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Transgender Homelessness

The Lack of Support For Transgender People Facing Homelessness

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

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

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.

According to the same survey, 12 percent of those that responded reported experiencing homelessness in the year prior to completing the survey specifically because they were transgender.

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,” said Sheila Alexander-Reid, director of the D.C. Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs. “If you can get [the homeless] 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.”

Alexander-Reid has been the director for almost three years. Since starting at D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office, Alexander-Reid has been a liaison who ensures that the LGBTQ community understands the mayor’s vision.

“I will say that homelessness, employment and public safety are the top three issues that the transgender community faces,” Alexander-Reid said. “Not just in the District, 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. Twenty-nine percent of respondents were living in poverty, compared to 14 percent in the whole U.S. population. This high poverty rate is directly linked to respondents’ 15 percent unemployment rate — three times higher than the unemployment rate in the U.S. population at the time of the survey.

“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 by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), D.C. passed 25 ‘good laws’ between 2004 and 2016. ‘Good laws’ are laws that address non-discrimination, youth, parenting, hate crime and health and safety in a way that protects citizens. On average, each state, including D.C., passed 9 ‘good laws’, accounting for California as an outlier that passed 132 ‘good laws’ in the same time period.

“The District 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,” Alexander-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. I think we’ve done a lot because HRC and National LGBT Task Force are located in D.C. 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 said their immediate families were supportive in the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey were less likely to report a variety of negative experiences related to economic stability and health, such as experiencing homelessness, attempting suicide, or facing serious psychological distress.

“Unfortunately, in many cases, a lot of families are not accepting and loving of their family members who are of trans experience,” said Adriana Scott, housing navigation coordinator at HIPS said.

HIPS is 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.

“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 live at or below the poverty level,” Scott said.

Eccles has bounced back and forth between hotels, couch surfing and living on the street because her family proved to be an unreliable network of support.

“I stayed with my sister, who didn’t approve of my gender, so that was pretty hard for her. There were many of my family members who did not approve,” Eccles said. “They were accepting because they loved me, but they really don’t approve of it.”

According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, respondents who were rejected were nearly twice as likely to have experienced homelessness as those who were not rejected.

“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.”

Twenty-six percent of those who experienced homelessness in the past year avoided staying in a shelter because they feared being mistreated as a transgender person.

“The District’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.”

Seven out of ten 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 D.C. 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. 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, has 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, 72 percent of respondents had performed sex work.

“We had a transgender public safety townhall here in the community room,” Alexander-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.”

Alexander-Reid’s story happened to be about Eccles. After Eccles told the story at the town hall, Alexander-Reid worked with her to get a job with Unified Communications Center, a government agency within D.C. Eccles was hired as part-time and 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,” Alexander-Reid said.

The two women stay in touch and Alexander-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 D.C. 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.”

Eccles is currently trying to work out a more permanent housing situation.

“Even though I’m comfortable where I’m at now, I’m really not complacent where I’m at,” Eccles said. “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. It’s like travel, eating, rent here, it’s not really like I can save much money. It’s hard but I try to make the best of it.”