Homes First: A Safe Place to Call Home for 2SLGBTQ+ Refugees

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© Pexels/Pixabay | Homes First

One moment can change your life. For Roan, that moment became a possible death sentence.

When a video of a local gay party he attended was shared online, Roan knew his life was in danger. The native Jamaican was immediately terminated from his job, ostracized by his family, and chased from his home.

“It cost me my entire life,” he shared. “I was attacked several times, I was beaten. I went to the police, but they did nothing.”

Roan fled to Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, hoping to find support. Instead, he found himself living on the street and squatting alongside other gay men in the same situation.

“It’s been hard having no source of family support. There is nothing that I have not done just to survive.”

Everyone Needs A Home

While Canada is not among the more than 70 countries that still criminalize consensual same-sex conduct, 2SLGBTQ+ people in Canada are twice as likely than the heterosexual population to experience homelessness or housing insecurity. They are also three times more likely to be victims of violence. Since small communities often lack supportive services, many queer people experiencing marginalization, stigma and discrimination flock to cities like Toronto, hoping to find acceptance and community.

In 2022, The 519 and Homes First opened Pacewood, a shelter dedicated to LGBTQ+ newcomers who have arrived through a refugee pathway. The space prioritizes trans, gender-diverse and non-binary folks and is the first shelter space exclusively for 2SLGBTQ+ adults in Toronto.

Homes First provides shelter, supportive housing, and wrap-around support services for over 2,000 people experiencing homelessness every night. Across their shelters and housing programs, just under 150 Homes First clients have self-identified as 2SLGBTQ+. Pacewood receives referrals and on-site support services from The 519—an organization serving marginalized 2SLGBTQ+ communities.

Homes First has a long history of providing much-needed housing and services to Toronto’s homeless population. For 40 years, they have worked towards eradicating homelessness by providing hundreds of people with a safe place to call home. Pacewood is part of their plan to create a city where everyone has access to the transforming power of home and the most vulnerable have the support necessary to flourish.

Pacewood has become a first home and community for 2SLGBTQ+ newcomers (refugees). It provides specialized services focused on newcomers’ mental health support tailored to the 2SLGBTQ+ community as they navigate their
asylum processes.

“Staff working with these clients are trained in 2SLGBTQ+ sensitivity and cultural competency, which has created an environment where our residents feel understood, respected, and supported without fear of discrimination, considering that most of them are coming from backgrounds of trauma and other aggressions,” explained Shelter Supervisor Paul Omondi.

In this global village in downtown Toronto, queer and trans folk from different parts of the world have formed a tight-knit community based on the similarities of their shared experiences. This has enabled them to bond with each other and create a lively space as they transition to better things, Omondi continued.

“One of the most unexpected outcomes is the way these clients have embraced the community. They have been able to blend in without any fear or persecution. Similarly, the community has also been good to them, allowing them to navigate their new realities freely. Over the last few months, I have also seen clients discover themselves and express their new identities proudly because of how safe they feel within the space.”

homes first
Roan © Photo Courtesy of Homes First

Searching For Safety

The stakes were high for Roan: the maximum punishment for same-sex conduct in Jamaica is 10 years imprisonment with hard labour. He soon realized finding safety meant leaving the only home he’d ever known.

Roan learned about an international 2SLGBTQ+ rights organization that could help him resettle in Germany. He was finally feeling optimistic—but it didn’t last long. Without community support, Roan still didn’t feel safe. He gained entry into the United States, where he moved in with his sister-in-law while his brother was away. But as soon as his brother returned, Roan was asked to leave. Suddenly, he was back on the street.

“I met some friends (who) led me to do prostitution. I was faced with abuse from different men. I was even attacked at one time by some gang members. That’s how I decided I would not stay in the U.S.”

Roan had one more option: Canada. When he settled on Toronto, he reached out to The 519, who referred him to Pacewood.

A Homefull Toronto

You can be sheltered but hungry, safe but alone, housed but unhealthy. That’s not homefull.

Homefull is where everyone experiences the warmth, comfort, stability and security that a home provides, where the community is at the forefront, and where you can begin to rebuild your life.

For 40 years, Homes First has given hope to many who had given up. All that’s left is the collective compassionate commitment of a unified community so they can do this for another 40 years. So they can help more people like Roan.

At Pacewood, Roan receives three meals a day. A supportive community surrounds him. He has access to medical care. He finally feels hopeful. While waiting on his refugee claim, he is already giving back to the community as a volunteer for the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation. When asked about his dreams for the future, his answer is simple yet significant.

“I want to find a job, pay my taxes, be a good citizen, and just enjoy my freedom.”

The familiar phrase ‘home is where the heart is’ rings true for many. For Roan, whose heart is with friends and family back in Jamaica, home has a new meaning.

“A home for me is a safe place where I can be myself,” he shared. “(Being) homeless doesn’t mean that you’re less than who you are. There is hope and light at the end of the tunnel.”

Homes First is a charitable nonprofit organization that provides emergency shelter, supportive housing and essential support services to nearly 2,000 seniors, families and single adults every night.
Learn more about how they are supporting the community and how you can give back at homesfirst.on.ca

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Homes First serves all populations with a focus on people with long histories of homelessness, and with mental health and substance use challenges.

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