Finding a place to rest for a night is hard enough for any homeless person in America. And if you’re transgender? The struggle is even harsher.
Often because transgender men and women, by definition, don’t fit into the neat “male or female” boxes that shelters organize their clients by. Men sleep side-by-side with other men, and women with women, to couch any “this bed’s a knockin'” behavior that makes a simple night’s sleep difficult for others in need. But when MTFs and FTMs walk through the door, which bedroom and bathroom they select causes a whole new series of issues.
Nationwide there are plenty of holes in the safety net of shelters that catches men and women who have fallen on hard times. Activists say help is even harder to find for the transgender homeless, whose nontraditional gender status raises questions about sleeping arrangements and shower facilities.
The people who run the shelters are taking note.
From Phoenix to New York, shelters have fine-tuned policies to recognize preferred gender over birth gender, as they balance the needs of their mainstream clients with those of an unconventional segment of the homeless.
Activists point to the deaths of homeless transgender women in Atlanta and Austin, Texas, to underscore the need for shelter for all. Shelters in both cities are revamping acceptance policies and weighing the creation of trans-friendly space.
In Atlanta, they’re trying something, well, close to revolutionary:
The Atlanta Union Mission is considering expanding one or more of its six area shelters, in part to accommodate transgender people.
“We don’t know if we need an entirely different facility,” spokeswoman Voloria Pettiford said. “We don’t know how to meet that need, but there’s a need.”
Organizers say finding spots for transgender homeless is equally important for others in the shelter.
“Put yourself in the position of someone who’s fleeing a domestic violence situation – they’ve come to the shelter as a haven to get away from a male presence in their lives, and they think they’re in an environment that’s all women,” said Nancy Yarnell, head of the Atlanta Day Shelter for Women and Children.
[...] At Atlanta’s Peachtree and Pine shelter, director Anita Beaty is concerned with the safety of placing female-looking males among the 700 men sleeping there nightly. She has a small area for women, and a stream of transgender women who know she won’t turn them away.
“We want to know how to respond better,” said Beaty, who plans to discuss revamping shelter housing policies with transgender activists further.
[...] In 2007, Atlanta United Way officials funded the creation of H.O.P.E Through Divine Intervention, a nine-bed program for transgender homeless women. About 21 have moved on to permanent housing through the program, said associate director Kia Croom.
Shelters have made similar adjustments in Boston, New York, San Francisco, Phoenix, and Austin, Texas, where a transgender homeless woman’s recent death sparked an outcry.
Police found former political candidate Jennifer Gale, who was born male and fell into homelessness, dead outside a church in December. Gay and lesbian activists blamed a lack of space for the transgendered in Austin’s shelters.
“When Jennifer Gale passed away, that definitely reignited the flame that we needed to start working on this more,” said Dawn Perkins, community relations manager for Front Steps, which coordinates shelters citywide.
Six years earlier, police found 52-year-old Alice Johnston dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in suburban Atlanta. In a suicide e-mail, the unemployed transgender woman told friends she’d lost her home and had been turned down by city shelters, according to close friend Monica Helms, who testified about it to the city’s homelessness commission in 2003.