HUD Instructs Homeless Shelters To Provide Equal Treatment To Transgender People

CREDIT: AP Photo/Erik S. Lesser

Reva Iman, a transgender woman who struggled to find shelter in Atlanta in 2009.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released guidance Friday advising equal treatment for transgender people in homeless shelters and transitional housing programs throughout the U.S. The guidance follows an announcement two years ago that HUD would implement LGBT nondiscrimination protections throughout the Department.

According to the new guidance, shelters should not ask clients about their sexual orientation or gender identity and should be prepared to respect how individuals identify their own gender when placing them in single-sex facilities. “A client’s or potential client’s own views with respect to personal health and safety should be given serious consideration in making the placement,” the guidance reads, and complaints from others in the shelter about the individual’s gender conformity should not be a factor.

Clients cannot be considered ineligible for shelter just because their identity documents indicate a different gender than how they identify, nor should individuals be asked questions about their anatomy or medical history. Likewise, facilities should, to the extent feasible, establish a layout that allows for individual privacy, such as toilet stalls with doors and locks and separate showers, without isolating or segregating clients based upon gender identity.

Transgender people access homeless shelters at far higher rates than the general public and experience rampant discrimination when they do so. According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 19 percent of trans people had experienced homelessness at some point in their lives specifically because of their gender identity. In shelters, 55 percent had been harassed by shelter staff or residents, 29 percent had been turned away altogether, and 22 percent experienced sexual assault by residents or staff. For example, last May, a Salvation Army shelter in Dallas refused to house a transgender woman specifically because she had not yet undergone transition surgery.

Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality, told ThinkProgress that her organization hears about such discrimination frequently. “We’ve seen and heard of numerous cases in which transgender women were admitted to a women’s shelter —maybe after spending all day just searching and waiting for a shelter bed —only to have, late at night or the next day, staff kick them out because someone questioned their gender,” she explained. Likewise, many transgender women are told they can only stay in men’s shelters, and fearing for their safety, choose to stay on the street or even trade sex for a place to stay.

“With bitter cold around the country, we welcome this guidance and urge all shelters to follow it,” Tobin said, adding that the guidance “could literally save lives.” She hopes that HUD enshrines the guidance into its regulations to better guarantee enforcement of the protections.

In the meantime, it’s a a band-aid on the bigger problem of housing. “A shelter is not a home,” Tobin noted, and “temporary shelters are not a good solution for anyone.” Until access to permanent housing improves, “everyone should be able to be sheltered safely.”