Federal Law Protects Transgender People at Homeless Shelters

BY KATE OPALEWSKI

The2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey reveals that 29 percent of transgender people who sought emergency shelter at some point in their lives were turned away, while 42 percent were forced to stay in shelters for the gender they were assigned at birth.

A new regulation released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Sept. 20 will prevent further discrimination as shelters are required to respect the gender identity of transgender and gender non-conforming people experiencing homelessness.

"This new HUD rule is an important step towards protecting the marginalized of the marginalized -- who are the most defenseless from discrimination -- homeless trans and gender nonconforming people. We know that trans and gender non-conforming people who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness, are disproportionately people of color and people with disabilities, and trans and gender nonconforming youth are especially vulnerable as they often are being forced to flee abusive families. By taking this action, HUD is sending the message to shelters and service providers that discrimination against the trans and gender nonconforming community is against U.S. federal law," said Victoria Rodriguez-Roldan, Trans/Gender Non-Conforming Justice Project Director, National LGBTQ Task Force.

As explained in the 73-page rule, providers that operate single-sex projects that receive funding from HUD's Office of Community Planning and Development will be required to provide all individuals - including transgender and gender expansive individuals - with full access to programs, services, benefits, and accommodations in accordance with their gender identity.

Informal guidelines were issued by HUD to homeless shelters in February 2015. It was up to the shelters to follow them, but a study conducted by the Center for American Progress and the Equal Rights Center last year discovered that only 30 percent of shelters were willing to house transgender women with other women. Another 21 percent refused them at shelters altogether. Up to 100 shelters were contacted in four states that were selected based on a range of characteristics. For example, two states, Connecticut and Washington, have gender identity nondiscrimination protections, while the other two, Tennessee and Virginia, do not.

The results of this research validates the need to make the new HUD regulations mandatory and enforceable. David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, told The Huffington Post that he would like the regulations to be expanded even further to apply not just to federally-funded shelters, but also to state-funded facilities as well.

"The regulations are a best practice for any provider," Stacy said. "The best way for shelters to achieve their mission of getting more homeless people off the street is to treat transgender people seeking shelter with full respect and dignity."

But not everyone agrees. Critics of the regulation have raised the potential for men to pose as transgender women. The regulation would not provide a "get-out-of-jail-free card" for men who take advantage of the rules to prey on homeless women. HUD states in the rule that "Nothing in this proposed rule is meant to prevent necessary and appropriate steps to address any fraudulent attempts to access services or legitimate safety concerns that may arise in any shelter." HUD's regulation further instructs homeless shelters to disregard the "complaints of other shelter residents" who feel uncomfortable living with someone who is transgender.

Tim Wildmon, president of the conservative American Family Association, expressed his disappointment about having to "make room for people who are sexually confused at the expense of everyone else."

"No one is in favor of beating up transgender people," Wildmon told The Hill. "But why do you have to force other people to feel really uncomfortable, and in some cases unsafe, just to make your political point?" He asked, "What if I self-identify as a woman today, and tomorrow I want to self-identify as a man? Why not self identify as a minority? Today, I'm white. Tomorrow, I'm black."

ACLU LGBT Staff Attorney Jay Kaplan explains why another person's discomfort or unfamiliarity with transgender people should not be a justification for discrimination.

"Well clearly Tim Wildmon lacks an understanding about what it means to be transgender. His statements about transgender people being sexually confused -- being a woman one day, a man another day -- or changing race are both ridiculous and demeaning to transgender people who are more at risk for violence and harm when they are forced to be housed in shelter space that does not correspond with their gender identity," Kaplan said, noting, "if these shelters are receiving any federal HUD dollars, they cannot discriminate against transgender people in their programs or they could lose their funding. This is true regardless of whether these shelters operate in cities in Michigan without LGBT-inclusive ordinances, or the fact that Michigan civil rights laws don't specifically cover transgender people. If the faith-based shelters want government funding for their programs, they have to abide by the rules (or federal non-discrimination policies) just like everyone else."

With transgender issues at the forefront of the 2016 campaign, some shelter organizations in Michigan already have policies in place to create a safe and welcoming space for LGBT people experiencing homelessness. The South Oakland Shelter in Lathrup Village, for instance, maintains a strong position on this issue.

"We have never singled out a transgender person and we have always essentially accommodated their needs. If someone has an issue, they are going to have to just work around it," said Ryan Hertz, president and CEO of SOS.

Hertz said he "expects congregations to comply with our policies." SOS has partnerships with more than 60 area Oakland County congregations, representing Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and soon Muslim, faiths. Connected by the shared belief that all people should have access to a safe and secure place to call home, congregation partners work together throughout the year to meet the needs of those struggling with homelessness. Each week, a congregation takes on the responsibility of hosting SOS's shelter guests and provides them with overnight accommodations, three daily meals, transportation, and meaningful interactions with caring volunteers.

"Regardless of whether or not their religious position agrees with this, we expect they are still going to provide them with a place to stay in hopes that they 'come around,' or however they view it," he said. "It's a complicated issue when trying to help someone who is transgender and someone who may have bigoted views or concerns. We still want to help these people. They are vulnerable and both have rights to services. We want to make everyone as comfortable as we can."

Hertz notes that homeless shelters deal with far more serious issues that make servicing some people more challenging, such as substance abuse or violent criminal histories.

"The least challenging one should be gender identity. It's absurd that it needed to be said, but I'm glad it was said," Hertz said about the requirement, adding that the HUD regulations will help further support SOS's stance when conflicts arise with faith-based organizations.

The transgender community is a population the Covenant House Michigan in Detroit is familiar with.

"We absolutely serve the transgender community. We are at the forefront of rights and care for the LGBTQ community and reach out to them on a regular basis," said Gerald Piro, executive director of CHM, a faith-based nonprofit organization that provides hope to homeless, runaway and at-risk youth ages 18-24. CHM provides shelter, educational and vocational programs, and other support services to help overcome hurdles such as homelessness, unemployment, inadequate education, violence, drugs and gangs. It is the goal of CHM to redirect them onto a path toward meaningful and successful adulthood. More than 60,000 youths have been served by CHM since its inception in September 1997.

"Someone, any youth, aside from how they present herself or himself, and is homeless, will immediately be provided with all services from intake to eventual discharge to a permanent housing situation. Our first concern is always their current state of well-being and reintegration into the community," he said, adding that further accommodation will be considered only if a specific request is made, otherwise youth are invited in as who they present themselves to be.

"Their placement relative to accommodation within the shelter is strictly according to how they present themselves. A transgender female will live with females and a transgender male will live with males. Our young residents enter the shelter with numerous, serious issues that we need to address; we do not want to add any additional anxiety to the situation."

For more information about CHM, located at 2959 Martin Luther King Jr Blvd., call 313-463-2000. To reach SOS at 18505 W. 12 Mile Road, call 248-809-3773.


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