During the years that I experienced homelessness and housing instability, I spent a lot of my time actively avoiding people that represented institutions that I viewed as oppressive or harmful.
I avoided social workers because I knew that group homes and foster care services in my community weren’t safe for people like me. I avoided law enforcement because I had experienced harassment and violence from police. I avoided the administrators at my school because I knew they would feel a responsibility to report my living situation to social services or law enforcement.
I also avoided homeless shelters.
Queer, trans, and non-binary people in my community knew that shelters weren’t safe for us. Not only had we heard stories about violence and harassment against LGBTQ people in those shelters, but for trans and non-binary people we knew the risk of harm was made worse by the fact that most shelters forced us to stay in shelters based on our sex assigned at birth, rather than in the shelter where we felt most comfortable.
Over the 20 years since my housing became more stable, I have witnessed advocates, people experiencing homelessness, shelter providers, and even some government officials work together to make shelters more accessible for trans and non-binary people.
After years of community-based advocacy, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) finally prohibited discrimination against LGBTQ people through a 2012 regulation. HUD, advocates, and people experiencing homelessness then worked to implement and enforce that rule for several years, providing training and technical assistance to shelters and working with providers to hold them accountable to the nondiscrimination requirements. In 2016, HUD provided even more detail to shelters they fund about how to best serve transgender clients.
And then things went backwards for LGBTQ people. And it has not stopped since.
In July, the Trump administration released a Proposed Rule that is intended to unravel all the work that individuals, organizations, and officials have done to make shelters into an institution that trans and non-binary people turn to for help instead of one that causes harm.
The Rule proposed by Trump and HUD Secretary Ben Carson uses harmful, transphobic language throughout, going so far as to encourage shelter staff to attempt to determine the gender of clients using height and facial hair. The rule goes on to willfully misstate the law before offering up an inoperable referral structure that would leave most trans and non-binary people without any place to stay.
To be clear, there were some gaps in the operation of the 2016 rule. Even with clear nondiscrimination protections in place, only about 30% of transgender and non-binary respondents to a recent survey reported being able to access shelters appropriate to their gender.
Analysis of recent data from HUD’s yearly Point-In-Time count indicated that about 48% of cisgender people experiencing homelessness are unsheltered, while 56% of transgender people and 82% of non-binary people experiencing homelessness are unsheltered. Clearly more work needs to be done to serve our community, but the administration’s Proposed Rule will undoubtedly make these disparities worse instead of better.
The Proposed Rule would be harmful at any time, but its release in the midst of a pandemic and associated economic crisis is especially brutal. Economists estimate that 30 to 40 million people are at risk of eviction in the coming months as COVID-related housing protections expire. Tens of millions of people remain unemployed as a result of the pandemic; food security advocates expect the number of people experiencing food insecurity to rise by 10 to 17 million as a result of COVID.
In this moment, when millions of additional people will be turning to the homelessness continuum of care for support, Trump and Carson felt like the time was right to signal to shelters that it was fine for them to turn away trans and nonbinary people.
Of course, this isn’t the administration’s first attack on the trans and non-binary community – it is only the latest in a string of anti-trans actions the administration has taken, from removing protections for trans and non-binary students to filing a brief with the Supreme Court arguing that federal law doesn’t prohibit discrimination against transgender people.
It also isn’t the administration’s first attack against people experiencing homelessness. Since the early days of the Trump administration, service providers have reported decreased support from federal agencies, and in 2019 he started actively pushing for a “crackdown” on homelessness in California.
To implement his vision, Trump appointed Robert Marbut to run the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Marbut is known for promoting his signature “velvet hammer” strategy – a policing-heavy model that emphasizes banning panhandling, centralizing services for the homeless in massive facilities far from urban centers, and providing food and shelter only as a reward for “good behavior.”
Meanwhile, the administration is making it harder for communities to serve people experiencing homelessness in the future by giving short shrift to Census operations intended to count people at shelters and food access locations. That count, which is scheduled to occur in late September, is by all reports understaffed and based on months-old, pre-pandemic location lists.
How Can you Help?
Fighting back against the harms this administration is wreaking against our communities can feel daunting, so here are four things you can do today to take a stand:
- Speak Up Against the Proposed Rule. The Administration is required to listen to the public’s comments on any rule it proposes. Go to this website to submit a comment to the record: https://housingsaveslives.org/
- Make sure providers in your area don’t take the bait. Just because Trump is telling shelters that they can discriminate against trans people doesn’t mean shelters have to discriminate. Contact your local shelter and ask them to publicly affirm their commitment to serving trans and non-binary people
- Make sure people in your community know where they can access services. If you are experiencing homelessness, or in community with people experiencing homelessness, make sure your community knows which local shelters have committed to serving trans and non-binary people.
- Vote in November. This year’s election is a critical one for LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups. Register, vote and encourage your friends, family and community to do the same. Make your voice heard. For yourself, and for people in your community who are kept out of the voting system due to archaic laws on criminal convictions, voter ID, and modern-day poll taxes.
- Make sure people experiencing homelessness count. It’s not too late for all of us to be counted in the Census, even if the Administration isn’t doing what it should be to make that happen. Whether you are housed or unhoused, fill out your Census today at www.my2020Census.gov.
Meghan Maury, Esq., is Policy Director at the National LGBTQ Task Force and their work spans a broad range of issue areas, but focuses heavily on economic justice, criminal justice, and data collection.