Transgender Homelessness: A Bigger Issue Than Realized

By: Blythe Collins

Washington, D.C. — One in three transgender people have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, whether the cause was family rejection, unemployment, or housing discrimination. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, done by the National Center for Transgender Equality, of the 30% of respondents that had experienced homelessness during their lifetime, 12% reported experiencing homelessness in the year prior to completing the survey specifically because they were transgender.

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Charmaine Eccles, a 36 year-old transgender woman living in Washington, D.C. has been dealing with intermittent homelessness for more than the last ten years. After her bouts with homelessness, Eccles has dealt with substance abuse, addiction, unemployment, and eviction. 

“At one point in time, on Christmas Day,” Eccles said, “I woke up and it was a blizzard outside and I was under a blanket, waking up to a pile of snow. It really wasn’t forced on me, it was choice and it was more of my addiction that had taken over at that time.”

A person is considered homeless if their name is not on a lease. At the moment, there is no explicit legal protection from gender identity discrimination neither at the state nor local levels.

“You cannot get a job if you don’t have a stable home,” Director of D.C. Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, Sheila Alexander-Reid said. “Chances are you can’t keep a job if you don’t have a stable home and you may not be able to get a job if you don’t have appropriate clothes or if you don’t have a place to rest your head. All these things are connected. So really, homelessness is sort of the root and everything comes off of that. If you can get them in a stable home, then perhaps you can get them to a place where they can get some help and get their lives on track and get employment and education opportunities.”

Reid has been the Director of the Office of LGBTQ Affairs for almost three years. Since starting at D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office, Reid has been a liaison who ensures that the LGBTQ community understands what the mayor’s vision for them is and also to make sure that the LGBTQ community understands her vision. A former advocate, Reid is ensconced in the community she works every day to help.

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Sheila Alexander-Reid, Mayor Bowser’s Director of LGBTQ Affairs, stands outside her office. Photo by Blythe Collins

“I will say that homelessness, employment, and public safety are the top three issues that the transgender community faces,” Reid said. “Not just in D.C., but around the country and probably around the world.”

The findings of the U.S. Transgender Survey showed large economic disparities between transgender people and the U.S. population as a whole. Nearly one-third (29%) of respondents were living in poverty, compared to 14% in the whole U.S. population. This high poverty rate is directly linked to respondents’ 15% unemployment rate—three times higher than the unemployment rate in the U.S. population at the time of the survey (5%).

“Homelessness made me realize the things we don’t appreciate in our lives,” Eccles said. “Even like sleeping on someone’s couch, or just having any bed to stay in, or just to be in somewhere warm, on a floor. It makes me think that compared to other countries, we have it really good over here. Even with the homelessness, some people live in worse conditions, horrible conditions, in their homelessness.”

According to the 2016 State Equality Index (a comprehensive state-by-state report by the Human Rights Campaign that provides a review of statewide laws and policies that affect LGBTQ people and their families), D.C. has passed 25 ‘good laws’ between 2004 and 2016 (among non-discrimination, youth, parenting, hate crime, and health and safety laws). Another state, such as Alabama, has only passed three of these ‘good laws.’

“D.C. is rated as one of the top jurisdictions to live in if you’re a member of the LGBTQ community and we’re really proud of that,” Reid said. “You can see how progressive we are, and in a way I feel like it is a privilege to be in D.C., where we are protected. Right now, we focus on D.C. but I also talk with a lot of national organizations who look at our policies to see how we are able to accomplish what we’ve accomplished, because their job is to make sure that the country is progressive and that the country is focused on equity as far as treatment of LGBTQ residents. I think we’ve done a lot because HRC and National LGBT Task Force are located in the District. This is the heart where a lot of the fight has taken place.”

Having a strong support system is critical to those who are transitioning, have transitioned, or are simply questioning their gender identity. Those who reported that their immediate families were supportive were less likely to report a variety of negative experiences related to economic stability and health, such as experiencing homelessness, attempting suicide, or experiencing serious psychological distress. Experiences varied widely between those with family support and those with unsupportive families, with family support being associated with a reduced likelihood of negative experiences. Less likely to have experienced homelessness (27%) than those with unsupportive families (45%).

“Unfortunately, in many cases, a lot of families are not accepting and loving of their family members who are of trans experience,” Adriana Scott, Housing Navigation Coordinator at HIPS said. “When you’re young and in your 20’s or even in your 30’s, the network of support that you have are family-based and when that really critical network of support dissolves because you’ve been kicked out of your house because of your identity, it can predispose you to living at or below the poverty level.”

Scott is the Housing Navigation Coordinator and Case Management Supervisor at HIPS, an organization that promotes the health, rights, and dignity of individuals and communities impacted by sexual exchange and/or drug use due to choice, coercion, or circumstance. Scott performs housing assessments that seek to match applicants with appropriate homes.

“I was in a hotel for like a year back and forth between the streets, hotels, and finding somewhere to stay at,” Eccles said. “I stayed with my sister, who didn’t approve of my genderm, so that was pretty hard for her. There were many of my family members who did not approve. They were accepting because they loved me, but they really don’t approve of it.”

Family support was associated with positive outcomes while family rejection was associated with negative outcomes. Respondents who were rejected were nearly twice as likely to have experienced homelessness (40%) as those who were not rejected (22%).

“There is a pretty significant community when you have people who are dropped by their families they find family elsewhere,” Scott said. “They become a child of an older trans person they become a sister or a brother of a bunch of other folks who are trans. Even though they may not be housed or may have unstable housing, I can definitely say there’s a very strong sense of family here. Even though family members argue and there’s drama and all that but it is definitely a place of overwhelming love among that community.”

Almost one-quarter (23%) of respondents experienced some form of housing discrimination in the past year, such as being evicted from their home or denied a home or apartment because of being transgender.

“D.C.’s shelter system is unfortunately not the best thing in the world,” Scott said. “I think that a lot of people have misconceptions that everything’s fine because we have a system where people can go to shelters, but that does not necessarily mean safety.”

More than one-quarter (26%) of those who experienced homelessness in the past year avoided staying in a shelter because they feared being mistreated as a transgender person. Those who did stay in a shelter reported high levels of mistreatment. Seven out of ten (70%) respondents who stayed in a shelter in the past year reported some form of mistreatment, including being harassed, sexually or physically assaulted, or kicked out because of being transgender.

“A huge issue that HIPS deals with is that a lot of shelters in DC or the surrounding area aren’t all that inclusive,” Mary Pavia, HIPS volunteer said. “For instance, many have coercive policies that require that anyone using that organization’s services must be sober, or even sober for a certain amount of time. Also, some battered women’s shelters, for instance, pose an issue for many trans folks as these shelters may not accept them due to their trans identity.”

Pavia, 22, is a volunteer at HIPS who completed 40 hours of direct service volunteer training about topics such as service provider privilege, crisis intervention, and harm reductionist tools for counseling clients about safer sex and safer drug use. As a volunteer, she carried out street-based outreach, needle exchange, condom distribution, and harm reduction micro-counseling around D.C. twice per month from an overnight outreach van.

According to Scott, the majority of the transgender homeless people HIPS sees have been involved in sex work. On the U.S. Transgender Survey, respondents who had done sex work (72%) and those who have experienced homelessness (65%) were more likely to have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime.

“We had a transgender public safety townhall here in the community room,” Reid recalls. “One person spoke and I didn’t know her and she spoke about having a shotgun held to her head and she was not doing survival sex work, but she was meeting some friends who had just finished doing some survival sex work. She was robbed and beaten and had a shotgun put in her mouth – it was horrific. She had asked the police to look into it, so the police looked into it, they arrested the guys who did it and I walk up to her after the event and said ‘here’s my card, I’d like to stay in touch with you. Is there anything I can do to help you?’ She said ‘well you can help me get a job, I’m trying to find a job.’ She applied for a job with Unified Communications Center, which is a D.C. government agency and she was hired as part-time and she went on to become full time. This enabled her to then go back and be a success story to other transgender women of color who were still struggling.”

Reid’s story happened to be about Eccles. The two women stay in touch and Reid calls to check in with Eccles, even after she got the job.

“After some months, I was able to gain employment with a non-profit organization, the DC Center,” Eccles said. “So, it changed my life. From that, I started getting more involved with the community and I’m actually employed now with hopes of transferring over to being a 911 operator and moving up in the company.”

 

 

Transgender homelessness is a dire issue that could eventually put lives on the line. Unfortunately, lifetime suicide attempts were higher for respondents who have ever experienced homelessness (59%).

“Right now I have a lot going on and I’m trying to save up for my own place whenever that happens,” Eccles said. “Eventually I’ll move, I’m just waiting for that opportunity… for that one phone call to help me get in a place more smooth versus me doing it myself with my terrible credit. Even though i’m comfortable where i’m at now, I’m really not complacent where I’m at. I want to have my own place. I’m doing everything I can to try to improve my credit but I can’t do much. Its like travel, eating, rent here, it’s not really like I can save much money. So, its hard but I try to make the best of it.”

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