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Lesbian couple forced out of transitional housing facility in Ohio

Lesbian couple forced out of transitional housing facility in Ohio

The welcome sign painted on a building in downtown Newark, Ohio. (Photo by Mark Spearman)

A lesbian couple in Ohio is filing a complaint against the transitional housing facility that forced them out.

What happened?

Melanie Dingess and Leslie Conners lived at The Gardens apartment complex in Newark, Ohio. Managed by St. Vincent de Paul Housing Facilities, The Gardens is a transitional housing facility for people working toward independent living, such as people who were homeless.

The two women were forced to leave after management allegedly told them that gay couples were not welcome to live together in this facility. They cited their Catholic funding as a reason.

The couple moved into The Gardens in January 2018. A month later, they learned from Donna Gibson, the director of operations for St. Vincent de Paul Housing, that they had to leave.

‘The first week of February it was brought to our attention that there was a problem with gay couples residing at this residence,’ the couple stated in their complaint. ‘Donna Gibson told us it was an issue coming down on her that we were gay and living in the same apartment.’

This stressful situation in part caused Dingess, who was in the court’s drug program, to relapse. The relapse led to a seven-day jail sentence for Dingess.

‘Donna coming to my apartment and telling us we need to keep it down and lay low, that was a factor, but I relapsed because I made a bad decision,’ Dingess told the Newark Advocate. ‘That’s on me.’

After her weeklong jail stint, Dingess attempted to return to The Gardens. She was denied entry and Connors was then forced out as well.

‘There were others who had relapsed that were not asked to leave,’ Dingess stated.

Donna Gibson

According to Gibson, it was her boss, John Paul Munhall (executive director of St. Vincent de Paul) that took issue with the couple’s living situation.

‘It was the end of January, beginning of February, when he said there’s girls here, both in the same apartment, and they’re a couple,’ Gibson told the Newark Advocate. ‘I didn’t know where it was leading. I said what is the issue, and he kept saying they’re a couple.’

‘He said we can’t have a gay couple here. The Catholic Foundation would not fund us. I was dumbfounded.’

Gibson was the one to bear the bad news to the couple instead of Munhall.

‘I was more concerned at that point what he might say to her,’ Gibson explained. ‘People have lost their lives when they’ve relapsed. We’re trying to help the addicted, not make it worse.’

According to Gibson, Munhall directed her to ask residents if they’re gay, married, or having sex.

‘I said I’m not doing that,’ Gibson said. ‘I said you’re asking me to do stuff that’s against the law.’

Gibson left her job at St. Vincent de Paul Housing in October of 2018, about 14 months after she started.

‘It was a very harassing situation,’ Gibson said. ‘I was really upset. I was trying to help people.’

St. Vincent de Paul Housing Facilities’ statement

Tom Harvey, president of St. Vincent de Paul Housing Facilities, released the following statement:

‘The St. Vincent de Paul Housing Facilities have received the complaint from the Newark Fair Housing Board and believe the complaint to be groundless and intend to cooperate with the Fair Housing Board in its investigation. That is the only statement we wish to make at this time.’

Filing the complaint

Dingess decided to file the complaint before the one-year deadline. The reasoning for this was they learned of another gay couple that were in a similar situation.

‘I met with another couple dealing with [St. Vincent de Paul], and some of the things they were going through and how they were being mistreated,’ she said. ‘And it made me realize it’s not just me and not the relapse, and it’s wrong and it’s heartbreaking.’

Local reactions

Dennis Harrington, managing attorney at Southeastern Ohio Legal Services, said he received many complaints about housing discrimination at The Gardens last summer.

The United Way of Licking County denied a request for funding by St. Vincent de Paul Housing Facilities last year due to their alleged discrimination.

According to United Way Executive Director Deb Dingus, local organizations can only receive funding from them if they pledge not to discriminate. In fact, they must sign a diversity and inclusion agreement.

‘They signed the agreement, but it was clear they were not going to be able to abide by all the statements in the agreement,’ Dingus told the Newark Advocate.

Newark City Councilman Sean Fennell said that without the Council’s 2016 ordinance amendment, these couples would have no legal recourse locally.

‘I think it was an incredibly brave thing for these individuals to do,’ Fennell said. ‘I know it took a tremendous amount of courage to come forward like this. It’s the first time this process has been put to the test. It’s an opportunity to see how well this process does. The allegations have been made. I think it’s important we look into it.’

Mark Mauter, the city’s development director and secretary of the Fair Housing Board, is in the process of investigating these claims.

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