Jessica Keel has experienced almost every kind of homelessness.
She’s couch-surfed at relatives’ homes, she’s drifted in and out of group homes, and then there were times when things got really bad.
“There were very down times when it was like, ‘How am I going to make it out of this? Where am I going to sleep tonight?’ There were instances where I slept on a step,” said Keel, 23, a student at Community College of Philadelphia.
Keel identifies as LGBTQ, which comes with a unique set of challenges.
“We have different struggles in regards to just being comfortable in your own skin … just because you’re afraid to be who you are,” she said.
Keel symbolizes why Wednesday’s groundbreaking of the first LGBTQ-friendly, young adult housing project in Pennsylvania is so important.
The building, funded by Project HOME — the nonprofit homeless services provider — and various public-private partnerships, will rise on North Eighth Street in North Philadelphia. It is named after Gloria Casarez, Philadelphia’s first director of LGBTQ affairs, who died of cancer in 2014.
“This was something Gloria wanted to have done for a long time,” said Alicia Gonzalez, Casarez’s mother, who attended the groundbreaking. “She worked for the betterment of the homeless, especially children.”
Casarez was also a founding member of Empty the Shelters, a youth-led national housing rights organization, and executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative in Philadelphia.
The property will be developed in two phases. The first building will feature 30 LGBTQ-friendly units for young adults who have aged out of foster care or who are homeless. The second building will set aside 40 units of affordable housing for previously homeless adults.
Young adult homelessness is on the rise, and 30 percent of that population identifies as LGBTQ. Not only will the Gloria Casarez Residence provide a safe haven for young adults, it will include advocacy committee meetings, community conversations, classes and other activities in partnership with area organizations.
Mayor Jim Kenney said such housing has been a long time in coming and thanked the “LGBTQ lions” — the longtime activists who tirelessly fought to provide equality for all.
“I just want to thank you for maintaining your dignity and your strength,” Kenney said, wiping away a tear. “This is a sacred, wonderful place that will be secure and safe for everyone, regardless of who they are and who they choose to love.”