By Justine Nicholas
Sunday, December 26, 2004
Life is never easy in a homeless shelter. But advocates say it's particularly harsh for lesbians and transgender women because the shelter system fails to provide gender-appropriate treatment. City officials say they're doing what they can.
(WOMENSENEWS)--During her six years of homelessness, Jay Toole, a woman with a masculine appearance who now works for a homeless advocacy group, learned to fear homeless shelters.
Beatings and rapes of lesbians by guards and other workers in the shelters in which she occasionally lived were frequent, says Toole. Fights among residents could flare up when straight women didn't want to share showers and other facilities with women they perceived as lesbians.
"The shelter system is certainly not exempt from the biases that exist in society in general said James Anderson, a policy director for New York City's Department of Homeless Services. "Our goal is to ensure safe shelter to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity."
To achieve this, he says the department has "implemented standards of client responsibility to ensure that clients are respectful to one another and provide training to staff to be sensitive and alert to the unique needs of this and other populations."
But Toole--a shelter inspector with the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group in New York, and the community organizer for the Queers for Economic Justice network--says that individual shelters don't embody the principles Anderson articulated.
Toole, a "butch," says she and other masculine-looking lesbians have been beaten by male security guards and challenged to fights and otherwise harassed by female guards and residents. Such things didn't happen on the street, she said, and her appearance shielded her from the sexual abuse homeless women and girls often experience.
But no one has it harder, says Toole, than transgender women. They're sent to men's shelters because birth certificates and other documents identify them as male, even if they've had gender-reassignment surgery. Many transgender women--particularly the young ones whose families have disowned them--haven't had the opportunity to legally change their names and identifying documents.
"I know transgender women who were beaten, raped or robbed in the shelters," she says. Guards often think they are just "girly men" who simply need to be roughed up
Holly Humphrey, an assistant to Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Linda Gibbs, says all prospective clients are screened at intake centers throughout the city. Those evaluations determine whether clients are sent to men's, women's or family shelters. Caseworkers make their determinations based on interviews with the applicants, as well as through such documents as birth certificates, marriage licenses and domestic partnership agreements.
Humphrey allowed that the intake system "isn't perfect" and stated that the system's "practices and procedures are under review." She added that the Department of Homeless Services is committed to "ensuring that all clients are housed in appropriate arrangements and receive necessary and appropriate services."
Toole, however, says she has met transgender women in men's shelters, where administrators subject them to the rules and regulations pertaining to men, meaning they can be forced to dress and comport themselves as men and get no access to gender-appropriate counseling and medical treatment.
Toole acknowledges the concern many female shelter residents--who may have become homeless as a result of domestic violence--voice about having a man in their midst. But she points out that the Marian Residence, a women's shelter in San Francisco, has been housing transgender women since 1995 and has not reported an incident of violence or harassment committed by a transgender resident.
Judith Pomeroy, the shelter's manager, says she includes residents, transgender or not, in conversations, events and staff trainings to show residents and staff that "transgenders are indeed women." Furthermore, Pomeroy says, residents' fears are not insurmountable, for "a homeless woman is more likely than others to have experience with transgender people."
The total number of people who access the New York City shelter system on any night is around 36,000, a 75-percent increase from December 1998, according to statistics kept by the National Coalition for the Homeless. The number of adult women in the shelter system has grown at a significantly faster rate and now stands at around 10,000; nearly double the 5,200 count of six years ago.
Reliable statistics on the numbers of homeless lesbians and transgender women within this population are not available. But with the general incidence of homosexuality widely assumed to be somewhere between 3 and 17 percent, administrators and residents assume there are hundreds of lesbians in the New York City shelter system.
Numbers are even more difficult to ascertain for transgenders, because some are sex workers or engaged in other forms of subterranean employment and thus lack documentation, says Sheila Acosta, an outreach coordinator for Housing Works, Inc. Her organization, which helps homeless New Yorkers afflicted with HIV/AIDS, has begun transgender-specific programs and is establishing a shelter for transgender women in Brooklyn. "The need is certainly there," Acosta says.
Like their heterosexual counterparts, lesbians and transgenders are likely to enter the system with their partners. But under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, it is more likely that a lesbian couple will be separated from each other--and their children--than under the administration of Bloomberg's predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani, according to Toole and Acosta.
Now, couples must "prove interdependency for at least six months" to stay together in a shelter, according to Anderson. In addition to their certificate, couples must also produce lease agreements, bank records and other documents people generally don't have when forced out of their homes. "When a heterosexual couple gets married, their marriage license defines them as a couple on the day they get it," Toole says. "So the policy is discriminatory."
Humphrey of the Department of Homeless Services says the Bloomberg administration has tightened requirements in response to the city's economic downturn, which was accelerated by the events of 9/11. "We are over capacity now, and doing everything we can to open up new beds," Humphrey says.
Toole and Acosta say that ignorance of what they have experienced, if not prejudice, lead administrators to establish programs that don't address the needs of the populations they serve.
For example, many conflicts in a heterosexual relationship--such as those over the definition of roles and relationships with members of each spouse's family--can be traced to the ways in which men and women are acculturated: Men are often trained to be more individualistic and less nurturing than women.
Toole and Acosta say most counselors and therapists understand only these perspectives, which are meaningless for a lesbian couple. This leads to isolation, which is exacerbated by separation from partners and hinders the process of healing and rebuilding lives.
"Everyone needs a support system, whoever it is," Acosta explains. Without it, she asserts, "the best program is worthless."
Justine Nicholas is a free-lance writer who is teaching in the City University system of New York.
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