L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center reaches SMC students

Levi Chapin is sitting comfortably at a small table in the middle of a crowded coffee shop amid a throng of buzzing Hollywood socialites – emphasis on "comfortably." He is openly recounting his personal history with so much expressive enthusiasm that you would never guess that Chapin's childhood was filled with alcoholism and drug abuse; or that he's currently homeless; or that he's gay.

"I'm facing my demons, and it's a bitch," he says. "It doesn't come up when you're bouncing around, but when you're on your own, when you slow down, that's when you have to deal with these things. The Center lets me know that it's normal, and that it's okay."

Chapin has had many struggles in his life, but living alone in Los Angeles proved especially difficult. He concedes that his life could have turned out a lot worse, if it hadn't been for the empowerment he received from the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, one of the largest and most comprehensive LGBT care facilities in the world.

The Center's base of operations is a repurposed four-story federal building in Hollywood, which now accommodates the majority of services and programs offered by the organization's enormous scope. Besides offering STD testing clinics, emergency shelters and support programs across Los Angeles, this extensive organization also provides legal services, career counseling, group therapy, transitional housing, accredited GED courses, drug and alcohol rehabilitation and recreational venues that are available to any of society's disillusioned, discriminated or destitute.

Its pharmacy alone fills over 300 prescriptions per day, providing what Development Director Nellie Sims calls a "continuum of care: from the beginning to the end."

But the medical support provided to patients is only one aspect of the multifaceted care the Center offers. According to Sims, "A lot of [AIDS patients] are denied insurance, or are underinsured – we fill that gap. We also provide legal advice to victims of hate crimes, discrimination, domestic violence – all the issues that the LGBT community faces—including gay immigration rights."

The Center estimates that its five L.A.-area branches provide healthcare and community outreach services to over 25,000 individuals every month, and with an annual budget nearing $50 million, most of these programs are provided at little or no cost to its patients. Patients like Chapin.

Sipping a soda, Chapin reclines into the back of his chair, crossing his legs. Poised and seemingly oblivious to the bustle of coffee-craving patrons, he continues elaborating on the more difficult parts of his life story, including the day he ran away from home. The East Coast native arrived in LA with few resources to begin with, and those quickly proved unreliable.

"The Center for me is a blessing," Chapin says. "I wouldn't be here without it. I wouldn't be in L.A., I wouldn't have the opportunity to do it on my own. It's a goal to get out of the program, to get on my own feet. It allows me to set that goal for myself without having to rely on someone else. It's like I have a safety net."

Chapin's net includes the Center's 30-person, 18-month transitional housing program for gay youths, a program that he is sure saved him from living on the streets. He describes the arrangement, which requires that applicants maintain a job or school enrollment, and adhere to a strict policy of drug and alcohol abstinence.

"There are meals, there's therapy, group meetings – they'll help you with whatever you're going through, pretty much. Things that caused us to be homeless, like un-accepting families and finding a safe place."

The program has given him the encouragement he needs to reestablish financial security and a foundation from which he can pursue his academic goals here at Santa Monica College.

"It's a struggle…but there's hope," he confides. "Education, for me, is my way out of it, my escape, my opportunity."

According to Chapin, the comfort with which he effortlessly and unapologetically flaunts his public persona in the face of discrimination isn't just flamboyant – it's fearless. He says the Center has enabled him so thoroughly, and in so many ways, that he truly believes he has the power to succeed in any goal he pursues.

"People know I'm gay before I tell them I'm gay. It's in my walk, it's in my talk, it's in my facial expressions – it's who I am. I don't think society really accepts it yet. They tolerate it, but they don't accept it. You can feel the tension when people are uncomfortable with your sexuality. It's hard. I have felt alone, different, singled out. That's something [the Center] helps me to do: to accept myself, and love myself. I have this level of personal self. Never before could I stand up in front of my classroom in a woman's jacket, and shine."