The first time Sakina Dean set foot in the former convent on North Hutchinson Street in North Philadelphia, she saw past the piles of dust and disrepair and imagined a multi-purpose room, a family kitchen and bedrooms for dozens of LGBT people in need of a home.
Dean, who has a bachelor’s degree in social work from Temple University and is pursuing her master’s from the same institution, took a few future residents to the building that would become Divine Light LGBTQ Wellness Center.
“I told them, ‘When we come in, I want you to not look at what you’re seeing, but I want you to have a dream and let’s walk through the vision,’” Dean told PGN. “We went through each room. I said, ‘Outside of the dust and the trash, can we do it? Is this something that you think could happen?’ They all said yes.”
On Sept. 1, Dean opened the first LGBT-housing shelter in Philadelphia. She acknowledged Morris Home, a residential-treatment program for transgender and gender-variant people, which opened in 2012.
“But they’re strictly recovery,” Dean said. “We wanted to broaden our base and address the whole spectrum, not just one specific area. We’re dealing with an abundance of other issues outside of addiction. That is the difference and that’s why we have to have the whole wellness center.”
Dean also runs 10 addiction-treatment homes under the Divine Light umbrella, which she started five years ago. They’re all 501c3 nonprofits, as is the LGBTQ wellness center. Jabbar Fairweather, a local man who often brought donations for Divine Light residents and was involved in real estate, first told Dean about the property on North Hutchinson Street.
It was zoned properly for residential mixed-use and had over a quarter of an acre of land at 14,928 square feet. The property served as a convent in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia — then as Hannah House, a center for women and children — before it sat vacant. After hearing the input from her future LGBT residents, Dean began renting the property with hopes to purchase it this year.
“We want to build an after-care center and affordable-housing units,” Dean said. “Hopefully we can have different services at the wellness center like recreation. That’s our dream. We want to be a multi-faceted type of center. There’s a lot of room to do it. We just need to find the resources.”
According to Philadelphia property records, the lot has a market value of more than $500,000. But when Northstar Manor Inc. purchased it at the end of 2014, the group paid $250,000.
Dean said she has talked with the owners about a reduced purchase price for her center because she will have to replace the aging heating system at a cost of about $30,000.
“What we always say is we’re running off a wing and a prayer,” said Deja Lynn Alvarez, who started leading groups at the LGBTQ wellness center when it opened and became the home’s director in November. Alvarez also works with the Trans-Health Information Project at GALAEI: A Queer Latin@ Social Justice Organization.
“Those that have food stamps, we take a percentage of their food stamps just to buy food for the whole house,” Alvarez said.
There are currently 28 residents, with space for 31. The house has 15 bedrooms and nine bathrooms.
There is no time limitation on residency or specific benchmarks residents must meet to stay. The organizers said the requirements may become more concrete as the program develops.
Dean said some residents, if they’re able, contribute small amounts of money to the center, but it’s not a requirement to stay there. Southwest Nu Stop, a recovery and education center in the city, supports the center’s rent payments, Dean said.
Alvarez said she admired Dean’s vision and execution from the start.
“This woman really seems to get it,” Alvarez said. “There didn’t seem to be any BS with her. This is a dream for me anyway because this is something that myself and other people in the community have talked about for years. And now here I was face to face with this woman that could make it happen. The more we talked, the more I realized that our visions aligned.”
Dean said a big priority is to get LGBT folks who are experiencing homelessness into a safe environment, so they can focus on building life skills and reintegrating into society in all parts of Philadelphia.
“We’re looking for employers to employ people,” Dean said. “That’s one of the biggest fights with this community. We have so many educated, talented, artistic people and they can’t find jobs or they’re discriminated against because of their identity. Unfortunately, they end up resorting to the streets for just the basic necessity to survive.”
Dean practices what she preaches. She hired Alonda Talley, a former felon, as a residential aide.
“I make sure people here take their medication,” Talley told PGN in December when officers with the Greater Philadelphia Gay Officer Action League visited the center to donate toiletries. “If there’s a problem, I take care of it.”
“I really do appreciate Divine Light,” Talley said. “I really do appreciate Ms. Dean. It gives me courage that I can do better in life. Even though you may have started down a bad path, you don’t have to continue on it. I really think this program deserves a chance.”
Several residents at the LGBTQ wellness center referred to Divine Light as a movement.
Morgan Drake, 22, a transgender resident of Divine Light, said she feels needed because she helps out around the house.
“It’s not the end-all, be-all for people in my community,” Drake said. “But it’s a start. I’ve been to a lot of programs and haven’t stuck to it. For me, I’m sticking to this one.”
Alvarez noted another goal to help homeless LGBT people obtain drivers’ licenses or other forms of identification, which are essential for employment and social services.
“There are a few that come from foster care that don’t have a birth certificate or anything to even be able to get an ID at this point,” Alvarez said. “We’re trying to figure out how we can do that. There’s got to be a way to work with drivers’ license centers so we can get these folks IDs.”
Alvarez and Dean both maintain optimism when speaking about their future goals at the LGBTQ wellness center.
“I always say, our motto is, Divine Light: Where we put the pieces back together,” Dean said. “We have to express love throughout because love heals.”
For more information, call 215-867-8885. To donate, visit www.gofundme.com/DivineLightLGBTQ.