Friday, September 02, 2005

Houstonians Establish Shelter for LBGT Katrina Survivors

(Link) “Being a gay person housed in a tent city with a bunch of rednecks is not going to be that much fun. When you’ve lost everything, you don’t need to worry about your sexual orientation or your HIV status being revealed.”

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JIC Post:
By Binnie Fisher
Houston Voice

Gay Houston resident John Szewczyk admits it may not be politically correct to say so, but in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, “We need to take care of our own.”

For that reason, Szewczyk has organized a meeting at 7 p.m. Friday at E.J.’s,, 2517 Ralph, to coordinate a relief effort for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender refugees from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, particularly that which took place in New Orleans.

“I’m just sort of putting out feelers to see what kind of committees we can set up,” he said. “We need to do what we can to help our sister community. They have all provided many of us with great times at Southern Decadence, Mardi Gras and for vacations.”

As Szewczyk was planning his meeting, agencies in Houston that serve gay and lesbian clients were stepping up to help out.

When officials in New Orleans issued a mandatory evacuation order prior to the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, tens of thousands of those evacuees ended up in Houston, in hotels, in shelters or housed with relatives and friends.

On Wednesday, as Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco ordered the citizens of New Orleans who had ridden out the storm to get out of the flood ravaged city, many more refugees were expected in Houston.

Officials of the Montrose Counseling Center announced Wednesday that a special group counseling session has been set up for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender refugees from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

The session, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 6, at the center, 701 Richmond, will cover the grief, stress and fear that accompany the aftermath of a catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina.

In addition, the Gay & Lesbian Switchboard Houston will be available to provide refugees with information regarding services in Houston.

At the Montrose Clinic and the Assistance Fund, officials announced on Wednesday that they would make every effort to provide medical and medication assistance to those living with HIV/AIDS who have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Clinic officials said it is crucial for continuity of care to be maintained for those who have been displaced by Katrina and who are living with HIV/AIDS.

“It is important to provide individuals displaced by Katrina access to health care services and medications they require,” noted Montrose Clinic Executive Director Katy Caldwell. “We estimate the need for services to be great and will make every effort to provide assistance.”

Eric Roland, the clinic’s education director, added, “The Education Department will offer free rapid HIV testing to those individuals who do not have proof of HIV status so that they can get into care as quickly as possible.”

The clinic has set up an evacuee emergency hot-line at 713-830-3047.

Szewezyk said he is hoping to find someone who can act as a coordinator for medical referrals.

Some medical records lost

“A coordinator in the medical field or who is familiar with the overall HIV/AIDS medical system in Houston will be invaluable,” he said.

In many cases, he fears the medical records of evacuees could be lost if they obtained care from physicians in small clinics in New Orleans.

Other agencies with announced plans for helping Katrina evacuees include Bering Omega Community Services and the Houston GLBT Community Center.

At Bering Omega Community Services, Director of Resource Development Fiona Dawson said, the organization is offering health care to those with HIV/AIDS and will host “drop-off” sites at the residential hospice (602 Branard) and the Adult Day Care Center (1429 Hawthorne) for anyone to bring donations for the hurricane victims.

Bering Omega is specifically collecting personal grooming items such as shampoo, soap, lotion, tooth brushes and toothpaste, and also linens, towels, sheets, pillows, as well as miscellaneous items like towelettes, children diapers, and bottled water.

Hours at the care center are 7a.m. to 5 p.m. and 24 hours a day at Omega House.

The Houston GLBT Community Center is also mobilizing to help victims of Hurricane Katrina.

“The Houston GLBT Community Center is committed to assisting with the local response to the overwhelming need,” said center president Christopher Bown said. “The Community Center frequently works in collaboration with other community groups, and we are involved in discussions with groups right now about working together on efforts that will complement other worthwhile efforts in our community.”

Bown said the center, at 3400 Montrose Blvd., Suite 207, expects to provide a number of services including offering meeting space, for community groups delivering assistance, a place for displaced persons from hurricane affected states, phone and internet access for displaced persons, a place for information exchange, a possible web-based effort to disseminate information regarding housing and employment and a base for the organization of fundraising events.

Szewezyk said he has spent many hours researching what in addition to medical care the refugees are likely to need. He said he has found several areas where Houston can be of assistance, and he’s hoping the meeting will produce an individual to chair a committee in each of those areas.

He said his research revealed that in addition to medical care, evacuees will need help with housing, access to service providers, communication and access to government agencies.

Needs will be great

Szewezyk said after the meeting, other needs could be identified.

“We want to form a support system for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who have nowhere to go,” he said. “These people will need help. Some of the refugees will only have the clothes on their backs. We need to be able to access organizations that can help with clothing, food assistance and also networking for them to get FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and other types of aid.”

By Wednesday morning, Szewezyk said, he had already heard from others who are concerned about gay evacuees.

“I’m already getting offers from people who have places to stay,” he said. “Hopefully after Friday, we’ll have someone who can head up a housing committee.”

By late Wednesday morning, Houston city officials confirmed that New Orleans evacuees who had been housed at the Super Dome would be transferred to the Houston Astrodome. Red Cross officials said they have planned for 23,000 evacuees to be housed in the Astrodome.

While he was glad to hear that storm refugees living in deplorable conditions at the New Orleans facility would be able to come to the Astrodome, where they would have hot meals, hot showers, air conditioning and toilets that work, Szewezyk said, group housing doesn’t always work for gays.

“Being a gay person housed in a tent city with a bunch of rednecks is not going to be that much fun,” he said. “When you’ve lost everything, you don’t need to worry about your sexual orientation or your HIV status being revealed.”

When the meeting gets underway on Friday, he said he plans to ask, “Can a gay evacuation shelter be set up somewhere until we can get these people settled?”

A coordinator familiar with government agencies is needed, Szewezyk said, because in some cases, residency requirements may have to be waived in order for evacuees to be eligible to receive services.

A communications coordinator is needed, he said, because, “Many of these people will need computer access as well as telephone access. They will need to communicate with family and friends. A list of people or organizations who can offer computer time will be of great help as well as donations of phone cards.” John Szewczyk.

A disabled gay man with HIV, Szewezyk said, he can empathize with Katrina’s victims. His apartment was flooded during Tropical Storm Allison.

“I had a foot of water in my apartment,” he said. “That was traumatic enough, but it was nothing compared to this.”