Marriage equality

November 16, 2014; Kansas City Star

As same-sex marriage becomes legal across the United States, homeless shelters, some of which are religiously based, must make decisions about whether or not they will consider them as couples, allowing them to stay together. The City Union Mission is a homeless shelter in Kansas City, Missouri, serving both individuals and families—or some families, anyway. Among the shelters in the area, City Union Mission stands out for its barring of same-sex partners from staying as couples in its family shelter.

The City Union Mission shelter, which takes no federal, state, or local government funding that would require it not to discriminate, houses as many as 550 people every night, including families with children. But same-sex couples who are married and wish to stay together will be referred to other shelters, such as the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph, and reStart Inc.

“I knew this day would come…when the media would begin asking that question,” said City Union executive director Dan Doty. “I truly hope you understand the can of worms this could open.”

“Probably for the last three or four years, this is something we have been concerned about, praying about, our board has been involved in,” Doty said. “We had an October board retreat where this was a very serious topic to talk about….We want to stay true to our biblical convictions, yet we do love all people. We do shelter men who are gay, and lesbian women, and transgender people, although if their birth gender is male, we require them to dress that way if they are in our men’s shelter.”

In Kansas, the Topeka Rescue Mission does not yet have a formal policy on same-sex couples, though it has a meeting scheduled to take up the question. Like City Union Mission, it does not take government funds and bills itself as a Christian, faith-based organization. Though Topeka doesn’t turn anyone away unless they pose a threat, same-sex couples aren’t permitted to share a room. “Unless someone is legally married,” said Terry Hund, the mission’s director of program development and media, “we have not allowed them to stay together in the same room.” (Same-sex marriage is not yet legal throughout Missouri or Kansas, though the matter is in the courts in both heartland states.)

Other local religiously based shelters are not of the same mind. The Salvation Army, for instance, will accept same-sex couples in its family shelters in Olathe, Kansas and Independence, Missouri, and so does Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

“We have all types of different families that we serve,” said Vicki Timiney, manager of marketing and communications for Catholic Charities, adding that the traditional family, a married man and women with children, is no longer the standard. “Our values are Catholic, but the people who come to us aren’t necessarily Catholic, and we don’t ask them to affirm our beliefs,” she said.

Same-sex marriage has been legal in Iowa since 2009, and Leslie Van Der Molen of the Catholic Charities Diocese of Des Moines says they do not exclude same sex couples. “The policy for our clients is that we serve everyone in need as long as they’re homeless,” she said. “We don’t make a big deal about it. We look at it like a traditional couple. If they’re not married, we don’t make a big deal out of that. Everybody had a different story. Our focus is helping them out of poverty.”

And Brian Bevins of the Lawrence Community Shelter in Kansas said, “We’re basically here to help people. Not to tell them how to live. We have a pretty clear policy that we don’t discriminate according to someone’s identity. If they admit themselves as a couple, that’s fine.”—Ruth McCambridge