When Parker Bell, president and founder of the Hattiesburg LGBTQ+ Spectrum Center, first envisioned his plans for the new outreach center, he originally wanted to create a space that would provide shelter for displaced LGBTQ+ youth.
San Francisco State University’s Family Acceptance project claims LGBTQ+ make up 5 percent of the youth population, but 40 percent of the homeless population.
A conservative estimate of these numbers equal between 320,000 to 400,000 gay or transgendered homeless youth.
“I wanted to make an LGBTQ+ youth emergency housing center,” Bell said. “That’s still in the works, but my wife and I thought it would also serve as a good community center.”
Bell said the center will model Lost-N-Found, an LGBTQ Homeless Youth shelter in Atlanta that provides 6,000 square feet of living space for LGBTQ+ people who find themselves without a home.
Bell, one of five LBGTQ+ couples denied a marriage license by Forrest County court in early 2013, bought the 1900-square foot space in May and had it prepared for events in its meeting room within six weeks.
“We’re a not-for-profit community center whose main focus is to be a resource center for the LGBTQ community,” Bell said.
The center, currently pending its 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation licensing, serves as a host location for LGBTQ+ related groups.
Long-term plans for the center include counseling for those recently or planning to “come out,” HIV testing, weekly social functions including LGBTQ-friendly religious services, a community kitchen and the emergency housing unit.
According to the Human Rights Campaign website, 40 percent of LGBTQ+ youth said the community in which they live is not accepting of LGBTQ+ people.
Vice President Brandiilyne Dear relates her own personal experience when talking about the center.
“When I came out I had nowhere to go, no one to talk to and that’s what inspired me to start the Dandelion Project,” Dear said.
According to the Dandelion Project website, it is a support group for LGBTQ+ people in Laurel. Its purpose is to challenge society’s perception of LGBTQ+ community, promote understanding and create a unified community of all.
Dear said the Spectrum Center provides a haven for those with similar feelings — a place to gather for support, social activism and spiritual events.
Despite statistics and history of intolerance in state legislation such as Senate Bill 2681, Dear offers encouraging and hopeful words about the ever-changing perspective toward those who do not fit heteronormative standards.
“Although there are many spiritual bullies here in our area, that hate-filled mindset is quickly dying and a more loving and accepting population and generation is rising to the occasion,” Dear said. “Homophobia, like racism, is becoming a sign of ignorance to many people here in the South.”
The Spectrum Center and its affiliates seek to improve a sense of community in the Hattiesburg area.
For more information, visit the Spectrum Center’s Facebook page.