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Tel Aviv shelter specializes in helping LGBT youth
by Matt Simonette

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Beit Dror, which means "House of Freedom" in English, is the only facility for LGBT youths experiencing homelessness in the Middle East.

The shelter, located in Tel Aviv, Israel, has 14 beds. Lesbian, gay and bisexual clients usually can stay for up to three months, and six months in extreme cases. Transgender residents, whom authorities often have more difficulty placing permanently, can stay until they turn 18. The facility opened in 2002.

Yael Doron, a social worker who manages Beit Dror, said that youths experiencing homelessness will sometimes arrive just wanting a hot meal or to get cleaned up. Doron often tries to convince them to stay longer, sometimes to little avail. But at least they know the house is there.

"Maybe the next time they will be ready to get our help," Doron said.

The house is operated as part of the Hassut Hanoar authority, which is part of the Israeli government, in cooperation with the city. The staff assumes that the clients are openly gay.

"Don't come here if you want to stay in the closet," Doron said, adding that clients who are not ready to disclose their sexuality or gender identity to their families are directed to another facility.

Once clients arrive, they are offered crisis intervention and counseling services.

In one case, a girl arrived after she noticed her father had read her Facebook page, which contained numerous references to her being gay.

Doron recalled, "She said she thought her father was going to kill her because of it. When we called him to let him know where she was, and that she was there because of what he'd just found, he said, 'I figured that out two years ago.'"

The client spent the night and was reunited with her family the next day. Doron acknowledged that quite often her clients and their families do not overcome their issues so quickly.

"When a child comes out of the closet, the parents then go into it," she said. "We try to make the parents understand that it is not such a big deal."

But such understanding is not often possible, and Beit Dror staff immediately begins looking for permanent placement for its clients whose home life has become untenable. Most clients are Ultra-orthodox or Arab, according to Doron. Forty percent are trans; and the house has had an increasing number of clients who are trans men, while the number of trans women is going down.

Beit Dror's kitchen is kept to the strictest kosher dietary standards, she added. "If we don't, the Ultra-orthodox kids won't come here."

The staff is respectful of personal boundaries of clients, never hugging them, for example. About 19 percent of the youths who come to Beit D'ror have been sexually abused, according to Doron.

"Not hugging them demonstrates that we want nothing 'physical' from them," she said. "Sometimes I feel like I want to hug someone, but it's not about what I need, it's about what they need."

Doron lamented that she has no budget to publicize the house, but word of mouth circulates via social media or organizations such as Israeli Gay Youth. She said that she and the staff try to keep up with and be respectful of the names with which the clients identify.

"They are teaching us new words every day," she said.

Note: Reporter Matt Simonette traveled in Israel with the organization A Wider Bridge. The opinions and viewpoints reflected here are his own.

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