by Jesse Dekel
On May 22, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, led by Secretary Ben Carson, formally proposed a rule that would allow all federally funded homeless shelters in the United States to discriminate based on religious philosophy. This proposal would negate the 2016 and 2012 Equal Access laws that protect shelters from discriminating against transgender clients.
I talked to Ben Baczkówski, the Shelter Client Advocate for the Eviction Defence Collaborative about HUD’s rule proposal, and what this means to trans clients:
“There’s a section under the Equal Access law about gender identity. And it has a pretty robust understanding of gender identity, as opposed to ‘sex-based determinations’ when it comes to putting people in shelters.” [The explanation given by HUD’s website reads “HUD ensures equal access to individuals in accordance with their gender identity in programs and shelter funded under programs administered by HUD’s Office of Community Planning and Development.”]
What HUD had proposed was basically allowing religious philosophy to be a part of that determination now. It seems innocuous, but under the proposal, all of the homeless shelters (except maybe four) are run by Catholic or other Christian organisations, particularly St. Vincent De Paul and Salvation Army, who have really bad track records of discriminating against trans people. In fact, the state of New York threatened down all of Salvation Army’s shelters because they found that there was widespread discrimination going on.”
In addition to this, the 2015 U.S.Transgender Survey revealed that in a single year, 70% of trans clients reported being discriminated in shelters. The HUD itself presented a report that said that between 2017 and 2018, transgender homelessness rates increased by 22% due to homeless trans people being denied entry to shelters. The HUD’s website also reports that 20% to 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ. Transgender women, particularly trans women of color, are over-represented in this statistic.
A phone survey by the Center for American Progress and the Equal Rights Center found that in 2016 shelters in Tennessee, Virginia, Connecticut and Washington, only 30% of shelters would house a transgender woman with cisgender women. This study also said that out of these four states, the two that have gender identity nondiscrimination protections — Connecticut and Washington — were two times as probable to help a transgender caller gain entry to another shelter.
Baczkówski says, “It’s very worrisome as someone who works in the shelters because from my perspective, the people who work in the shelters put off this kind of attitude, they purport to have this kind of culture of ‘We’re never looking to put somebody out if they break the rule, we want to work with people. We only throw people out when we absolutely have to.’ They like to seem progressive and charitable, and that’s how to caution themselves. But the way they really operate when it comes to the day in and day out is, they moralize over people’s behavior all the time. Basically, right now they have to kind of ‘soft-discriminate’ against people, so it’s sort of like they make it known if they don’t like you. They use the institution to exert power over people. But now, if this rule goes into effect, I would worry that some of the more religious shelters would start rewriting their policies.”
This is to say that transphobia and broader discrimination already runs rampant in homeless shelters. Especially when workers are paid low wages and take on difficult roles, they sometimes take out their frustrations on clients who are already having a rough time navigating the shelter system. Many shelters in major cities like San Francisco are run by incredibly lucrative nonprofit organizations that are more interested in real estate acquisitions and buying out grassroot community-run housing programs, than they are in supporting transgender clients and addressing policy faults.
To summarize, Baczkówski says, “It’s a rule proposal that has to do with equal access law. And so basically, what the rule does is allow homeless shelters to discriminate based off religious philosophy and the shelter system is largely made up of religious organizations with really bad track records of discrimination. There’s this particular issue and it has its own effect, which is very insidious, but it’s part of a kind of campaign against trans and gender nonconforming people.”
The intercept. “The Trump Administration Wants to Make It Harder for Transgender People to Access Homeless Shelters.” The Intercept. May 23, 2019. Accessed June 10, 2019. https://theintercept.com/2019/05/23/homeless-shelters-transgender-hud/.
Sosin, Kate. “The Trump Administration Targets Homeless Trans People with Devastating New HUD Policy.” Them. May 23, 2019. Accessed June 10, 2019. https://www.them.us/story/trump-targets-homeless-trans-people.