Why Aren’t Shelters More Inclusive of LGBTQIA People?
As Pride Weekend is being celebrated in many communities around the country, here’s a hard truth to consider: less than 50 percent of LGBTQIA populations live in one of the 21 U.S. states that have policies and laws protecting them from housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Programs administered by the federal government’s main housing agency, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), do not provide such protection either. Thus, 22 percent of LGBTQIA people have been discriminated against when trying to rent or buy property. Transgender people have faced housing discrimination tied to their gender identity, with one in ten having been evicted from their homes on the basis of their gender identity.
Many LGBTQIA people teeter on the edge of homelessness as they live in poverty, driven in large part by that kind of discrimination, especially in housing and employment. According to research from The Williams Institute, lesbians or queer-identified women raising children are more likely to live in poverty than their heterosexual counterparts. Child poverty is highest among children being raised in households headed by African American male same-sex parents. LGBTQIA adults are less likely to have enough food to feed themselves or their families, and same sex couples raising children are more than twice as likely to receive food stamps. One in four LGBTQIA adults have said they do not have enough money for healthcare needs.
As for most who go through it, the experience of homelessness and the need to seek a shelter for most LGBTQIA adults is traumatizing in and of itself. It is made worse by the limited options they may see for themselves: 1) cross their fingers and hope that shelter staff and residents will respect their identities and treat them accordingly; 2) keep their gender identity or sexual orientation confidential (if that is even possible) in hopes of not being stigmatized; 3) ward off the homophobia that comes at them verbally and/or physically from shelter staff and/or other residents; or 4) avoid shelters altogether and take their chances on the streets. When it is a family with children, the calculations are unforgiving.
During this weekend of Pride in New York City, if you are celebrating and being celebrated, take the opportunity to rethink how shelters could be reimagined as a safe space for LGBTQIA adults experiencing homelessness. The first homeless shelter created specifically for LGBTQIA adults opened just four years ago, and is now one of a small handful of shelters dedicated to this population. Obviously, more shelter space would be helpful. At the same time, there are many steps shelters can take to demonstrate that they are a safe space for LGBTQIA people experiencing homelessness. Basic considerations could mean addressing individuals by their stated gender identity, including their names and pronouns, regardless of state-issued documents. Shelters can think through how to accommodate families with same-sex parents, given that the two largest populations in shelters are children and families. Other possibilities include increasing cultural competency among staff, establishing a set of LGBTQIA-inclusive values and practices by which the shelter community conducts itself, or creating a feedback loop to know how and whether LGBTQIA clients are experiencing the shelter as safe. The impetus is on policy makers, shelter providers, and supportive services to ensure that no residents are harmed by homophobic or anti-transgender discrimination and violence.