By Chandra Thomas Whitfield
It wasn’t quite the new start Charles Harrison had expected when he relocated to Colorado from New Mexico in the fall of 2015 to attend culinary school. Just nine months later, an unexpected rate hike left him unable to pay his portion of the rent on the two-bedroom Arvada apartment that he’d been sharing with three others. (Charles Harrison is a pseudonym; his real name is withheld at his request, for privacy reasons.)
Harrison scrounged up enough money to stay at an extended-stay hotel in Westminster, but when his money ran out within a week and a half, he turned to social service agencies for emergency assistance. After his caseworker at Rocky Mountain Human Services was unable to find him a room to rent, she asked how he felt about moving into a homeless shelter.
Harrison, an African-American transgender man, scoffed at the idea. Most facilities segregate housing and programming by gender. He had heard horror stories about staffers, during the intake process, redirecting transgender shelter-seekers to a different facility based on their birth gender because their appearance did not match the one listed on their identification documents.
Thanks to a recent ruling from the federal government, Harrison and other transgender people, in Colorado and nationwide, may no longer feel forced to choose between remaining on the streets or staying in shelters based strictly on their birth gender—facilities where they say they often feel unwelcome at best, and unsafe at worst. Transgender advocates in Colorado say the measure is a helpful step in addressing the marginalization and discrimination that contributes to high rates of poverty, displacement and homelessness among transgender people.
A HUD intervention
In September, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced a new rule requiring emergency shelters that receive federal funds to “provide all individuals, including transgender individuals and other individuals who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth, with access to programs, benefits, services and accommodations in accordance with their gender identity, without being subjected to intrusive questioning or being asked to provide documentation.”
Members of metro Denver’s transgender community say they are cautiously optimistic about the HUD rule, noting that even though transgender people were added to Colorado’s anti-discrimination laws in 2008—protecting them from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations—barriers to securing quality housing persist. Denver’s well-documented affordable housing shortage has only exacerbated an already chronic problem.
“Due to the discrimination [transgender people] face, they [often] find themselves in a survival economy—doing things like sex work and drug-dealing to make ends meet,” said Sable Schultz, transgender programs manager at the Denver-based GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender) Community Center of Colorado.
Schultz, a transgender woman, applauded the HUD rule. Due to discrimination, many transgender people find it difficult to find stable employment and often end up homeless, said Schultz. The fact that shelters—often a last resort—hadn’t always been welcoming exacerbated the problem, she said.
Schultz said some of her clients have reported experiencing intake issues at homeless shelters across Colorado. How they look, she said, often determined what questions they were asked during the intake process.
“Basically, how well you are ‘passing’ [for the gender you are presenting as],” can make a difference, said Schultz. “Depending on how you look, you might be asked certain questions [during the intake process at shelters] and once they show ID or say they are trans, many times they are told [by staff members] that the facility is ‘not equipped’ to meet their needs.”
Denver Rescue Mission spokeswoman Alexxa Gagner said it and fellow Association of Gospel Rescue Missions member shelters, a network of some 300 rescue missions nationwide, are aware of the HUD regulations and are complying with them. Though checking identification documents, when available, is part of the typical intake process at the Mission and many other shelters, Gagner said she is not aware of any specific situations wherein transgender people were ever turned away specifically due to their transgender status.
Gagner said that prior to the recent change, many shelters would assist transgender shelter-seekers in getting help at another facility that matched their identification documents.
“We serve anyone in need,” Gagner said, adding that a database check found that since 2013, 71 Denver Rescue Mission shelter guests had indicated “other,” “don't know” or “refused” in regards to intake questions about their gender.
“No matter what situation someone is in, if they’re coming to the Mission we’ve always wanted them to feel comfortable, like this is a safe haven,” Gagner said.
In announcing the measure, HUD Secretary Julián Castro said: “This new rule will ensure equal access to the very programs that help to prevent homelessness for persons who are routinely forced to choose between being placed in facilities against their gender identity or living on our streets.”
The rule follows HUD’s February 2012 Equal Access Rule, allowing for an exception to admittance at shelters in cases involving single-sex emergency shelters with shared sleeping areas or bathrooms. Upon further review of the original policy, the agency concluded it did not adequately address the significant barriers transgender and gender-nonconforming persons faced when accessing single-sex facilities, including violence, harassment and discrimination.
“Homeless service providers reported that, if given the choice between a shelter designated for their assigned birth sex or sleeping on the streets, many transgender shelter-seekers would choose the streets,” HUD noted in a statement, referencing national research, including the results of a discrimination telephone test conducted by the Center for American Progress across four states in January 2016. “Transgender women in particular reported that they are excluded from women’s shelters, forcing them to live on the streets or to seek shelter in male-only facilities where they’re forced to disguise their gender identity or face abuse or violence.”
The updated ruling means that shelters “cannot force a person into a shelter inconsistent with their gender identity,” as Harrison had feared, and that transgender shelter-seekers may request alternative housing “on a voluntary basis.” Shelters also must post notices about the new rule.
LGBT advocate Ming Wong said it’s too early to tell whether the HUD ruling is in jeopardy of being overturned by the administration of President-elect Donald J. Trump, who has said he wants to reverse many of the decisions made under his predecessor. Trump recently named retired neurosurgeon and former presidential hopeful Ben Carson to lead the department.
“Right now it is very difficult to predict what the new administration’s policy priorities will be,” said Wong, an attorney who oversees the legal helpline for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, an LGBT advocacy organization. “The key thing is we’re monitoring proposed candidates for cabinet-level positions and would encourage all LGBTQ people and our allies to stay engaged as well. These positions often shape how federal law is implemented, and the country cannot allow ideologues with a history of homophobic, transphobic, racist, anti-worker and anti-poor policy positions to undermine the vital functions of our federal agencies.”
By the numbers
An analysis of state and federal data released in June 2016 by The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimates that there are 1.4 million adults in the U.S. who identify as transgender, a number that does not include transgender children. It’s unclear exactly how many live in Colorado.
A 2014 report by One Colorado, the state’s largest advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Coloradans and their families, found that transgender Coloradans are nearly twice as likely as Coloradans in general to have college degrees. But educational attainment does not appear to insulate them from the perils of discrimination, limited employment options, threats of violence, limited support networks and poverty—issues that tend to go hand-in-hand with housing challenges and homelessness.
Research also shows a well-established link between one’s housing options and health status. For example, reports by the U.S. Surgeon General, HUD, the World Health Organization and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have found that policy decisions about the location, quality and affordability of housing have the ability to dramatically affect people’s health and safety.
Nationally, nearly one third of transgender people have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. Around one in eight said they experienced homelessness in the past year because of being transgender; rates were much higher among transgender women of color. Family rejection, discrimination and violence contribute to the alarming prevalence of homelessness.
Harrison’s urgent housing predicament took place before the HUD ruling was announced, but fortunately his caseworker at Rocky Mountain Human Services had an effective solution that addressed his need in a timely fashion. She helped him land one of the precious few beds available at The Delores Project, a unique Denver shelter that explicitly caters to the needs of unaccompanied women and “transgender individuals experiencing homelessness.”
“I'm thankful for The Delores Project,” Harrison said. “They were the only safe space in town for a person like me.”
A transgender housing ‘project’
The Delores Project is one of just a few metro Denver organizations working to help alleviate the bourgeoning homelessness problem facing the transgender population. Tucked away at the end of a quiet, tree-lined street in Denver’s West Colfax community, the facility provides up to 52 beds, a number that increases to 65 during the frigid winter months. A diverse mix of coverings—from kitschy patchwork quilts to vibrant orange and blue Denver Broncos throws—decorate the rows of freestanding and stacked twin beds that occupy much of the two main dormitories. Some guests, as they are referred to by the staff, have personal photos, inspirational quotes and cartoons pinned on bulletin boards posted beside their beds, crowded with plastic bins and bags often overflowing with personal items.
There’s an industrial-sized kitchen, dining room, library, dressing area, art hung on the walls and a patio for residents to relax outside. The shelter’s address is kept confidential to maintain the safety of its clients.
The Delores Project has always served both transgender men and transgender women, but earlier this year its mission statement was officially revised to reflect it.
“It really was a no-brainer, because this population needs safe and comfortable shelter,” said Laura Rossbert, the shelter’s deputy director. “Our goal was to meet an unmet need, and we’re providing that.”
To that end, The Delores Project leadership has launched a project they hope will help address both the equity issues and housing supply shortages that many transgender Coloradans face. The facility has teamed up with Rocky Mountain Communities, an affordable housing developer, to build a new homeless shelter facility, as well as add 35 low-income permanent supportive-housing units and 95 affordable housing units for individuals and families in the workforce.
Builders are expected to break ground on the $30 million Arroyo Village project in 2017; it will be funded through the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program and, Rossbert notes, will not require a traditional capital fundraising campaign. “It will provide permanent supportive housing with wraparound [support] services offered on site,” she said.
The Delores Project is joined in a transgender support coalition by Urban Peak, a homeless shelter for youth; Survivors Organizing for Liberation and Branching Seedz of Resistance (formerly the Colorado Anti-Violence Project), which provides a crisis hotline; The Gathering Place, a day shelter for the homeless; and other organizations. The coalition meets quarterly to share information and resources. It Takes A Village, a community center in Aurora, helps to connect transgender African-Americans in need with both temporary and long-term housing options.
On the legislative front, One Colorado plans to again push for passage of the Birth Certificate Modernization Act. The bill, which died in the Colorado Senate in 2015 after passing with a bipartisan majority in the State House, eliminates a gender reassignment surgery requirement and the court order currently required to change your birth certificate in Colorado.
Advocates say that along with streamlining the overall legal process, the measure would allow a transgender person to obtain a new birth certificate (rather than an amended one) that identifies that person’s gender—thus reducing the opportunity to face discriminatory treatment, including when seeking out emergency and long-term housing.
A promising update
As for Harrison, he still has many challenges to overcome, but his situation is improving each day. He took time off from his previous school to deal with problems with his housing situation and his health. He is currently enrolled in a culinary school in the metro Denver area with hopes of ultimately earning a bachelor’s degree in nutrition.
The day after being interviewed for this story, he received long-awaited word that his application for a room on campus had been approved. Within minutes of hearing the news, he packed up his belongings and hopped on a bus to claim his keys and move in. He said he didn’t want to keep The Delores Project bed from someone else.
“I know how hard it is to find a place to live in Colorado on limited funds—no matter who you are,” he said. “Being transgender [just] makes it harder.”