While America faces down a new eviction crisis, the Trump administration wants to make it harder for some people to use homeless shelters. A new rule announced in July would leave transgender people open to discrimination at shelters, which would in turn leave them with no place to stay.
The proposed change announced by the federal Housing and Urban Development agency will allow shelters to house transgender people based on their assigned sex at birth rather than their lived gender. This reverses an Obama era rule put in place in 2016. Unless we do something, there will be no answer to the question from LaLa Zannell, Trans Justice campaign manager for the ACLU: “Where should the Black and brown trans women who have faced discrimination at work and violence in their homes and the streets go after we have been turned away from shelters?”
This is a critical problem to address. Nearly 30% of all trans people have experienced homelessness, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. This is nearly eight times the rate of 4% of the general population, according to a 2017 study in the Journal of Public Health. People of color have it worse: 59% of American Indian, 51% of Black, and 35% of Latina transgender women have experienced homelessness, according to the 2015 study.
Shelters exist to give safe housing in difficult times. Over 300 anti-sexual assault and domestic violence organizations signed a letter opposing these types of law changes, which have also been proposed in other states, saying it puts transgender people at higher risk and doesn’t protect cisgender people at all. Shockingly, HUD itself admits in its proposed rule change that they are “not aware of data suggesting that transgender individuals pose an inherent risk to biological women.” Cisgender women are still safe when housed with transgender women.
While transgender people are not a risk, they certainly are at risk. The 2015 Transgender Survey also found that “70% of those who stayed in a shelter in the past year reported some form of mistreatment because of being transgender.” Over half said they were verbally, physically, or sexually assaulted in a shelter for being transgender. Nearly one in ten were kicked out of a shelter for it, and 44% left shelters because of “poor treatment or unsafe conditions.” This is the reality of the rule change proposed by HUD Secretary Ben Carson — those who need safe housing the most will not have access.
I also have to wonder if this change is even legal now. These policies rely on the Fair Housing Act, and HUD is claiming the Obama-era rule that offered protections for transgender people went too far. The FHA, they argue, only mentions sex, not gender. This doesn’t make sense. The Supreme Court just ruled that transgender people are protected by laws against sex discrimination. Mr. Carson’s HUD doesn’t even mention the Supreme Court decision, and certainly doesn’t explain why shelters under the FHA can discriminate against transgender persons.
Is it because of religious liberty? HUD has said so, but the Center for American Progress couldn’t even find one shelter that asked the government to let them house transgender people by assigned sex instead of lived gender. Not for religious reasons, not for any reason.
If HUD isn’t aware of any dangers posed by transgender people, and no shelter had ever requested a waiver or asked for religious accommodations, why try to change this rule? It is clearly part of a larger attack on the rights of transgender people by the Trump Administration. In 2017, Donald Trump issued an executive order banning transgender people from serving in the U.S. military. In June of this year, the Trump administration reversed Obama-era health care protections for transgender people, allowing health care providers to refuse to serve transgender patients. In 2019, Ben Carson himself came under fire for referring to transgender women as “big hairy men” trying to infiltrate women’s homeless shelters. Adam Serwer, a staff writer with The Atlantic, said it best: “The cruelty is the point.”
We must stop the cruelty. Right now, we can do two things. First, call on members of Congress to support H.R. 3018: Ensuring Equal Access to Shelter Act of 2019. If passed, this bill would require shelters who receive money from the federal government to house transgender people based on their lived gender. Second, leave public comments on the proposed rule change at www.regulations.gov/document?D=HUD-2020-0047-0001. The administration is required by law to respond to comments made. So in addition to pushing for the Equal Access to Shelter Act, we can delay the implementation of this rule change to buy time for Congress to act, or for a new administration to stop this immoral action.
Jeff Fuentes Gleghorn (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Kensington.