Rusty Doll and Lisa Sipes are in the process of launching nonprofit Change Philly Today, which will focus on their efforts to open a residential space for homeless LGBT young people.
The residence will be located in North Philadelphia, and the pair is planning to have its doors opened by early summer.
Doll, 32, is a native of Iowa who moved to the area several years ago and currently works at a New Jersey-based mental-health facility. Sipes, also 32, a quilter, hails from Nebraska and came to Philly last summer, meeting Doll shortly after moving into her apartment building, where he is also a resident.
Doll purchased the rowhome in 2012 with the intention of rehabbing and renting it out.
“He was looking for financial backing to finish the building, and I was going to try my best to provide that backing,” Sipes said. “We started tossing ideas around about what to do with it when it was finished, and we both just have this need to help people. So we started talking about opening it as a shelter and then decided to do that and focus it on the people who needed it the most.”
Sipes, a straight ally, said she and Doll, who is openly gay, saw a need for housing options for young LGBT people, whom she said may face harassment or discrimination at mainstream shelters, as was the experience of a young gay man they met, Charles.
“The problem is that most shelters are religious-based, and so that automatically presents a certain dynamic,” Sipes said. “The inspiration behind our shelter is Charles. He is currently living in a shelter and dealing with discrimination, with hate speech, with being called names and harassed because he is gay. We want people to have a place to go where there is some sense of community, basically a family environment.”
The shelter will be geared toward ages 18-21, and youth 16-17 who are legally emancipated. The house has two bedrooms, and the shelter will accept up to eight residents at a time, for either crisis intervention or long-term residency.
On the crisis side, Sipes cited as an example that youth will be able to use the facility to shower, do laundry or have a meal prior to a job interview. Long-term residents will need to be enrolled in a GED or vocational program, and the shelter will provide tutoring and counseling.
“We’re going to provide everything they need to help them finish their schooling and get them on their feet,” Sipes said.
They are not putting a cap on the length of time a resident can stay at the house, Sipes said, with the intention instead to equip him or her with the tools needed to gain independence.
“We’re not going to kick somebody out. The point is, we’re trying to basically coach them on how to have a productive life,” Sipes said. “So if they’re enrolled in a GED program, that’s six months, and during that time we’ll work with them on getting a job and securing their own apartment. Ideally, when their educational program is over, they will be prepared to get going on their own.”
Sipes said a staff member will always be present at the house, and it will be equipped with a security camera. Anyone who enters the house will need to be buzzed in.
Sipes and Doll have been renovating the house over the last few months. From this winter’s snow, the roof was damaged and in need of hefty repairs, Sipes said. Once the roof is fixed, the kitchen still needs some repairs, as does a bathroom, before appliances can be moved in.
Sipes and Doll are aiming to open the doors by June 1.
For more information, visit www.changephillytoday.com.