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November 2005
A Force to Reckon With
The Satya Interview with Sally Huffer

 

Since 1978, the Montrose Counseling Center, a nonprofit organization located in downtown Houston, has been providing quality and affordable outpatient mental health, chemical dependency and case management services. They also educate and advocate primarily for and about Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people, and people living with HIV.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, then Rita, staff at the Montrose Counseling Center found themselves coordinating more than their usual variety of efforts to fill the specific needs of LGBT survivors. From support groups to switchboards, the Montrose Counseling Center continues to reach out to the thousands of LGBT evacuees who now call Houston home. More than three weeks after Katrina,
Kymberlie Adams Matthews had a chance to talk with Sally Huffer, Community Projects Specialist, about her commitment to offering support, information, and a safe place for LGBT survivors.

What services are you currently offering Katrina and Rita survivors?
Right now most of our efforts are focused on case management for the evacuees. They come in and meet with a case manager who does a needs assessment, then we look to see what they need—physical relocation, housing, apartments, etc.

We have received many donations and are able to help out with everything from security deposits and first month’s rent to furniture and household item vouchers, also clothing, food, gasoline, bus vouchers, etc. We have a number of transgender clients and the good people at MAC Cosmetics—if you can imagine—have donated $21,000 worth of makeup. This is primarily for our transgendered clients, because it is a real psychological need for them. They have been in shelters for days upon days. They have not even been able to shave. Particularly for our African American transgendered, the standard razor the shelters issue causes a lot of bumps and rashes on their skin. So to be able to provide these sorts of things is really critical for their well-being.

In addition, we have a support group which meets twice a week. This tragedy is affecting people in waves. There is a lot of denial. A lot of people put their emotions on hold in order to meet their necessities, but once they let their guard down it hits them hard. We are seeing a lot of post-traumatic stress.

We also provide services for people with HIV/AIDS so they can receive care and benefits. We provide one on one counseling. On top of that, we are doing a safe homes program. We have put together a database of people who have opened up their homes to victims until they can get their lives back on track. We have people from all over the country and in Canada who are willing to host a LGBT individual, couple or family. These safe homes are very important because, as you may know, the shelters are not exactly the safest place for LGBT persons. They may have difficulty and even face harassment or violence in shelters. There are few places where our transgender brothers and sisters may find an affirming place to reside during such a stressful and difficult time.

The Montrose Counseling Center also runs a vital switchboard.
Yes, it’s really a lifeline to many displaced by the catastrophe. It was actually set up years ago to deal with LGBT people in crisis, but now it is a clearinghouse of information particular to LGBT survivors looking for housing, jobs, medical information, etc.

The switchboard has been slightly modified to handle issues that are unique to gay and lesbian survivors, such as how to find safe housing, appropriate medical treatment, etc.

With all your services, have you found any obstacles along the way?
One of our problems is making sure the word gets out to hurricane victims—that gay community help is available. We have distributed a plethora of leaflets to all the hotels, shelters and gay bars, but I still don’t know if all the people who need help are getting the information.

Also, we didn’t want to compete or overlap with services already being offered. So one night nearly 100 people from dozens of Houston LGBT organizations—social services groups, AIDS care groups, and even social groups—met at EJ’s, a popular neighborhood club in the Montrose neighborhood, to coordinate relief efforts. We made certain there was no duplication of services and that all aspects of relief were covered. I was so proud of Houston.

Can you talk about the discriminations LGBT people have faced in the shelters?
I have heard people complain that FEMA and the Red Cross are not prioritizing. In other words, the LGBT community needs are put at the bottom of the list. So many of the services being offered, while available to everyone, may not be offered in ways that are affirming and nurturing to the LGBT evacuees.

Also, a number of people have faced discrimination in shelters, primarily by the other residents—all types of harassment. The law enforcement isn’t much better, as in the case of the young transgendered male to female who asked to use the women’s shower when no one else was in there. She was given permission by a volunteer, but was arrested when she came out of the shower. Through an amazing circumstance of events, a reporter who was in the Bryant College Station shelter checking her police blotter saw this person was arrested and being held in solitary confinement. She contacted us, we got in touch with the Human Rights Campaign and they were able to get this young woman out of jail—she is only 20 years old. We were able to get her back to Houston. She had been separated from her family, so we sent one of our outreach workers to the Convention Center to look for her family, and we got them reunited.

How can people help?
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, we rely on the generosity of others as well as government contracts and grants, so we would appreciate any monetary donations. But more than anything, we ask that people not forget about the evacuees. It may no longer be in the headlines, but these people are going to be facing post-traumatic stress, and it’s probably going to be a brutal holiday season for many. A kind word goes a long way, so we urge people to contact our three LGBT publications in Houston: www.outsmartmagazine.com, www.txtnewsmagazine.com, and www.houstonvoice.com to send a letter to the editor, sharing your support, concern and good wishes. It also helps workers deal with their compassion fatigue—to know there are others who are grateful for the work they’re doing.

For more information on the Montrose Counseling Center visit www.montrosecounselingcenter.org.

 

 


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