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Texas homeless shelters adapt for trans people

Sophie Wilkinson April 6, 2009
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High numbers of trans people living on the street have prompted homeless shelters to provide dedicated trans facilities.

AP reports that activists have underscored the deaths of homeless trans women in Atlanta and Austin, Texas as indicative of the adaptations which are necessary for shelters to accommodate all people in need.

Although the exact number of trans people who are also homeless is unknown, the need for dedicated accommodation is recognised by charities.

Those living as trans men or women are more likely to suffer unemployment than others in the LGBT community and often find it harder to maintain jobs due to discrimination.

Reva Iman, 42, is a trans woman who was refused jobs when she first came to Atlanta. She started working as a prostitute and became homeless.

“The street life of escorting and prostitution, that became my main line of survival,” said Iman. Upon visiting shelters, she was also urged to “dress like a man” in order to spend the night. “You can’t be yourself,” she said.

Shelter officials understand the sensitive issues surrounding the accommodation of homeless trans people.

According to the AP report, some shelter managers argue that “biological women feel uncomfortable sleeping next to a biological man.”

There have also been concerns “that residents with mental problems could lash out” at trans residents and that women fleeing abusive male partners could be frightened by sleeping next to someone who was born male.

Anita Beaty, the director of Atlanta’s Peachtree and Pine shelter, has safety-related concerns about placing trans women amongst the 700 men sleeping there nightly.

She plans to discuss shelter policies with activists in order to make her shelter trans-friendly: “We want to know how to respond better.”

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Coalition for the Homeless published a guidebook in 2006 providing shelter directors with advice on how to accommodate trans people more sensitively.

Tips included adding curtains in the communal showers for privacy and changing intake forms to include a blank space instead of a requirement for a guest at the shelter to define themselves as ‘male’ or ‘female’.

Jennifer Gale, a trans woman and political candidate, was found dead outside a church in Austin last December.

The official medical examiner’s report stated that she had died from heart disease which had been exacerbated by sleeping rough.

“Temperatures had dropped to the mid-30s that night.”, the Austin-American Statesman reported in February.

Dawn Perkins, the community relations manager for Front Steps, an organisation which co-ordinates shelters across Austin, claims that the death has inspired shelters to change citywide.

“That [the death] definitely reignited the flame that we needed to start working on this more,” she said.

In 2003, Monica Helms testified to Atlanta’s homelessness commission that a close friend of hers, a trans woman named Alice Johnston, had been turned away from city shelters after losing her home. Johnston revealed this information in 2002 in a suicide email to friends just before she shot herself dead.

Shelters in Boston, New York, San Francisco, Phoenix, and Austin, Texas have already adapted their facilities in order to accommodate more trans people sufficiently.

Related topics: Americas

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