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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Lesbians and Transgenders Struggle for Shelter

Women's eNews
Run Date: 12/26/04
By Justine Nicholas
WeNews correspondent

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.

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.

Transgenders Sent to Men's Shelters

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."

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