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Trans Experiences of Homelessness: Disparities, Discrimination, and Solutions

June 25, 2020

In the interview below, Danielle Hubley of PSC speaks to Sarah Gilbert of Transitions Therapy, LLC about the unique needs of transgender individuals within the homeless service system. Sarah, the founder of Transitions Therapy, works with trans individuals to provide gender-affirming therapy. As Sarah mentions, discrimination against trans people leads to increased rates of homelessness, and can also lead to mistreatment within the shelter system. We hope that this interview helps you to identify and treat both the root causes of trans homelessness, as well as improving the level of care within the system.

DH: What are some of the main causes of homelessness for the transgender population?

SG: At the root of this issue is continued prejudice and invalidation of trans identities and experiences.

When we take a look at the persistent, compounding prejudices, barriers, and discrimination that transgender people continue to face, it’s easy to see how this particular population is especially vulnerable in our society. According to the 2015 US Transgender Health Survey, 29% of respondents were living in poverty, which is more than double the percentage of the overall population that were living in poverty at the time.  Trans people of color experience even more devastating levels of poverty.  That is in large part because the transgender community continues to face multiple barriers to access the same quality of resources, treatment, and services as non-transgender counterparts.  Numerous studies point to significantly higher rates of unemployment and underemployment amongst the trans community, and that’s attributable to the discrimination they face. Transgender people have a significantly harder time getting a job, and even when they do, they often face harassment and prejudice in the workplace. Though several states have specific discrimination protections for gender identity, there are still many places of employment wherein trans people experience mistreatment and hostility. This results in people either being terminated under questionable pretenses, or trans people quitting their jobs because it’s such a hostile work environment.  And as we know, when people lose or leave their jobs, it becomes difficult to keep up with rent or mortgage payments, and people in this community end up homeless.

Sadly, many trans adolescents and young adults face homelessness when family rejects them and kicks them out of the home after they come out about their gender identity.  I’ve worked with several people who struggled with finding consistent housing after their parents told them they no longer were welcome in their home once they learned they identified as transgender. This puts people in a devastating situation wherein they have to make the difficult choice of living a lie to maintain housing, or living as their authentic selves, and end up living in their car, couch surfing, or being at a shelter. 

So what we’re seeing is a set of circumstances that cause a devastating domino effect in transgender people’s lives.

DH: What are some of the barriers to access this population faces most when it comes to housing and experiences of homelessness?

SG: So many barriers are in place which are interrelated and rooted in a cis-normative culture that fails to consider or affirm the experiences of transgender individuals.

The pervasive discrimination that trans people experience creates barriers to both accessing affordable housing as well as shelter resources. A 2017 study by the Urban Institute reveals that transgender participants who disclosed their gender identity were told about less rental housing options than cisgender study participants. In my work with this community, I’ve heard so many stories that back this up; stories of people missing out on housing opportunities for inexplicable reasons. It is no surprise then that according to the 2015 US Transgender Health Survey, 30% of respondents have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives; which is a rate that is drastically higher rate than the overall population. That same study reveals that 26% of respondents who’ve experienced homelessness avoided shelters out of fear of mistreatment or harassment by shelter staff. This research aligns with what I’ve seen in my practice as I’ve heard numerous stories about people experiencing discrimination and mistreatment in shelters here in CT, by staff and other shelter residents.

Again looking at employment, trans people are often relegated to working in lower wage jobs due to a lack of available affirming and trans-inclusive places of employment.  Lower wages result in a barrier to safe, quality housing.  And lower wage jobs tend to offer no or minimal health insurance coverage; so someone experiencing a medical issue easily faces crippling debt, or worsening medical issues that result in a departure from that job altogether. 

Another barrier specific to this population is identification. If a transgender person takes steps to legally transition, they’re changing their gender marker and/or legal name to whatever better aligns with their identity. Obviously it’s fantastic that people are able to do this; however the timing and pacing of the involved process can create some problems. Additionally, the cost of doing this is a barrier for many. Depending on where a trans person is in this process of legal transition while they’re obtaining housing or employment, a mismatch in name or gender marker can cause significant complications for them. For example; someone applying for housing who does not wish to disclose their transgender identity may end up having their application denied if a credit check reveals a different name.  Again, trans people are caught in a difficult decision here; either be upfront with disclosing their transition and face potential discrimination, or, wait to see if a background check brings up any questions or problems with the application. 

Unfortunately, despite legislative protections such as the Fair Housing Act, transgender individuals continue to experience discrimination when attempting to access stable housing. I’ve personally known several trans people who’ve experienced blatant discrimination in getting housing in CT.   

DH: What are some ways that homelessness could be prevented among transgender individuals?

SG: In short, I’d say widespread, drastic changes in our culture and systems which are reflective of and responsive to the unique experiences of trans-identified individuals. It’s a bit of a pipe dream, for sure, but I think it’s really what’s needed to eliminate homelessness amongst this vulnerable population. 

Specifically:

  • Stronger, enforceable legal protections against discrimination for gender identity in housing and employment.
  • Required diversity and cultural competency trainings at businesses on working with and amongst people of varying gender identities and expressions.
  • Easier access to legal transition. More affordable processes to obtain a legal name change through the probate courts. Quicker turnaround times for applications for name changes.  Greater ease in accessing gender marker changes in identification.  Streamlines processes to get name changes finalized within places of employment and health insurance companies.
  • More affordable, accessible options for legal representation for trans people who are experiencing discrimination, harassment.
  • Improved access to trans-affirming healthcare coverage; an increased number of medical professionals who are experienced in trans healthcare and sensitivity to the unique needs, experiences of this vulnerable population

DH: What are some policies or resources that housing/homeless service providers should be aware of in working with transgender individuals?

SG: As I’ve spoken so much about the negative impacts of discrimination and bias on the trans population, I think address this is the necessary place to start.  Requiring staff at shelters and working in housing services to undergo training in competently and compassionately working with transgender clients would hopefully increase awareness of and sensitivity to the difficulties faced by this population.  And I want to add that this needs to includes ALL staff, because every aspect of a housing, service provision experience communicates to people if they are truly welcome there, and given the same rights and treatment as others. I think this could go a long way to reducing the instances of mistreatment that prevent so many trans people from accessing or staying at shelter facilities.

Additionally, it’s important for staff to realize the importance of allowing trans-identified clients to reside in areas that are designated for their affirmed gender, rather than their sex assigned at birth. Many shelters enforce policies that make trans people reside in areas based on their sex assigned at birth, what’s listed on their identification, and what this does is subject them to traumatization and very likely sexual and/or physical violence. The very real danger such policies poses to trans people cannot be understated, and they should be stopped.

Specific to legislation, it’s important for staff to know about the Fair Housing Act, and that this does apply to the transgender community. This act specifically prohibits discrimination based on sex, and courts have ruled over the years that discrimination against people who are not conforming to gender stereotypes does in fact constitute sex discrimination. Additionally, the National Center for Transgender Equality has comprehensive information about the rights that the trans community has in regards to housing, and it would be most helpful for staff to familiarize themselves with this resource.

DH: How can staff in housing/homeless services be affirming and inclusive to the trans community?

SG: As much as possible, programs should seek out consultation from trans-identified people to get their perspectives on changes specific to their programs, facilities that would create a more inclusive and affirming environment.

From the point of first contact, all staff should be trained in using inclusive processes, and treating clients of all gender identities, presentations with the respect that they deserve. The way questions are asked as part of the intake process is often distressing for trans clients, so it would be helpful to intentionally ask questions in a way that reflects diverse experiences and situations. For example; staff should ask what name and pronouns clients want them to use, and make the distinction between chosen and legal names for required documentation purposes.  Similarly, staff should do this with sex/gender; if possible have clients be able to write in their gender, and if needed, have a separate part of the form wherein people list what gender is listed on their identification. Strict policies should be in place for transgender clients to be able to report mistreatment, harassment, or discrimination by shelter staff or fellow residents.

Additionally, as mentioned in my previous answer, allowing for people to reside in areas that align with their gender identity is vitally important.  If possible, having gender neutral, single stall, or unisex bathrooms in facilities would also be a great step in being more inclusive of this community.