OUT working to support LGBTQ+ individuals in Johannesburg shelters

OUT LGBT Well-being and its Engage Men’s Health (EMH) project are working with city and local government partners to better support LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) people housed in some of Johannesburg’s homeless shelters.

Research shows that LGBTQ+ individuals face a particular set of challenges that heighten their risk of becoming unhoused. These factors include social stigma and discrimination and even rejection and violence from their families and communities. To make matters worse, vulnerable LGBTQ+ people often have great difficulty finding shelters that accept and respect them. They may experience further violence, abuse and rejection from other shelter residents.

“With an already high unemployment rate and limited social and economic support, LGBTQ+ South Africans have the additional burden of dealing with societal exclusion and discrimination,” says OUT’s Director, Dawie Nel. “And it is the less economically advantaged individuals who tend to bear the brunt of the effects of this marginalisation.”

In a bid to improve the situation, OUT has partnered with the City of Johannesburg and the Gauteng departments of Social Development and Health to offer support and services to LGBTQ+ residents at two shelters in the city.

A key component of the work is ongoing sensitisation training on gender, sexuality and LGBTQ+ issues, which OUT offers to staff and residents of the Wembley and Florida shelters. These workshops help participants understand the realities faced by LGBTQ+ individuals, with the aim of enabling a more welcoming and inclusive environment.

OUT’s Engage Men’s Health project staff also provide free sexual health services for the MSM (men who have sex with men) residents at the shelters. Funded by USAID, through PEPFAR, these services range from HIV testing, prevention and treatment to TB and STI screenings. Taking these services directly to the residents helps improve their adherence to medication such as PrEP and ARVs.

In addition, MSM residents are given access to the programme’s new mental health services funded by Gilead Sciences, including counselling sessions with the EMH social worker. To support them in finding employment, the EMH skills development programme empowers the MSM residents with basic job-seeking skills, linkage to learnerships and employment services, and access to laptops and wi-fi at the EMH office in Melville.

EMH further organises monthly outings such as a hike or a cinema screening to take the LGBTQ+ residents out of their daily routine. These events are a relaxing and safe space for the participants to share their experiences and feel a sense of community.

OUT hopes to secure additional funding to roll out its direct services and LGBTQ+ sensitisation training to other shelters in the City of Johannesburg.

“We take a holistic approach to supporting our vulnerable and unemployed beneficiaries,” says Nel. “One cannot, for example, expect individuals who are struggling to survive and have no means of transport to make scheduled appointments at a clinic to receive their HIV medication. Efforts to tackle the HIV epidemic cannot only be medical in nature but must also include socio-economic and psychosocial support and empowerment,” he notes.

Founded in 1994, OUT LGBT Well-being provides stigma-free HIV and other health services to gay, bisexual and MSM communities. It also works to eradicate LGBTQ+ hate crimes and discrimination while assisting and supporting victims with paralegal advice and referrals.