Where anti-LGBTQ+ politics intersect with housing the homeless

A new report shows Southern Oregon’s largest homeless shelter is led by a conversion-therapy proponent.

 

In June, 31 men from the white nationalist group Patriot Front were arrested in a U-Haul van on their way to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where, according to reports, they planned to riot at the city’s annual Pride celebration. The arrest, which drew national attention, was yet another recent indication of how the far-right Christian-nationalist and white nationalist movements have found common cause in targeting trans, queer and nonbinary people in the region.

The cover of the recent “Praying Away the Gay” report.
Siskiyou Rising Tide/Siskiyou Abolition Project

Such anti-LGBTQ+ politics are not confined to the extremist fringe: In southern Oregon, a new report published in June reveals that proponents of homophobic ideas have held local power here for years. Praying Away the Gay was published by Siskiyou Rising Tide, which was founded to fight the Jordan Cove LNG pipeline, and the Siskiyou Abolition Project, two organizations that also work to provide housing justice and mutual aid in the region. Their report shows the connection between one of the area’s largest providers of city-sanctioned homeless shelters and proponents of anti-LGBTQ+ conversion therapy, a practice aimed at changing a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation to conform to a binary and heterosexual society. Leading medical organizations regard conversion therapy as both pseudoscientific and unethical, and LGBTQ+ rights groups say it has proven extremely harmful to many of those who were forced to undergo it. According to one study, LGBTQ+ youth who were “highly rejected” by caregivers or parents were nearly 10 times more likely to have attempted suicide.

With housing increasingly scarce and unaffordable, homelessness has become chronic in many Western cities, including Medford, southern Oregon’s largest city, where six out of every 1,000 people were unhoused in 2019. That was before the Almeda Fire, which burned through nearby Talent and Phoenix and displaced an estimated 8,000 people.

Nationwide, LGBTQ+ people are significantly overrepresented in the unhoused population. One study notes that 17% of LGBTQ+ people have experienced homelessness in their lives, while another showed that 22% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+.

The report by Siskiyou Rising Tide and the Siskiyou Abolition Project focuses on Chad McComas, the pastor and co-founder of Set Free Ministry, a prominent evangelical church in Medford. McComas also serves as the executive director of the nonprofit Rogue Retreat, the region’s largest homeless service provider. McComas is politically influential and sits on a city-appointed board that allocates public grant money.

In 1998, McComas began promoting conversion therapy through a 12-step program at Set Free Ministry. The program, which is called “Celebrate Recovery,” treats “same-sex attraction” and “gender confusion” as forms of addiction. The new report reveals that McComas has consistently blurred the lines between his own church and Rogue Retreat, a shelter for unhoused people, at times celebrating the participation of the shelter’s clients in Set Free’s “Celebrate Recovery” program. On June 16, the week after the report was released, McComas was put on administrative leave.

Maig Tinnin, who has been involved in housing justice and related issues in Oregon for almost a decade, helped write the report. High Country News spoke with Tinnin about the groups’ findings and the current rise in anti-LGTBQ+ politics across the West.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

High Country News: Who provides services for unhoused people in the Rogue Valley?  

Housing justice activist Maig Tinnin is one of the authors of a recent report outlining how a local service provider for the homeless community was pushing gay conversion therapy on LGBTQ+ clients.
Courtesy Maig Tinnin

Maig Tinnin: For many years, like a lot of southern Oregon, there wasn't really many low-barrier shelter options. The Gospel Mission and other faith-based organizations have been the primary service providers, although they aren’t taking public funding.

Then Rogue Retreat got started as an offshoot ministry of Set Free, (Chad McComas’ evangelical church.) While Set Free provided food, clothing and different services to people as a church organization, Rogue Retreat started to provide actual shelter. They have really blown up in Medford. Now it's by far the largest homeless service provider in southern Oregon, serving (Almeda) fire survivors in Talent, too. It’s really significant.

Their program is kind of a ladder: Unhoused people come into an urban campground as a starting point. Then they have to climb up rungs (to obtain housing.) From the campground, you go from a tent to a pallet shelter, then you go to the congregate shelter. From there, you might go to the tiny house villages, all the way to their transitional houses or apartments. Maybe eventually you will get community-based housing — that’s if you go through all of these steps.

I think they’ve been able to get traction because of their approach and their ideology: “It’s a hand up, not a handout.” That mentality is very different than a housing-first model. They’ve sold the community on the idea that people will earn their way, and the folks that turn their life around will be rewarded with housing and “re-entry into society,” as they describe it.

HCN: Rogue Retreat’s executive director is also Set Free’s pastor, Chad McComas. Your investigation shows that in addition to starting a program that practices conversion therapy, he’s also played an outsized role in homeless services.

MT: Pastor Chad also helped co-found the “Celebrate Recovery Program” at Set Free Church. Celebrate Recovery is an evangelical 12-step program designed at Saddleback Church, a well-known church on the religious right.

The program looks at all sorts of different addictions. They also consider homosexuality to be a “same sex addiction” and approach being gay through a recovery model, essentially. It’s heart-wrenching to read what people are being told: that their sexual orientation is a sin, that it’s an addiction, and that what they’re supposed to do is cure themselves. It’s really, really disturbing. We know that Pastor Chad defended and doubled down on this material. There are old Facebook posts where he talks about Rogue Retreat participants coming to the Celebrate Recovery groups and celebrating their participation. So that’s extremely concerning.

Last week, he said he believes being gay is a sin. It’s a bridge too far for me, to think that the culture of Rogue Retreat could be different from the views and practices of a leadership who have worked to shame, traumatize and frankly spiritually abuse gay people in this community.

It’s heart-wrenching to read what people are being told: that their sexual orientation is a sin, that it’s an addiction, and that what they’re supposed to do is cure themselves. It’s really, really disturbing.

Especially when you talk to folks that are unhoused in Medford, Rogue Retreat has long been known for inequities within their programs, because they are founded (on) this belief that people have to “turn their life around,” or that people are unhoused because it’s their own fault. They're encouraging people actively to figure out what they need to change about who they are in order to “get back into society” or become “functional members of society,” as if unhoused people are not members of our community already.

There are so many reasons why unhoused people in this community do not feel safe or supported when accessing Rogue Retreat’s services. But many feel like they have no other option. If you don’t agree with them that you need to change everything about yourself in order to fit into their view of what a functioning member of society is, you're not going to make it through that program.

The Redwood Inn in Medford, Oregon was purchased by Rogue Retreat and is being used as transitional housing for people who lost their homes in the Almeda Fire.
Courtesy Rogue Retreat

HCN: We’re seeing anti-LGBTQ+ politics increase in the West. How does your report on the practices of Set Free tie into other religious right-wing movements? 

MT: There are two routes that evangelical churches and providers have historically tended to go. There’s the Gospel Mission route, which is different than Rogue Retreat. They’re very upfront about being a Christian-based organization and don’t take public funding. They don’t want the government weighing in on what they say, or how they engage with folks.

I’d say that was a leading approach for a while. But more recently, things have shifted. I’m seeing more evangelical groups who don't want to be separate from government power structures. The right wing’s move to take over school districts and school boards is a really good example of that. And, frankly, they've been successful in winning some elections and implementing some really awful strategies. You’re seeing that play out in Newberg, Oregon, for example: They banned pride and Black Lives Matter flags and insignia.

Patriot Front showing up at the Coeur d’Alene Pride festival is also a really good example. Similarly, Proud Boys recently interrupted a drag story time at the (San Lorenzo, California) library. With children present, they just showed up with slurs and terrifying, aggressive behavior.

There’s a local Facebook page here that's definitely run by far-right folks, (the Greenway Recovery Project). They take an eco-fascist take on homelessness issues. In the last couple of days, they’ve been commenting on the report and the scrutiny over Pastor Chad and his links to conversion therapy. They use phrasing like “groomer” and are calling out one advocate who works at an elementary school, trying to stir up concerns.

To then look at our own community and see that the person running the largest social service organization in our community is a proponent of conversion therapy — it’s a big issue. 

Chad McComas is the founder and executive director of Rogue Retreat.
Mail Tribune

HCN: According to your report, McComas is well-connected within the religious right. What kind of influence does he have in southern Oregon?

MT: Pastor Chad is seen as a thought leader around homelessness in this community. He’s run for city council twice. He’s currently on the committee for the Community Development Block Grant distribution in Medford, and that’s the group that determines federally funded grants that local jurisdictions can use for housing and poverty. 

Four of the people on that committee are either connected to Rogue Retreat or have explicitly evangelical ties. Pastor Chad really holds a lot of power when it comes to weighing in on policy and the program and funding distribution in this community.

It’s very — it’s very much entangled. Rogue Retreat was listed as a ministry of Set Free. Rogue Retreat’s urban campground participants are bused to Set Free regularly to shower and access the laundry and food pantry. There’s definitely a very close connection between the two groups.

Theo Whitcomb is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email him a [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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