Transgender Homeless People Struggle to Find Shelter in Richmond. This Bill Would Help.

They say they've tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.

By Arianna Coghill

January 8, 2021

A proposal going through Richmond’s government would add protection for transgender Virginians.

RICHMOND- Virginia’s housing crisis is spinning out of control. And thanks to discrimination, it’s affecting members of the LGBTQ community, especially transgender people, at a higher rate than others. And to make a bad situation worse, shelters are more likely to discriminate against trans people.

The Richmond City Council is trying to put a stop to that. 

On Jan. 7, the Education and Human Services Committee pushed along a resolution that would add protections for trans Virginians at a time where more people are facing housing insecurity.  During a virtual meeting, the committee recommended that the City Council approve the bill by their next meeting.

“This resolution explicitly states the city’s support of the Virginia Values Act,” said Maggie Anderson, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s LGBTQ liaison.

Resolution 2020-R072 would put in place stronger protections for trans people staying in the city’s shelters. This resolution is a direct response to the letter that Stoney’s office received from many LGBTQ organizations in the area. 

In Oct., 16 organizations, including Equality Virginia and Diversity Richmond, wrote a letter demanding that officials pay attention the discrimination happening in Richmond’s shelters. Discrimination that had gotten so bad that, according to the letter, transgender people were sleeping in their cars or other places not fit for human habitation out of fear.

“This historic lack of trans-affirming service provision is deeply disturbing and requires the Richmond City Council and Mayor’s Office to hold shelters, and the broader Continuum of Care for Homeless Services, accountable for their actions,” said the letter.

Discrimination Leads to Housing Insecurity

Trans people, especially if they’re Black and brown, are more likely to face both housing and job discrimination, making them more susceptible to housing insecurity. And of those facing housing insecurity, they’re more likely to not stay in a shelter. Because of this discrimination, they’re more likely to stay in places not fit for someone to sleep like a park, abandoned building or sidewalk.

“Homelessness is a critical issue for transgender people,” said Jennifer Gallienne with Virginia League for Planned Parenthood. “One in five transgender individuals have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.”

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the number of adult transgender individuals experiencing homelessness increased 88% since 2016. And, the number experiencing unsheltered homelessness is even higher, increasing 113% during the same period. Currently, the amount of unsheltered trans people is 63%. This is 14% higher than their cisgendered counterparts.

And not having access to a shelter leaves them vulnerable to a multitude of risks. According to the NAEH, a transgender person’s risk of chronic illness jumps from 3% to 38% if they’re unsheltered. And their risk of mental illness is even higher, increasing from 16% to 50%.

“There’s strong evidence that characterizes housing’s relationship to health,” said Gallienne. “Housing stability, quality, safety and affordability all affect health outcomes.” However, in order for transpeople to stay in these shelters, they have to feel safe. And right now, these shelters are far from it.

RELATED: 2020 Has Been a Revolutionary Year for LGBTQ Protections in Virginia

Transgender People Face Discrimination

During the meeting, Bill Harrison, executive director of Diversity Richmond, recounted a story of an unsheltered trans woman he’d met through their program. She was about 60 years old and was living on the streets out of sheer desperation for several months. Her family had kicked her out of their home.

After reaching out to her, Harrison said she’d became very emotional, asking them to not make her stay in a shelter.

“She’d tried to use the shelters twice,” said Harrison. “But both times she was told she’d have to sleep in the quarters with the men. And both those times she was told to stay in the men’s quarter, she slept on the street.”

Eventually, Harrison ended up checking her into a hotel room.

Unfortunately, this practice is not uncommon. Ted Lewis, the Executive Director of the organization Side by Side, works with LGBTQ youth between the ages 18-25. And the vast majority of the people they see are either trans or non-binary, as well as a racial minority.

“Transgender and non-binary youth face unique challenges accessing care for several reasons,” said Lewis. “Including that they’re often dead named or misgendered by shelter staff. They fear that their gender will not be affirmed, especially in gender segregated shelters. And non-binary youth are often completely left out of gender segregated options.”

Lewis also explained that often trans and non-binary youth also worry about violence against them. Not only from others seeking shelter, but from the shelter’s staff. And data shows that trans and nonbinary people face violence at an incredibly high rate. Unfortunately most of this violence is undocumented.

Adding New Trans Affirming Protections

Gov. Northam signed the Virginia Values Act in April 2020, having it go into effect in July the same year. The Act includes gender and sexuality to the list of protected identities under the Virginia Human Rights Act. Advocates hope that this resolution will add an extra oomph behind the protections guaranteed in the Values Act.

“This resolution is an important step forward in implementing the Virginia Values Act and providing shelters with the guidance that they’re eager for,” said Vee Lamneck, the executive director of Equality Virginia. “It’s especially important that institutions funded by taxpayer money serve our most vulnerable communities competently and equitably.”

If the council passes the bill, shelters in Richmond will have to appropriately train their staff to treat trans people with dignity and respect. This includes using their name and their pronouns correctly and consistently, as well as conflict resolution training. Shelters will also have to create a non-discrimination policy that addresses sexual orientation and gender identity.

“There needs to be adequate training for staff at the shelters,” said Harrison. “The folks I’ve talked to at the shelters want to do the right thing. But they need the training.”

If a shelter fails to complete these steps, it would be a direct violation of the Virginia Values Act. Violating this act carries a pretty hefty price tag. You could end up paying a $50,000 civil penalty as a first time offender. Repeat offenders have to pay $100,000 penalty for each violation.

What Comes Next? 

The committee will hear more about this bill on Jan. 11. The city council website will be streaming the meeting live at 2 p.m. next Monday. But, in the meantime, if you or someone you know is facing housing insecurity, reach out to the Transgender Assistance Program of Virginia. They offer resources that cater specifically to trans people facing homelessness.

Arianna Coghill is a content producer with Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected].

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