The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced on May 22 a forthcoming rule change that would allow HUD-funded shelters to deny transgender individuals housing based on their sex as determined by government documents. The rule, which is scheduled to go into effect this fall, would allow these shelters to deny transgender people access based on unspecified “safety” considerations and the shelter provider’s religious beliefs.
Inadequate housing among transgender children and adolescents is a widespread and growing issue, and the HUD policy is certain to exacerbate the problem. Transgender youth experience homelessness and housing discrimination at higher rates than young cisgender people in the U.S., including cisgender youth who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual. This displacement does not only affect older adolescents; one article reported that in New York transgender youth are 13 years old on average when they first experience homelessness. Transgender youth often cite discrimination based on their gender identity and expression or sexual orientation, including family rejection, bullying, and physical and sexual abuse, as their cause of homelessness – even more frequently than cisgender LGBQ young people.
Shelters are a lifesaving resource for transgender youth experiencing homelessness, but they are not equally accessible to all. Youth shelters are largely concentrated in populous metropolitan areas, so young people in rural and sparsely populated communities are often the farthest from shelters. Moreover, even those transgender youth who manage to reach a shelter may face hurdles in getting into the shelter and securing a bed.
Homeless youth in New York, for example, outnumber the available beds in shelters 10 to 1. If there are any beds available, young people may only be able to keep their beds for days or weeks. The inaccessibility of shelter beds will worsen with the additional obstacles brought by HUD’s proposal. Shelters also may sex-segregate living areas, including beds, bathrooms, locker rooms, and dressing areas, where residents may be placed according to their assigned sex at birth, against the wishes of transgender youth. These youth may also be turned away if their gender identities are not recognized by shelters. Some transgender youth may feel forced to live in misalignment with their identities to obtain housing. If enacted, the HUD rule could further prevent transgender youth in need of housing from accessing federally funded “single-sex or sex-segregated facilities,” which include shelters, sleeping quarters, bathing facilities, and bathrooms.
Although shelters are vital for numerous young people experiencing homelessness, shelters, like many spaces, are often insufficiently prepared to meet the health and safety needs of their transgender residents. Once in a shelter, transgender youth are more likely than other residents to experience harassment and assault. Transgender women assigned to shelters for men are especially likely to be abused or raped. Even in LGBTQ shelters, some transgender youth report feeling unsafe compared to the cisgender residents. Some young people return to homelessness due to violence they endure in shelters. They may trade sex for housing or money, which can put them at increased risk of violence, sexually transmitted infections, and substance use disorders. One 2014 report found that 1-in-2 transgender women in New York contracted HIV before 24. Transgender youth may also engage in criminalized activities, such as sleeping in public spaces or asking for money.
Transgender youth experiencing homelessness may face additional barriers accessing gender-affirming care, including medical, legal, and personal services. This may be due to several factors, including the costs of the services, a lack of competent providers, or an inability to get the consent of a parent or guardian. The inability to access this care can be detrimental to their health. Some transgender youth view medical procedures and hormones from unlicensed practitioners as their best opportunity to receive these services. For those pursuing hormone therapy, both the substances being injected and the mechanisms of injection — potentially contaminated needles — can cause substantial harm. HUD should prioritize inclusive policies that encourage shelters to meet the needs of transgender youth experiencing homelessness rather than promulgating rules that could allow them to be denied admission based on their identity. Shelters could benefit from financial resources that would help them have the capacity to care for and empower more young people.
- It should be continually communicated orally, with inclusive and welcoming signs, or with other written material that gender identity and expression are protected from discrimination and harassment within the shelter.
- Check-in procedures do not need to be separated according to gender.
- Shelter staff should refrain from assuming gender identity of residents. Instead, all individuals can specify their names, genders, and pronouns during check-in. Staff and residents should use those names and pronouns when referring to residents.
- Whether residents discloses their transgender identities should be up to residents.
- There should be enough staff on duty at all times to quickly prevent or address any instance of harassment or violence.
- Residents should be allowed to choose among sleeping rooms, bathrooms, and showering facilities that are gender specific, gender neutral, or single occupant. Toilet stalls and showers should have doors with locks.
- Residents should have access to gender-affirming care from a medical professionals. Costs of services should not be financially prohibitive.
- In addition to other mental and physical health services, residents receiving hormone treatments should have access to their medications and sterile needles and syringes.
- Gynecological services from gender-affirming practitioners should be available to anyone who needs them.
- Preventive care, screening, and treatment for HIV/AIDS should be accessible to all shelter residents.
Ultimately both the experience of homelessness and the associated risks can be extremely harmful to transgender children and adolescents. LGBTQ youth continue to be displaced because of their gender identity, sexual orientation, or gender expression. Given that transgender youth experience homelessness for longer periods than their non-LGBTQ peers, and that they more frequently undergo harassment, bullying, and violence than their non-LGBTQ peers, their mental and physical health is also worse on average.
HUD’s proposed rule could further impede access to shelters for a population that disproportionately relies on their services. Of course, the aforementioned recommendations still do not address the underlying fact that transgender people should not be at heightened risk of homelessness due to societal discrimination and violence. These measures should be accompanied by a broader effort to eliminate discrimination against transgender people.