Mutual aid at an organizational level helps those most at-risk during COVID-19

Image courtesy SisTers PGH Facebook
Philadelphia Gay News is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a solutions-oriented collaborative reporting project on poverty and Philadelphia’s push for economic justice.

Since early last week, Executive Director of SisTers PGH Ciora Thomas and her fellow board members have diligently combed through hundreds of applications for the Pittsburgh Covid-19 LGBTQIA Emergency Relief Fund, marking each with the tags “round one” or “round two.” Each application is tagged and prioritized based on explicit need and a variety of other factors, said Thomas. SisTers PGH is a “transgender centered drop-in space, resource provider and shelter transitioning program based in Pittsburgh, PA.” The mutual aid and emergency funds distribution system implemented by Thomas and her team in Pittsburgh could be a model for Philadelphia and other cities.  

“SisTers was going to expand to Philly soon,” said Thomas, “We were connecting with those we know in Philly, trying to make connections with other trans and nonbinary folk that we may have not known. We were scheduling an open house for folks to come out to but [the pandemic] started to take precedence.” She is hopeful that a Philly chapter will resume after the citywide lockdown and quarantine ends. 

Thomas said, “there haven’t been a lot of LGBTQIA-focused conversations around COVID-19 and how it will affect our communities at large.” Recently, however, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation released a report claiming that COVID-19 poses a greater health and economic risk to LGBTQ people than the general population. Research conducted by over 100 health and policy-making organizations supports that “LGBTQ Americans are more likely than the general population to live in poverty and lack access to adequate medical care, paid medical leave, and basic necessities during the pandemic.” 

The HRC Foundation reported that about 5.5 million LGBTQ folks in the United States work in jobs that are affected by COVID-19 — LGBTQ waiters, baristas, child and elderly caregivers, nurses, and entertainers are most affected by nonessential industry closures. The Williams Institute states 1 in 5 LGBTQ persons lives in poverty. Further, LGBTQ people are far less likely to have healthcare or jobs that provide family healthcare plans or paid sick leave, according to the HRC Foundation report. 

As per to the same report, many environmental and health risks affect LGBTQ folks more than their cishet peers. For example, LGBTQ youth are 120 percent more likely to experience homelessness than the general population, and homelessness disproportionately affects people of color. Young queer, trans and people of color (QTPOC) who live outside, or in crowded shelters, or in their cars, are at a much greater risk of contracting COVID-19, experiencing complications from that illness and dying for lack of healthcare access.  Additionally, LGBTQ people have increased respiratory risks due to a greater average of smokers and those with asthma, which makes them vulnerable to complications associated with COVID-19. 

The danger posed by COVID-19 on the LGBTQ population floored Thomas. She quickly passed the HRC Foundation report around her network. She posted it on the SisTer PGH website and on all affiliated social media channels. Using the HRC Foundation report and a fundraising model based on a California LGBTQ organization, Thomas and her team launched the emergency fund via GoFundMe to meet the more immediate needs of the QTPOC Pittsburgh community. To start, the board decided to include on aid applications the question: “How is COVID-19 is affecting you?” It helped determine who was in the greatest need for relief. 

“We were asking folks to consider the amount of their request so the funds could be dispensed fairly,” says Thomas, “This was about mutual aid and trusting people within our community. How we did that as far as prioritization — we looked at the margins, we looked at race, we looked at gender and [determined] who would be most affected. In round one, we prioritized fund distribution to LGBTQIA applicants who were Black, Indigenous, sex workers, disabled, chronically ill, transgender, nonbinary, those not enrolled in healthcare, not employed fulltime, those not eligible for paid sick leave or vacation, those on the cusp of losing housing, those who are housing insecure. These were our priority checkmarks.” 

The first round is ongoing until April 1. Then, Thomas and her team will distribute $50 to the people who were relegated to round two. Any funds distribution effort after that will depend on the campaign’s ability to continue raising money via GoFundMe or if SisTers PGH is able to partner with investors or philanthropic groups.

When asked if SisTers would spearhead a similar relief fund in Philadelphia, Thomas said: “I think it would be good to have others spearhead it. I’ve been talking to Celena Morrison from the Mayor’s office, the executive director of LGBTQ Affairs. I’ve brought it up to her, and she seemed to have some interest. I think it definitely needs to have a base with someone in the community — someone who looks like the community. Because if we have rich corporations who are taking advantage of this to do other things, we’ll run into a problem. I think making sure it’s very grassroots organized is super important.” 

Morrison, the newly appointed executive director of the City’s Office of LGBT Affairs said the fund headed by SisTers PGH “is a great example of how members of the LGBTQ community regularly come together to support one another —  especially when times are tough. At this time, there are a few different grassroots funds being spun up, but there is not one centralized campaign” in Philadelphia. 

Several grassroots initiatives are in place among LGBTQ groups in Philadelphia. Drag performers organized an emergency fund to help support other Philly-based performers. Many bartenders and servers at predominatntly LGBTQ establishments curated a directory of peer-to-peer payment accounts of out-of-work service industry folks so patrons could send them virtual tips. These initiatives are different from that of SisTers PGH, however. Philly initiatives are primarily on a very grassroots level where organizers struggle to meet the burden of providing non-personal bank accounts with which to collect funds. SisTers PGH is a registered nonprofit that may provide more accountability in terms of funds management and operations ethos.  

“We had the intention from the beginning as being very visible about how we decided to disperse money, how we decided who was prioritized,” said Thomas, “Ever since I started SisTers years ago, I wanted to make sure trans and nonbinary folks had something to come to that was honesty and had integrity.” 

Thomas went on to emphasize that philanthropic and nonprofit organizations cannot provide all aid necessary during this time, due to funding restrictions. 

“There are so many restrictions with what you can do with grant dollars. Instead of making a grant for programming, make it for operations. Make it a fluid situation in terms of what we can do to actually serve our communities, especially for LGBTQIA grassroots organizations.” According to Thomas, it is difficult to cut through the red tape surrounding grant money, especially in a time of crisis. “Right now things are so unpredictable,” she said. “Mutual aid is the way to go.” 

Donations are accepted by SisTers PGH through GoFundMe.

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