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Analysis

Ben Carson guts homeless shelter gender protections 24 hours after telling Congress he wouldn’t

Tuesday the HUD secretary was "not currently anticipating changing the rule." Wednesday, he rolled out changes.

U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson looks at his watch during a February appearance at the White House. CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images
U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson looks at his watch during a February appearance at the White House. CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Transgender and gender non-conforming people could soon be barred from federally funded shelters, after the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced plans Wednesday to scrap recently added regulator protections.

HUD’s rulemaking would rescind the Equal Access Rule that currently requires shelters that wish to segregate clients according to their gender to modify their structures accordingly – rather than turn people away.

Homeless shelters serve a particularly crucial role in protecting the lives and safety of gender minorities, who are often put out on the street early in life by intolerant families and are frequent targets for violent bigots once they find themselves in such a vulnerable situation. The Equal Access Rule, enacted in 2012, has been heralded as an essential protection by hundreds of advocacy groups concerned by this cycle of abandonment and violence.

The rulemaking notice concludes with language promising that the new policy would somehow maintain the protections enshrined in the rule the agency is looking to scrap. However, that sentence is a fig-leaf: To allow shelters to “conside[r] an individual’s sex for the purposes of determining accommodation…and…admission,” as the notice describes the forthcoming rule, is to allow federally-funded shelters to refuse to serve people.

Such refusals will cost lives.

“The programs impacted by this rule are life-saving for transgender people, particularly youth rejected by their families,” Mara Keisling, head of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), said in a statement. “[A] lack of stable housing fuels the violence and abuse that takes the lives of many transgender people of color across the country.”

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Carson holds ugly personal views on gender and made sure to share them from the main stage of the 2016 Republican National Convention. He has tacitly conceded in past testimony to Congress that his agency would abandon requirements for HUD-funded facilities to accommodate trans and gender-nonconforming people.

Yet for all that foreshadowing, Wednesday’s regulatory shift is still an abrupt shock. Less than 24 hours prior, Carson testified to House members that he was “not currently anticipating changing the rule.”

Federal rulemaking proposals do not spring up overnight. The staffers who built this rulemaking proposal would necessarily have been working on it well before he showed up and told Congress no such work was underway.

“In short, he lied,” NCTE tweeted Wednesday.

The NCTE may be correct. Perhaps Carson attended Tuesday’s hearing knowing full well that his staff were about to plop the anti-trans regulatory proposal onto the public record and decided – as several of his peers in the Trump administration have before him – to lie to Congress.

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But a less insidious and just-as-alarming possibility, supported by other moments from the same Tuesday hearing, is that Carson simply has no clue what his staff are up to. As the secretary’s painful back-and-forth with Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) illustrated, Carson does not have a meaningful grasp of the basic regulatory concepts, struggles, and disputes that are playing out inside the building he put such care and cost into redecorating.

It would be no better, however, if he just didn’t know this was coming.

Cabinet secretaries are political actors. It is, of course, vital that they maintain something of a keen grasp of the issues at play in their agency’s policy space. But it isn’t always necessary for the agency heads to get down in the policy weeds. These are giant institutions whose day-to-day work is primarily delegated to career staff with narrow expertise.

Different agency heads steer their respective ships in different ways. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was famous for micromanaging the vast human landscapes he oversaw, keeping all offices on fearful tippy-toe at all times with his “snowflake” memos. Former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell ran her shop on a quite different blend of open-eared consultative practices and firm, expertise-driven advocacy for a clear and specific mission.

Carson, by contrast, appears to be just sort of hanging out nearby while other people make decisions about HUD’s direction – and maybe even actively covering their tracks under direct questioning from elected officials.

Either possibility is nightmare fuel for anyone worried by the crises in homelessness, rental markets, homeownership, and public housing. Those who work with and advocate for gender minorities now have new reasons to be concerned — and they’re not sweating the distinction between mendacity and incompetence.

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“The difference is minimal to me,” NCTE’s Gillian Branstetter told ThinkProgress. “Whether he is acting out of ignorance or malice, his department is acting on both.”