experiencing discrimination when applying for housing, feeling unsafe in homeless shelters and being evicted from their homes due to their gender identity.

For Safe Haven facilities manager Josiah Damore, the nonprofit’s mission was personal. As a trans man, he was struggling to find employment until Dammons hired him “on the spot,” he said.

The employment gave him the chance to get his life on track. And to this day, Damore, 23, feels comfortable asking for help if he needs it — and reciprocating that help in return.

“It’s nothing but family,” Damore said. “I’m the nephew, the brother, the cousin to call if any one of my siblings, any one of my family members, if I’m ever needed for anything, they know who to go.”

Since meeting Dammons in a social gathering in the community, Diane Battle and her husband Earnest got food, a free place to shower and, eventually, a temporary place to live: a home with a kitchen, a dining room, and plenty of bedrooms and bathrooms — fully furnished and welcoming and affirming for trans people like Diane.

In Safe Haven’s housing, where the Battles lived with three other people for two months, staff members check on them every day, helping them with clothes, laundry and whatever else they need.

The Battles have struggled with housing in Baltimore, Diane Battle said. Their previous housing wasn’t friendly or affordable, but they felt safe at Legacy House.

“This [was] the first place that we’ve been to that people do care,” Diane said.

Baltimore Safe Haven operates largely on donations, though it also partners with Baltimore City Health Department and other agencies. The upcoming partnership with the city for helping queer youth, for example, will be funded by a two-year, $488,083 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“For many of our LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness, this grant represents the difference between security and vulnerability as they transition to permanent housing,” Mayor Brandon Scott said in a statement when the partnership was announced. “Baltimore Safe Haven has been a true partner and I know that they will work diligently to utilize these funds for the benefit of our youth and of our communities.”

The transitional housing project between the city’s office of homeless services and Safe Haven is still in the works, according to the organization. More details will be released in September.

In the meantime, Baltimore Safe Haven is providing services to people between 18 and 24 through its “Phase One” program. Program manager Tashi-Kali M. Acket helps her clients get vital records, birth certificates and Social Security cards, and go through a name change process if needed. Acket also connects those interested in hormone therapy with Chase Brexton Health Services, a Baltimore-based medical clinic.

Safe Haven staff also help them find jobs, she said, helping them with websites like Indeed and creating a resume. Once they secure a job, they advance to the “Phase Two” program, where the staff shift its efforts into helping them find housing and being financially responsible.

Overall, Safe Haven is dedicated to promoting the well being of at-risk members of the TLGBQ community in any way they can.

Organizers also do outreach, providing harm reduction, hygiene and safe sex kits, donating food, clothing, household items and furniture. Throughout the pandemic, they also administered COVID-19 vaccines and testing.

Collecting furniture and other household items is their most recent goal in helping the Battles. On Sept. 1, the couple moved to a permanent housing they found with the help of Safe Haven — a place they can officially call home.

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