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When we walked into the very modest 200-square-foot office space for the non-profit GLBT National Help Center in downtown San Francisco, we expected more spacious digs for an organization that fields nearly 400 daily calls and chats from troubled gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth and adults.
Four white walls and fluorescent lighting surround four computers of various ages, a microwave sits in the corner on a filing cabinet, and the bathroom key is taped to a large ladle and hung on a hook near the door. Two desks to the right of the entry seat the volunteer organization's only two employees, Executive Director Brad Becker and Assistant Executive Director Aaron Almanza.
When we walked in, Almanza was working on updating the organization's database of 15,000 GLBT resources, a task that is never finished. The organization maintains the largest and most accurate database of GLBT resources in the country, with information on local GLBT support groups, churches, health centers, legal services, and more.
It's important that the organization always offer the most accurate information to its clients, said Almanza. If someone was to show up to a PFLAG meeting only to find that the group had disbanded months before, that could be very disheartening to someone in need of help. Almanza told us that the organization's database of PFLAG meetings is often more up to date than even PFLAG's own list.
The GBLT National Help Center was started in 1996 in New York City by Becker and a handful of other gay rights activists. The group's mission was and continues to be to provide free and confidential peer support for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning people. Adults and teenagers throughout the United States continue to face discrimination and unsafe home and family environments, and the non-profit operates a hotline and online chat support for people who need to talk.
Art from original New York Hotline Poster
When the organization first started nearly 20 years ago, Becker told us, the founders were not sure if anyone would be interested in speaking with someone anonymously over the phone about their secrets. Months before launching the service, the group got its toll-free number and almost immediately after it was connected started receiving phone calls. When Becker asked callers how they even heard about the number, as they had done no advertising for the service at the time, people told him they called directory assistance seeking help and the operators had forwarded them on. At that point, Becker said he knew that the organization was providing a much-needed service.
Ten years ago, the GLBT National Help Center opened its San Francisco office in the Castro, which eventually became the organization's consolidated location. Becker said that starting a San Francisco-based hotline made sense because they could pull volunteers from a community that already had strength and openness with regards to everything GLBT.
The key to the hotline's success is offering empowerment to its callers. Volunteers who man the phones and the chatrooms don't tell a caller how to act in the difficult situations they face, but instead empower them with lessons and peer support to feel good about themselves and to understand that what they are going through is normal. Many callers hear that they are normal for the first time when they call in, said Becker.
Volunteers for the organization go through a rigorous two-month training process that includes interviews, sensitivity and crisis training, and pair call training with other experienced operators. The organization currently has 60 volunteers and is always looking for more help.
Learning about the GLBT National Help Center's mission and history serves as a reminder that living in San Francisco can be like living in a bubble. While San Francisco has been a safe haven for GLBT people for decades, Becker reminded us that there are hundreds of thousands of Americans who continue to struggle with coming to terms with who they are and who have a difficult time finding someone to turn to.
Most calls to the organization come in from rural conservative areas in the Midwest, said Becker, who pointed out that even with 35 states now officially allowing marriage between same-sex couples, people are still victims of discrimination. One out of every six calls over the past year have been from people calling in about gender identity questions and support. Most calls come in after the holidays, a fact which Becker attributes to the stresses of dealing with family during holiday gatherings.
We asked Becker where he sees the organization in the next five years. He told us that he hopes that the organization doesn't have to exist in five years, but admits that there is still a lot of work to do.
With the advent of smart phones and technology that allows people to circumvent international calling rules, Becker said the organization is receiving more and more calls from outside the United States. The help center can only afford to answer calls that come from within the United States as they pay for each inbound call, but some international callers take advantage of technologies like Google Voice that allow people to create virtual phone numbers.
The organization has started to compile a list of international GLBT resources to share with people who call in. It will be starting text message support in the near future, and will soon be offering the ability for volunteers to work online from anywhere, using software created pro-bono by Becker's husband. The help center will also be releasing an app for iOS and Android that gives users one-tap access to the call center line and to the extensive database of local resources.
The organization recently moved out of its Castro location to a downtown space near the Powell Muni/BART station due to a significant rent increase, Becker said, and the move comes at a time when local non-profits are increasingly being pushed out of San Francisco due to rising rents.
The organization is funded primarily through individual donations, as most big foundations have been directing money into marriage equality campaigns around the country. The current funding level allows the GLBT National Help Center to operate six days a week for eight hours a day, though Becker would like to be open more often.
While same-sex couples in states across America are rapidly gaining the right to marry, the GLBT National Help Center serves as a reminder that marriage isn't the only issue that GLBT people face, and that services like the organization's hotline and chatrooms remain an important resource for embattled GLBT populations on the national and international level.
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