Nonprofits dedicated to helping Richmond’s LGBTQ community contemplate reopening, having taken serious financial losses, all while developing new ways to reach those in need.
On May 5, Diversity Thrift posted a photo to Facebook of employees Ivan and Darren, beaming behind face masks, holding up one of the store’s new plexiglass partitions. “We can’t wait to see you!” the post reads.
But as counties across Virginia tiptoe into Phase One of Gov. Northam’s plan for reopening, Richmonders will have to wait a bit before they go thrifting. “We aren’t going to reopen until we feel completely safe in doing that,” said Bill Harrison, Executive Director of Diversity Richmond.
Employees at Diversity Thrift are doing everything they can to prepare, from setting up hand sanitizer stations to developing a system that will ensure the store never goes above 50 percent capacity. “[We’ll] have someone at the entrance counting the number of people coming in, and then when people leave we can let more in,” Harrison explained.
If all goes as planned, Diversity Thrift will reopen in mid-June. This will mean renewed funding for Diversity Richmond, which relies on the thrift store as their main source of income. “We’ve lost significant revenue in the last five weeks, but I feel confident we’ll make that up,” said Harrison.
Without the ability to sell vintage sofas or host events like Drag Bingo, Diversity Richmond welcomes new ways to engage with the community. People can book appointments to raid Diversity Thrift’s fabric stash for face mask material, which Harrison is adamant about giving away for free. Recently, they got a different sort of request.
“One of our volunteers actually works with the Virginia Department of Health and he called and said, ‘Can the health department use the event hall for news conferences?’ And we were delighted to do that,” said Harrison. Soon after, the Richmond City and Henrico County Health Districts scheduled a free COVID-19 testing event at Diversity Richmond’s event hall on Sherwood Ave, which occurred on May 19.
Many nonprofits are seeing an increase in clients and a decrease in donations as unemployment rises in the country. Those who identify as LGBTQ are facing unique challenges and need the help of local organizations like Diversity Richmond, PFLAG, or He She Ze and We Richmond, which are working harder than ever to provide services.
Side by Side, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting LGBTQ youth in Virginia, hosts seven support groups for youth of all ages and identities, four of which meet at their brightly-painted building just past Scott’s Addition. Since COVID-19, these groups shifted to meeting virtually on Zoom, which comes with its own set of challenges.
While Zoom is easy to use and doesn’t cost participants anything, not all youth have internet access or private space to participate. “We also recognize that a lot of our youth are on their computer all day for school, and Zoom fatigue is real,” said Ted Lewis, Executive Director at Side by Side.
To combat Zoom fatigue, Side by Side incorporates fun activities into the weekly support groups in addition to the usual curriculum. Activities include charades, Netflix Watch Party, and even a “virtual pet talent show,” which is mostly a chance for students to show off their pets.
They initially saw a decrease in participation among those without internet access or private space, but numbers have been steadily rising. “The ability to potentially hide who you are is easier when you’re not together all the time,” Lewis explained. “And so we’ve had families who have been supportive of their child coming out and have reached out to us… and then we’ve had youths who have reached out and said, ‘I came out to my family, and I’m looking for some help.’”
For safety reasons, Side by Side is in no rush to return to face-to-face support groups. Their Host Home Program, aimed at helping homeless LGTBQ youth, will likely be handled differently. “If there’s clear guidance that it’s okay to add someone to a household, we would potentially explore those options,” Lewis said. “Because that’s one person joining one household, vs. 40 young people coming to a youth center.”
“We’re already seeing an increase in young adults reaching out for support who are experiencing homelessness or housing instability,” they continued. If Virginia’s eviction ban lifts at the end of this month, that number will likely increase exponentially. Side by Side is in desperate need of host homes or volunteers with a spare room who can take in a young adult when this happens.
Side by Side partners with Nationz Foundation and the Virginia Anti-Violence Project to provide housing for youth. In addition, Nationz has an emergency housing program called the Aim to Inspire Project, which provides housing for the LGBTQ community at large along with transportation to medical appointments.
Back in March, Nationz Executive Director Zakia McKensey was getting ready to open the newest addition to Nationz’s services: a three-bedroom house in the North Side, equipped with bunk beds for those who need them.
“By the time contractors had started doing what they needed to do and we were beginning to furnish the house, that’s when COVID-19 hit,” she said. “We had to halt on what we were doing with the house to make sure that I kept the doors of my business open.”
You may have seen McKensey’s business in action, rolling through Richmond RV-style. Nationz’s mobile testing units can provide free HIV tests and food pantry services for up to 60 people a week.
“The main reason for us having those is to keep people where they are, who may not have access to transportation, or who may be in areas where they need testing but it’s not really a priority,” McKensey said.
With social distancing in place, they now serve only 10-15 in-office customers a week. “That’s the biggest hit that we’re taking,” she said. Luckily, Nationz did not have to lay anybody off, and has permission to redirect grant money however they see fit. They are the only non-profit in Central Virginia who continues to provide free HIV testing services through COVID-19.
Patients who book an appointment will have the office to themselves. They will be provided a mask if they don’t have one, stand on a freshly cleaned floor, and get their forehead scanned by an infrared thermometer. Within 45 minutes, they’re good to go.
“When everything first happened, like everyone else, we were really up in arms trying to figure out what programming was going to look like,” McKensey said. Despite taking big losses, Nationz hasn’t skipped a beat. “I think it just gave us a way to think about how we provide services to people.”
Richmond LGBTQ nonprofits keep in close contact. “We’re all partners!” said Ebony Kirkland, Program Director of the Virginia Anti-Violence Project, who is used to working with partner organizations to provide services like emergency housing and accompaniment. “Now, it’s more of a prep, ‘what can you expect while you’re there,’ and let’s follow up afterwards,” she said.
While the VAVP has a great variety of virtual support options (like Queer Healthy Love, their healthy relationship skills course), Kirkland reassured those in need. “You don’t have to be in an unsafe situation just because of the stay at home order,” she said. “We can book a hotel room for you and call a Lyft.”
She emphasized the importance of supporting organizations run by and dedicated to people of color, who often have access to fewer resources. “It’s a lot of times a challenge for smaller nonprofit organizations, especially those that are led by black people [and] brown people, to receive adequate funding and visibility within the communities that they’re working so hard within,” she said.
“We’re working with what we have, we could certainly stand to have more,” Kirkland added. She does, however, find hope in the transformative opportunity of pandemic life. “What do we want? Let’s make it happen! This is the time!” she said. “Let’s break it, and make it into what we know that it’s supposed to be.”
Without the ability to host regular fundraising events, Diversity Richmond, Side by Side, Nationz, and the VAVP all mentioned donations as one of their biggest needs. Donations keep the lights on, pay salaries, and provide employees with personal protective equipment. Consider donating in June, Pride Month, to help our friends and allies.
You can reach Side by Side’s youth support line at 888-644-4390.
Apply for the Host Home Program on their website, sidebysideva.org.
Make a donation by visiting their website or Facebook page.
Donate to the Nationz Foundation by visiting their website, nationzfoundationrva.org, or on their Facebook page.
Donate to Diversity Richmond on their website, diversityrichmond.org, or on Facebook.
Donate to the Virginia Anti-Violence Project on their website, virginiaavp.org, where you can also request a training.
Top Image by Zoe Hall