Monday, 25 January 2016

A Brief History of the 519 Drop-In

"Allies are fabulous friends but will not be able to access this drop-in." -- Flyer for "The New Sunday Drop-In"

Since the 1970s, the 519 has offered a Sunday Drop-In (SDI) for local people in poverty, providing food, support, and community. At one time, the SDI was considered among its participants to be one of the best drop-ins in the neighbourhood. This past September 2015, however, the 519 implemented a new rule at the drop-in -- people must identify as LGBTQ in order to access the drop-in. With this rule, most of the SDI's participants are being turned away. Some who have accessed the drop-in for decades are no longer welcomed.

How the 519 determine who is eligible to access the drop-in: Participants are now required to write down their sexual orientation on a sign-in sheet at the door. The number of participants have dropped significantly since the rule was implemented; approximately 30 people are attending the drop-in each week, down from 130 when the drop-in was open to all. These changes were not proposed by the participants themselves. Although the 519 had these plans in the works for a number of years, participants were never asked along the way for their opinions on making the drop-in LGBTQ-only. Nor were they asked if they wanted the hours reduced: The hours of the drop-in have been cut to 2.5 hours, whereas previously the drop-in was open all day.

Opening an LGBTQ-only drop-in is not in itself a bad idea. However, it is a terrible idea to turn an existing drop-in that was open to all people into an LGBTQ-only drop-in and consequently turn away the majority of existing participants. Do people now have to lie to access the drop-in? As one participant remarked, "If they want to me to say I'm trisexual, I'll do it." Moreover, requiring people to openly identify themselves as LGBTQ may not be the best approach to foster safety for people trying to access a drop-in. Having a drop-in at the 519 that is open to all people ensures the participants access to an LGBTQ-friendly safe space without having to publicize their sexual orientation.

The drop-in staff claim that the SDI was originally LGBTQ-only; they say that only in recent times did the drop-in open up to others, and it is now time for the drop-in to again serve the LGBTQ community only. In actuality, the SDI began as a drop-in for everyone in the community. When the drop-in first opened in the 1970s, most people accessing the drop-in were men staying at Seaton House, who were required back then to leave the shelter for the day and needed a space to eat and rest. In recent years there is more diversity among the drop-in participants, but the great reduction in participants since the changes were implemented point to the fact that most of the existing participants cannot or will not attend an LGBTQ-only drop-in. 

Why the 519 implemented these changes to the drop-in: The bottom line is profit. The 519 has been participating in the process of gentrification for some time now, having cut numerous programs that had served the local community for decades, such as the Friday Night Club and the Clothing Bank. The process of cutting the SDI happened insidiously: During renovations to the community centre in 2007, the SDI had to move from the auditorium to a smaller room, reducing their capacity from 250 to 80 participants. In the following years, the SDI regularly squeezed in an extra 50 meals each week to meet the high demand. But after the renovations were completed, the 519 never moved the SDI back to the auditorium/ "ballroom", as this space became exclusive for donor-attractive programming and gala events. In 2012, the 519 tried to implement changes to turn away existing SDI participants, but a petition pressured the 519 to revoke the proposed changes. This time around, however, the 519 applied for and was granted funding from the City to run LGBTQ Specialized Drop-In Services for the next five years, thus allowing them to ordain the SDI LGBTQ-only, with complete disregard for the needs of the drop-in participants, and despite the fact that other drop-ins are already overwhelmed from the lack of services available on the weekends. 

The 519's process of gentrification is reflected in the changes to their mission statement over this past decade: In 2007, the mission statement was changed to reflect the 519's work not only with the local community, but with broader LGBTQ communities. However, the 519 recently replaced this mission to make the space more inclusive with one that aims for exclusivity - the latest mission statement no longer speaks of serving the local community. Moreover, the 519 has eliminated the words "Community Centre" from their name. The 519's discrimination, however, is based not on sexual orientation, but on class. By changing their mission to serve the LGBTQ community only, the 519 can justify promoting their specialized services to funders and donors while ignoring the needs of the local community who do not fit into their new mission. After all, the Pride Parade reaps in tons of profit, but the Poverty Parade? Not so much.