New York City’s only housing for LGBTQ adults is “a nightmare,” ex-residents say
Rinehults and Unity both said they observed widespread substance abuse among shelter residents, including meth, heroin, cocaine and a type of synthetic marijuana called K2. Perez admitted staff struggled to prevent drug and alcohol use, adding that she encountered syringes, bottles and “makeshift ashtrays” in the dormitories.
“There was this one customer who actually made his own crystal meth in the microwave,” Perez said. “He detonated the microwave and ran out of the building.”
As for the security team, Perez said her supervisors at Project Renewal ignored reports of wardens abusing residents of Marsha’s home and failed to provide regular LGBTQ 101 training for security personnel.
“It’s almost like my concerns are going in one ear and out the other because they would just allow them to stay,” said Perez, who lacked the authority to fire guards himself.
When Marsha’s House switched security companies a third time in July 2020 — from SERA to Winfield — Perez said she pushed for hiring fewer guards and replacing them with operational staff.
“I didn’t think they needed all those security guards,” Perez explained, noting that there were up to 10 guards on duty at any one time. “Yes, they didn’t listen to me.”
Project Renewal fired Perez in September 2020. Perez said she was fired for being “mean” to social workers and other shelter workers.
SERA did not respond to NBC News’ requests for comment, and Winfield declined to comment. Project Renewal said in a statement that since the shelter opened, Marsha’s House has conducted quarterly awareness training sessions for all employees, including security guards.
“Justice must be served”
The current director of Marsha’s House, Jacqueline Luna, took over the reins last January. Luna said she had received no reports of guards requesting sexual favors and was unfamiliar with the allegations against Grinnell.
“I think our clients are being supported in a culturally competent and sensitive way where they are right now,” said Luna.
Luna has been at Marsha’s House since it opened, first as a clerk and later as an assistant director under Perez. When asked if she’s ever seen violence erupt at the shelter, Luna said, “I don’t want to say violence. I know people have argued and tensions have arisen.”
New York City Police Department records show that officers were called to Marsha’s home more than 225 times — about once a week — from February 2017 to September 2021, including for at least five reports of assault during that period.
Diamond Wynn, a former housing specialist and case manager, described Marsha’s House as “an extremely difficult place to be, whether you’re a client or an employee.”
“During my time at Marsha’s House, I attempted suicide twice,” said Wynn, who was employed at the shelter before it opened in 2021 and quit due to lack of support and it impacted my mental health.”
Wynn told NBC News that escalating complaints at Marsha’s House “were mostly a waste of time.”
“You report it to a manager and the manager just asks the person in question, ‘Did you do that?’ The person says, “No.” They’re like, ‘OK, well, once you’ve done it, do that thing just in case,'” Wynn said.
The New York Human Rights Commission has been in contact with Marsha’s House since at least August 23, 2019. On internal document shows that the commission conducted a Trans101 workshop for staff at Marsha’s House that day to respond to residents’ concerns.
“The commission cannot provide details on ongoing investigations,” Alicia McCauley, the commission’s press secretary, told NBC News.
According to Kim Watson-Benjamin, LGBTQ coordinator for the attorney’s office, the New York City Attorney visited Marsha’s home last June after hearing about problems with the staff. In a statement to NBC News, a Public Advocate spokesman called the allegations against Marsha’s home “alarming and unacceptable”:
“After our office alerted the Department of Homeless Services, visited the site and spoke to residents, it became clear that both specific and systemic changes were urgently needed to protect and support the youth there. We have met with their leadership and worked to call for and guide reforms and improvements together with our government partners.”
Zac Roy, Project Renewal’s spokesperson, said in his email that the nonprofit has “a good working relationship” with the Public Advocate’s Office, noting that “Project Renewal added an additional session to awareness training last October expanded every new employee within seven days of starting at Marsha’s house.”
LGBTQ activists said they spent years drawing attention to the troubles at Marsha’s home, only to be turned away by Project Renewal and the Department of Homeless Services. Sean Coleman, founder of the LGBQ nonprofit in the Bronx target tomorrowShe described the process as “disheartening”.
“There should have been more LGBT community posts once they started operations,” Coleman said of Marsha’s House. “Now it feels like they got the money, so they don’t really want to do better.”
tax Submissions show Project Renewal received an average of $74 million in government funding each year from 2017-2019. His contract to run Marsha’s House was recently extended to June 2025 for a total of $25.6 million, according to the city’s Department of Social Services.
When asked about the treatment of LGBTQ residents at its facilities, DHS told NBC News via email in September that the department strives to create a “hospitable and inclusive environment” for all it serves. DHS also announced it had “multiple” discussions with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, writing, “We have been open and responsive and cooperative.” Alexander said the nonprofit pulled out of discussions with DHS in the summer of 2020 , after the agency offered little follow-up.
Alexander is urging the city to “set up an outside agency that will essentially hold DHS accountable because they’re not going to do it themselves.”
While the DHS Ombudsman monitors complaints, the reporting system is a “closed loop,” said Chinyere Ezie, a senior counsel for DHS Center for Constitutional Rightssaid.
“Their policy is to send them back to the shelter and to the shelter directors – the very people who are the subject of these complaints,” Ezie said of the complaints.
Ezie represented Mariah Lopez in her lawsuit against Marsha’s house and helped establish a settlement with DHS last fall. The settlement requires DHS to increase transparency around allegations of sexual misconduct and educate staff and accommodation providers about LGBTQ rights. It will also create dedicated housing for transgender and gender-nonconforming adults in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx.
“This settlement marks a turning point in the treatment of transgender and gender-nonconforming people in New York City affected by homelessness,” Ezie said in a press release in November.
In a statement on the settlement, DHS said, “We thank Mariah Lopez for her leadership on this matter.”
Rinehults and Unity have both secured permanent housing since leaving Marsha’s house. Unity moved into her own apartment in December and said she’s trying to clear her head from the “trial and confusion” she went through at the city’s only shelter for LGBTQ adults.
“Justice must be served for what they did at Marsha’s house,” Unity said.
CORRECTION (February 9, 2022 12:40 PM ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of a former resident of Marsha’s House. He’s Andrew Rinehults, not Andrew Rynehults.