As she was being put on hold, awaiting information as to whether or not a bed was available to get her off the cold streets for the night, Michelle Wang, 27, had a sinking feeling that she would be denied a bed that night because she had been honest that she is a lesbian.
Wang alleges that on Nov. 1, New Life Interim Housing, a homeless shelter in Rogers Park, discriminated against her on the basis of sexual orientation. The ACLU recently filed a discrimination complaint with Chicago's Commission on Human Relations and the Illinois Department of Human Rights. According to John Knight, the ACLU attorney representing Wang, they will also be seeking damages and injunctive relief, where the shelter's staff would undergo sensitivity training.
Wang had broken up with her girlfriend, and moved out of the apartment they shared together. She was bouncing back and forth between co-workers' and friends' homes, but often found herself out in the cold. She alleges that when she honestly explained her situation to someone over the phone at New Life, it was very clear that the person on the other end did not like what she was saying.
'It was pretty clear the reason she put me on hold is because I said I was a lesbian,' Wang said, adding that the woman was trying to change Wang's wording, and became agitated and raised her voice. 'I pretty much knew she was going to say no.'
According to Knight, a Department of Human Services worker discovered after the incident that New Life allegedly did have two beds open for single women.
While Wang was preoccupied with the logistics of finding a place to sleep, a co-worker insisted she speak up, and got her in touch with the ACLU. According to Wang, a social worker at the Department of Human Services also encouraged her to pursue a complaint.
Wang did find a place to sleep, and spent two months in a shelter with about 100 other women. Wang told Windy City Times that she met 'tons' of other lesbians in the shelter, but was fairly certain none had mentioned their sexual orientation when trying to receive shelter. According to Knight, Wang's sexual orientation came up in questions as to why she was homeless, which does not typically happen.
'She was being told, in a way, to keep it quiet, and she did not want to lie,' Knight said.
New Life shelter uses city dollars. In the contracts the city has with shelters, it requires that those shelters do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
'We're lucky to be in Chicago and in the state of Illinois,' Knight said, referring to the city and state's laws that prohibit sexual orientation discrimination. 'If this happened in 33 or more other states in the United States, it might not be illegal and it might go unchallenged because there wouldn't be a way to challenge it. We think there out to be a national law—a federal law that covers this kind of discrimination. It's very serious to not allow someone to have access to the basics of life because they are a lesbian.'
Wang currently lives in the living room of an apartment shared with friends, and is employed.
'Turning me away from that shelter, or any shelter, is saying that it is better for me to be in danger than for me to be allowed to co-exist with others,' Wang said. 'That's just ridiculous and offensive. I can't think of any justified reason for turning someone away into those conditions.'