By Sarah Ford | Photo by Giles Clasen
After two years in Denver, Onii Kennedy has not allowed his heart to be paved by the city; it remains buried in the woodlands of Texas, the place he considers his home. He would never have left behind his childhood home in the first place, but didn’t have much of a choice.
“Every year I go back and check the prices to find out if there are still houses for sale in that neighborhood,” he said. Just in case one day he gets a chance to move back.
It wasn’t a whim, ambition, or adventure that brought him to Denver. It was one of the few cities that offered an environment that would be safe for Kennedy, a transgender male. His mother found Urban Peak after telling Kennedy that at age 19, it was time for him to leave the house and find a way to live on his own. So he packed, got on a Greyhound bus, and took a 20-hour plus bus ride to Denver from Texas.
Kennedy is one of about 29 transgender youths served by Urban Peak in the past year. He lived at the center for about seven months before moving into a single apartment. He has been steadily searching for employment while also trying to complete his transition into a male.
People who identify as transgender face disproportionately high rates of homelessness, often confronting violence, discrimination, and other barriers that make an already difficult situation even more challenging to navigate. The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that 20 percent of homeless youths in the U.S. are LGBTQ; in the general population, 10 percent of youths identify as LGBTQ. A lack of statistics and visibility make it more difficult to gauge the numbers of homeless transgender youths, a population often forgotten in the face of the broader issue of homelessness. Some national reports cite that an alarming one in five transgender individuals are in need of shelter services or at risk of needing shelter services.
As the U.S. becomes more attuned to issues of gender identity, there is hope among the thousands of transgender people experiencing homelessness that a turning point is approaching. But still, every year thousands face job loss, harassment in shelters, and the choice between living life as themselves or having a safe place to lay their heads.
A number of unique, compounding issues force such high numbers of transgender youth into housing instability, said Kylar Broadus, director of the Transgender Civil Rights Project with the National LGBTQ Task Force headquartered in Washington, D.C. Among these issues are familial rejection, discrimination at work, high rates of depression, and a lack of support from societal institutions.
“All the factors of not having any sort of social security or support from family, from the structure of employment, make for the unstableness that lead anyone to homelessness if you don’t have the structure that would support you to live in a stable place,” said Broadus.
In February, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued a notice to all shelters nationwide directing them to accept self-identification from all transgender people seeking shelter for the night. Advocates cite this as an important step forward.
The notice called for all shelters to place their clients “in a shelter or facility that corresponds to the gender with which the person identifies, taking health and safety concerns into consideration.” It set forth guidelines on addressing gender identity and called against shelters reassigning a person because of complaints about their self-identification. The notice declared that HUD is still considering implementation of a national policy, which would make the guidelines into mandatory operations for shelters.
“[The notice] does signal, at least for now, that HUD is moving in the right direction and trying to signal that inclusiveness is the way to go,” said Broadus.
In Denver, however, there remain few shelters where advocates feel they can safely send their transgender clients. It is a situation that Sheri Proctor, president of Denver’s Gender Identity Center, is no stranger to.
Proctor said she often refers clients to either the Delores Project (a woman’s shelter) or Urban Peak. But shelter availability often does not match the number of transgender clients she sees.
“We do what we can, but there’s not any options,” she said. Particularly for those who are male-identifying, who may feel uncomfortable in a women-only shelter.
“We don’t have good resources, and all too often I have to say ‘I can’t help you. I’m sorry, it breaks my heart, but I can’t help you,’” said Proctor.
Across the nation, many transgender people fear what will happen if they elect to stay with a shelter for the night. But it is difficult to bring attention to an issue where so little visibility and statistics exist.
A 2012 survey of over 7,000 trans people was the first to address those questions, conducted through a collaboration of the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, where Broadus works. The survey found that 55 percent of trans people who stayed in homeless shelters were harassed during their time there.
Additionally, the survey found that 29 percent of transgender people who had attempted to access shelters were turned away, and 42 percent stayed in facilities for a gender different from which they identified. Twenty five percent also reported being physically assaulted and 22 percent sexually assaulted.
According to that survey (the most comprehensive and recent available), two percent of the homeless population is trans, twice the number of the one percent of trans people in the general population.
Trying to find somewhere that would be safe to stay is what brought Kennedy to Denver. The staff at Urban Peak, he said, ensures the best they can that their LGBTQ youth are safe, including providing him a single space to stay in. But that doesn’t mean he has avoided harassment.
“I am acquainted with a lot of people here. I speak to them just because I’m here. Most people in the shelter I don’t like because of how they treat me,” he said, though more recently he has made some friends at Urban Peak.
But many are not lucky enough to have single spaces to sleep, and are often forced to choose between presenting as a gender they do not identify with, or facing risk of sexual assault and rape. At the Delores Project, there is always concern over how guests will respond to a transgender person staying with them.
“As with all people, I think there is a need for education among our guests,” said Laura Rossbert, program director at The Delores Project. “As in any communal living situation, people come with all different experiences and belief systems and disagreements will naturally arise.”
The Delores Project shelters about 50 women and transgender individuals each night. At one point not long ago, 10 to 14 percent of their guests identified as transgender, according to Rossbert.
“It’s wonderful when we start talking about what we do and that we work for women and transgender individuals. A parole officers will be like ‘oh my god, thank goodness now I know I can send people to The Delores Project,’” said Rossbert. Part of that is because Delores Project does not ask for official identification, another barrier that stands in the way of people who are transgender at many other shelters.
Staff at The Gathering Place, a drop-in day shelter for women that is open to transgender clients, also worries about reaction and complaints from cisgender (identifying as the same gender one is assigned at birth) clients who say they feel uncomfortable. As with Delores, The Gathering Place’s open door policy for transgender individuals doesn’t always mean a guarantee of safety and comfort for guests.
“When you find the overnight shelters that are willing to accept your statement of who you are—on the one hand, it’s a huge relief,” said Barbara Jensen, physical and mental health program manager. “But on the other hand, now you’re up against maybe the biases of the other people staying at the shelter. And that can be really difficult—the staff are saying ‘we support you,’ but the other people staying at the shelter are saying ‘no, we don’t.’”
It’s especially difficult when clients can’t get into The Delores Project, leaving them with options they often feel are not as safe.
“I know that a lot of our members who are transgender love the Delores Project and feel very comfortable there. So when they don’t get in they can experience a lot of stress,” said community access manager LeeAnn Felder.
Even with a secure spot to sleep, people who are transgender and homeless face unique barriers in their path back to stabilization, often leaving them grasping for a handhold. For many, the first step out of homelessness is finding a job—but loss of a job due to transgender identity is the very reason so many trans people become homeless in the first place.
According to the 2012 Gay and Lesbian Task Force survey, transgender people experienced twice the rate of unemployment as the general population, while 47 percent said their identity had a negative impact on their job, resulting in them being fired, not given a promotion, or not hired.
Underemployment is a problem that plagues 44 percent of the population, according to the survey. Finding a job is difficult enough for a transgender person. Finding a job while experiencing homelessness is just as difficult, but for different reasons. When the two situations of trans and homeless are combined, it becomes exponentially difficult to find a job. It’s a situation that, to many, seems hopeless.
Kennedy has searched for a job since arriving at Urban Peak, but given the barriers of his identity and disabilities, has decided to hold off until he can be approved for supplemental security income (SSI).
When he was job searching, he faced the same difficult choice of how to approach his identity with potential employers. He chose to be upfront about his identity, though he said he has known many trans people to hide their identity through the hiring process.
“There is a good chance they won’t hire you because you’re trans,” he said. “Basically you have to go in there and say ‘here’s my ID, but I’m a boy so don’t use female pronouns.’”
At The Gathering Place, personal growth program managers spend a lot of time working with clients on job access work. The most they can do is to help people find options and place their best foot forward when they have interviews, offering a bin of business casual clothes and a place for people to store their bags while they go in. They have also coordinated with the Gender Identity Center for job programming.
But the story still often has the same ending for their clients.
“We had somebody who was let go from their job, and they really felt like it was because they were trans,” said Jensen. “That’s a really hard situation, and we want to be able to support the couple. Now, just as with those who lost their job due to any other type of discrimination, all the expenses are on one partner, and that person is really struggling under the pressure of supporting both of them.”
Even in the face of such imposing challenges, there is another common thread that ties together the transgender community: resilience, an inability to do anything but continue pushing forward. Slowly, it is beginning to make a difference.
“We are seeing things improving,” said Proctor. “There’s bits and pieces, there’s small chunks.”
Advocates say that more meaningful change must continue to come from the bottom up. Most believe the shift will come in the spreading of small ripples of change, the conversations in shelters, minor policy adjustments, and collaborations.
“That’s how change happens,” Felder said. “Somebody becoming aware and saying ‘oh yeah, that’s just a person.’”
She has seen that change firsthand. Despite the frustrations, the setbacks, the threats and discrimination, Felder said the narrative that plays out before her eyes at The Gathering Place is not one of defeat, but of blossoming strength.
“I’ve seen that more often,” she said “tentative at first, then comfortable enough to become who they really are.” ■