The Struggle to Find Safe Shelter

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #105, Spring 2004.

Local Efforts Underway to Open Homeless Shelters to Transgender People

by Lisa Mottet

Legislative Lawyer,

Transgender Civil Rights Project

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

Ann remembers vividly having to
stay at a men?s shelter in downtown Manhattan. Men would bang on her door. She knew if they got through they would try to kill her again. Staff would rifle through her and other transgender women?s belongings and take away their women?s clothing. ?I don?t know what they did with it, threw it away, burned it, whatever. Regardless, we couldn?t get it back.? Latina and transgender in New York, Ann has been unable to keep a
roof over her head by herself for over six years. At her most recent job at a factory, her female boss fired her after a week for something she didn?t do, her boss indicating she ?didn?t want people like you working here.?
When I toured a D.C. men?s shelter, an old high school gym now filled with a sea of bunk beds, I talked to two young trans women residents. I asked them whether they felt safe from other residents. Their answer: yes, because both had befriended certain men who in turn made sure no one hurt them. They knew other trans women didn?t feel safe there, however. Where were those other women? They pulled together money they earned on the streets to pay for the cheapest motel rooms they could find, sometimes staying six to a room.
The showers at this high-school-gym-turned-shelter had no curtains?the only option was showering in the open. I asked one of the young women about this. She said she couldn?t shower at the shelter, had to rely on friends? places or go without because she ?didn?t want to
be no Pamela Anderson for the guys.?

Ann shares another story that happened to a friend of hers, Sadie, while they were staying at men?s shelters in New York. Sadie had breast implants. Male shelter staff thought she was hiding contraband in her chest and violently stripped her, despite her strong protests. She didn?t last long in the shelters after that, deciding it was better to try to live off of the street, trying to survive with earnings from sex work.

In December of 2002, a trans woman in Atlanta, Alice Johnston, lost her last place to live after being unemployed since September 11, 2001. She discovered that no women?s shelter in the Atlanta area would take her. She took her own life shortly after.
In New York City, it remains the policy that transgender people can access shelter only according to their birth gender. The Department of Homeless Services, which controls access to all of the city?s shelters, screens every homeless person looking for shelter in the city and assigns them shelter, and they refuse to assign a transgender person to shelters based on their gender identity.

Last year, at a city-run youth foster care facility in New York, a young transgender-identified girl identified as Jean Doe faced repeated discipline for wearing feminine clothing and accessories. With the help of attorney Dean Spade?s Sylvia Rivera Law Project, currently housed at the Urban Justice Center, Jean sued and won. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which helps low-income trans people, was founded by Spade, a recent graduate of UCLA Law School.

Contrast the problems happening in Atlanta, New York, and the rest of the country to San Francisco and Boston, where people are accepted into shelters based on their gender identity. At Marian Shelter for Women, run by the religiously-affiliated St. Anthony Foundation in San Francisco, transgender women have been welcome and accepted for so long no
one is quite sure when the policy changed, exactly?maybe five, maybe seven years ago.
Why the dramatic difference? And what are the policies of shelters in your area? Chances are they aren?t good. Whether a person is transsexual, genderqueer, young or old, or on the male-to-female or female-to-male spectrum, homeless shelters are almost universally unsafe for trans people.
Because of the national (actually, international) problems of finding safe shelter, transgender activists and allies are aggressively working to fix this problem. There are many efforts underway, primarily at the local and state levels, to change shelter policies and environments or find other options for trans people.
My organization, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, along with the National Coalition for the Homeless, recently completed a publication for use by trans activists and allies trying to make shelters safe for trans people. Transitioning Our Shelters: A Guide to Making Homeless Shelters Safe for Transgender People is designed to teach shelter administrators and staff what they need to change about their facility to make it safe. It comes out of efforts in Washington, D.C. to help make the shelters safe for transgender people. The 50+ page guide covers why people should be treated and housed according to their gender identity, bathroom and shower privacy and safety, sleeping arrangements, dress codes, youth issues, clamping down on harassment, dealing with concerns of other residents, intake procedures, making referrals, and model policies. It also provides some transgender basics, such as terminology and an overview of health and identification document issues.

It?s important to note that with the growing number of anti-discrimination laws covering transgender people, shelters are increasingly in violation of law when they fail to house people according to gender identity. Although there has not been a test case anywhere in the country, a fair court should understand this as basic discrimination. These laws can often play a role in convincing homeless shelters to change their policies.

In the Trenches

In New York, efforts are underway
to make things better. Spade is in the middle of a campaign to change the Department of Homeless Service?s policy. He is working with a women?s homeless shelter that is willing to accept transgender women and is trying to convince the Department to assign trans women there in a pilot program. The hope is that the Department will see the pilot program was successful and allow all trans people to be assigned to gender-appropriate housing.

Because of the lack of shelter in New York, other things have happened. For the last 10 years, Rusty Moore and Chelsea Goodwin have provided shelter to dozens of trans people with nowhere else left to go. Transy House, as people affectionately call their home, currently has several people living there. Housing Works, a non-profit organization devoted to finding shelter for those living with HIV/AIDS in New York, just opened their Transgender Transitional Housing facility as well. Because this facility is open only to HIV-positive transgender people and has limited space; it doesn?t come close to meeting the need. But it is a start.

In Boston and Massachusetts, things generally look better. TransHealth and Education Development Program, part of JRI Health, has systematically trained shelters all over Massachusetts. JRI Health participated in a task force and committee spearheaded by the Boston Public Health Commission to develop protocols for transgender residents in Boston city shelters. As a result, the current Director of the TransHealth program, Diego Sanchez, spends a lot of time working with and training shelter staff on how to competently serve trans people and working with shelters on a case-by-case basis.
In San Francisco, shelters changed
in part because the city passed an anti-discrimination law. The San Francisco Human Rights Commission issued guidelines to all entities subject to the law, which included the fact that people are to be treated according to their gender identity. Marcus Arana, an investigator for the Commission, has trained many shelters in San Francisco.

Thankfully, the shelters are complying, making San Francisco one of the safest places to be transgender and homeless.
In Connecticut, the Connecticut Transgender Advocacy Coalition (CTAC) is just beginning its campaign to improve all the shelters in that state. Jerimarie Liesegang explains that CTAC is just finishing a successful campaign to open up all the women?s domestic violence shelters in the state to transgender women and are now tackling the homeless shelters, armed with Transitioning Our Shelters. By working through the state?s homeless coalition, they are taking a very systematic approach?determined to leave no shelter behind.

In Toronto, there is a trail-blazing program called the Trans Communities Shelter Access Project of the 519 Church Street Community Centre (an LGBT community center). The Project has trained many shelters in Toronto and has posted much of its material online so others may replicate it in their local efforts.

In Atlanta, Monica Helms and Trans=Action, the statewide transgender advocacy organization, are also working furiously to try to change the shelters there, ever since the suicide of Alice Johnston. Trans=Action has found a friend in Anita Beatty, who runs the city?s largest shelter, and together they are working to solve the pressing problem of trans women in need of safe shelter. Ms. Beatty?s shelter has been functioning as the safest place for trans women, despite the fact that it is a men?s shelter. These activists were able to persuade the United Way to give motel vouchers to trans people who can?t safely stay in shelters, yet these vouchers come with time limits. They still haven?t yet been able to convince any of the women?s shelters to accept trans women.

In Philadelphia, a Sexual and Gender Minorities subcommittee of the Mayor?s Task Force on the Homeless recently formed. Michelle O?Brien, co-chair of the committee, reports they are in the beginning stages of developing a plan that will, hopefully, eventually result in training and policy changes in every shelter in
the city.

In Washington, D.C., a group of people got together last year to work with shelters. Earline Budd of Transgender Health Empowerment, GiGi Thomas
of Helping Individual Prostitutes
Survive, Mark Phemister of the D.C. Transmasculine Society, and myself trained the local coalition of shelters on the challenges trans people without homes were facing in D.C. Out of that training grew requests from specific shelters to be trained. Although in D.C. we?ve not yet attained the lasting changes we want, many of the shelters are much better than they used to be. Changing the rest of the shelters is a work in progress.

In the trainings, it was important to have GiGi Thomas and Earline Budd talk about their personal experiences with homelessness. Budd talked about how terrible and unsafe shelter conditions made her decide that engaging in unsafe sex for pay was a better way to achieve housing. As a direct result, she lives today with HIV. GiGi Thomas, a client advocate for Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, helps trans women on a daily basis to stay safe while they are engaging in sex work and helps connect them to services in an effort to help them off the street. The choice for women on the street is stark?there are no safe options and almost no way out.

Last fall, the National Coalition for the Homeless, of which ally Anita Beatty from Atlanta serves on the board, passed a non-discrimination resolution including transgender people. It specifically noted that people are to be housed and provided services according to the gender they self-identify as. This paved the way for their collaboration with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force on the Trans-itioning Our Shelters Guide.

This is just a sampling of what is going on around the country. What remarkable progress has been made in the last few years! Just four years ago, most of these efforts were not even underway.
Working to make shelters safe actually saves lives. If you are working on this, you already know how inspiring it is to really make a difference. I hope the stories here will inspire more in our community to tackle this problem, throughout the U.S. and around the world. Meaningful change can be made. We can learn from each other?s experiences, and collectively, we are changing the world.

The Guide for homeless shelters, released in December by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Coalition for the Homeless, covers issues such as appropriate housing accommodations, how to create more privacy and safety in
restrooms and showers, how to address harassment, and how
to create a safe and welcoming environment for transgender
residents. It is available as a free download from: or
Hard copies may be acquired by emailing Lisa Mottet at or calling (202) 393-5177.