Arkansas LGBTQ shelter closes abruptly, leaving former residents struggling

"I'm struggling a lot," one former resident of Lucie's Place said. The shelter closed May 2, leaving its former residents in a lurch amid the pandemic.
By Gwen Aviles

A prominent Arkansas LGBTQ shelter for young adults abruptly closed this month following a series of incidents, leaving its former residents in the lurch during a global pandemic.

"I am temporarily living with someone that works for a trans support organization," Slater Lee, a former resident of the shelter, told NBC News. "I'm struggling a lot, because I only work two days a week."

Lucie's Place not only is one of few LGBTQ organizations in Central Arkansas, but it is also the sole organization to focus explicitly on providing housing to young LGBTQ adults in the area. The organization, which was founded in 2012 and named after Lucie Hamilton — a 20-year-old transgender woman from the area who died in an inconclusive manner in 2009 — runs a drop-in center that provides food and other resources to clients, and until May 2 it had provided housing to eight people, as first reported by the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.

The Rev. Johnette Fitzjohn, the former executive director of Lucie's Place, and some members of the organization's board of directors made the "difficult decision to close the shelter after a series of events that culminated on April 30," said Greg Adams, the board's president. Fitzjohn, who did not respond to NBC News' request for comment, later resigned, and Andrea Zekis, a well-known transgender activist, is serving as interim executive director.

Slater Lee is one of several LGBTQ young people who lost his housing after Lucie's Place abruptly shut its shelter for young adults.Slater Lee

Lee, 20, said he and other residents felt "unsafe" at the shelter and were given little notice before it shut down. Lee, who is trans, said that leading up to the shelter's closure, he was "constantly misgendered" by some staff members. One staffer, who no longer works at Lucie's Place, "forcibly came into the house" on April 29 and tried to attack him and other shelter residents, he said, adding that Fitzjohn would not let him call the police. Lee said the alleged attack, along with "homophobic remarks" from neighbors, were among the reasons he and six other residents left Lucie's Place on April 30.

He said that they had intended to leave temporarily, as the shelter contract allows residents to leave their beds for 72 hours, but that they were notified instead that the residence would shut permanently.

Mac Bolt, a Lucie's Place employee, corroborated Lee's assessment of the announcement, saying the residents "weren't abandoning their beds but were trying to protect themselves."

"Lucie's Place has a lot of amazing resources, but we've routinely had issues with leadership not reflecting the communities they're supposed to be supporting, including Johnette, who is a cisgender, straight woman," Bolt, who is gender nonbinary, said. "There were no trans people on the board, which caused issues in the workplace and in the shelter."

Bolt said that they and their fellow Lucie's Place employees had tried many times to speak to the board of directors about their concerns to no avail and that because of their low wages, they often felt they "were one paycheck away from experiencing homelessness, just like the people we serve." The issues are why Bolt and fellow Lucie's Place employees lobbied for the board to recognize a staff union.

Bolt said that although the board agreed to recognize a staff union after the shelter was closed, employees have still not been able to meet with them, and it remains unclear whether Lucie's Place will revisit the idea of opening up a shelter.

"We want to develop a plan to provide resources in a sustainable way going forward," Adams said. "We're going back to the drawing board, and we're not sure what it's going to look like, but our drop-in center has office meeting space, a kitchen and showers, so my guess is that we're going to try to implement all services at the drop-in center while we determine what to do long term."

In the meantime, the former residents have been able to find support and housing from inTRANSitive, a local transgender advocacy organization, but the coronavirus has made the organization's work more challenging.

"We operate on $5,000 a year, and we're a volunteer-led organization, but since the coronavirus happened, our work has grown, and we've had 18 trans youth under 26 years old come to us reaching out for support," said Rumba Yambú, the director of inTRANSitive. "And the numbers keep adding up."

LGBTQ young adults disproportionately suffer from precarious living situations, according to a 2017 University of Chicago study, which found that they are up to 120 percent more likely to experience homelessness than their cisgender, straight peers.

Yambú hopes that following the shelter closure, Lucie's Place can experience a "rebirth" and become a place built by the community, as that's "what Lucie would have wanted."

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