Richmond Council Asks Shelters to Protect Homeless Trans Residents

By Brian Carlton

January 12, 2021

Council signs off on proposed resolution, designed to protect against discrimination in the city.

RICHMOND-Transgender teens are afraid to use Richmond’s homeless shelters, according to Ted Lewis. The executive director of Side by Side told city council members Monday that instead of being welcomed in, most of his trans clients are often kicked out or placed in the wrong shelter. 

“They’re often misgendered, or deadnamed by shelter staff,” Lewis said. “They fear their gender identity will not be affirmed, particularly in segregated shelters. And they worry about discrimination and sadly even violence from fellow shelter seekers as well as staff.” 

Lewis said the teens who come to Side by Side for help often had bad experiences at local shelters. Some groups force transgendered women to stay with the men. Another might insist on deadnaming them, by constantly using their birthname rather than their chosen one. Lewis and several other residents asked the council to help change that. And they did, to a point. 

The resolution passed by the city council Monday asks all of Richmond’s homeless shelters to create new policies, material designed to protect the trans community from discrimination. If shelters ignore 2020-R072, then they’ll also be in violation of the Virginia Values Act. The Act, which took effect last July, adds gender and sexuality to the list of protected identities under the Virginia Human Rights Act. And it has some teeth. First-time offenders could face a $50,000 fine. After that, each violation is $100,000. 

What Does The Resolution Say? 

The document adopted Monday night comes out strong in support of the trans community. It calls for “stronger protections and inclusive policies at local shelters.” The act asks all homeless shelters to give a commitment that people are not discriminated against on the basis of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Shelters are also asked to make sure their volunteers or employees identify trans people by the right gender identity, including using their chosen names and pronouns. It also asks shelters to give a commitment to work with the trans community to make sure each person’s unique safety needs are met. 

Dr. Wagaman told the council they have local residents who need to be protected. As temperatures drop, it’s dangerous for homeless teens to be out on their own. 

“I have met young people in our community who would rather sleep in their cars than go to an emergency shelter,” Wagaman said. “The risks associated with this are tremendous. Imagine for just a minute what it would take for someone to choose that. Our transgender community members don’t feel safe and confident in the [shelter’s] ability to treat them in a positive way.” 

Some Richmond residents proved that concern, based on how they responded to the resolution. Once people learned the council was considering this, members said the conversation with some people turned nasty. 

“Many of us received emails that were quite frankly offensive,” said city council member Stephanie Lynch. “[They had] some of the same rhetoric and arguments that have been used across many other states and localities.” 

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Numbers Highlight a Problem

LGBTQ teens make up just 9% of the country’s youth population, but they account for 40% of homeless teens, Lewis said. Local data backs that up. Advocates for Richmond Youth found in 2016 that 35% of homeless teens identified as trans. 

It’s the same in the adult community. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the number of adult transgender individuals experiencing homelessness increased 88% since 2016. Adults experiencing unsheltered homelessness climbed 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. The risk for chronic illness jumps from 3% to 38% if someone’s unsheltered. And their risk of mental illness is even higher, increasing from 16% to 50%. Speaking to the council Monday, local officials said good will only goes so far to solve this problem. 

“We cannot assume that good intentions and kind hearts will ensure an equitable and accessible homeless services system,” said Dr. Alex Wagaman, an associate professor with Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work. “We need a policy response.”Council members agreed, unanimously adopting the resolution.

Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at [email protected].

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