By Chandra Thomas Whitfield
Advocates for transgender rights in Colorado say a recently proposed Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rule that would allow transgender people to be turned away from federally funded homeless shelters is a targeted assault.
The measure was proposed in May by HUD just one day after the agency’s secretary Ben Carson had testified that no such changes were anticipated. Advocates say the measure is a rollback of the Obama-era equal access rule that had been celebrated by LGBTQ advocates for protecting transgender people seeking services at HUD-supported homeless shelters with facilities, like bathrooms and sleeping quarters, that are separated by gender.
“I’m not surprised that this administration has said this; since he’s taken office, Trump has waged this whole line of attack—and not just on trans folks—on the strides made by the [Obama] administration in regards to health care, housing and other critical policies that have helped provide equal access to all,” says Sable Schultz, transgender program manager at The GLBT Community Center of Colorado. Schultz calls the proposed rule “yet another example of this current administration pushing policies that promote hate and bigotry among historically vulnerable populations, like the LGBTQ community.”
The proposed HUD change comes on the heels of the Trump administration’s ban on transgender people enlisting in the military and a new rule allowing health care workers to cite moral or religious reasons to avoid providing medical services. Transgender advocates nationwide have said that the “conscience rule” will lead to LGBTQ people being denied life-saving health care.
“First it was our health care, and now they’re working on trying to take away our housing opportunities,” says Nevaeh Anderson, an African American transgender woman who serves as an HIV prevention outreach specialist for the Empowerment Program, a women’s advocacy organization in Denver. “It’s so frustrating because they’re using the basis of ‘morals and values’ to take away rights and destroy a group of folks—that evidence shows are already severely challenged—just because they don’t agree with how we live. We should have a right to life, liberty and justice for all, like anyone else.”
So far, HUD has not made any formal rulings regarding the proposed changes. Schultz says if they are ever approved, transgender Coloradans should find some solace in the fact that Colorado is one of 20 states and the District of Columbia with laws that protect people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.
“For that reason, I don’t expect to see as many issues here, especially in Denver, which has a reputation for being more accepting and inclusive,” says Schultz, a transgender woman. “But in places where such policies are not embedded into the legal framework, there would probably be a lot of people being turned away or flat-out denied emergency shelter.”
This proposed HUD policy change, she says, may encourage more people to direct hostility towards transgender people in general, as they seek support at shelters or even when trying to rent or purchase homes. “This highlights the need on a national level for more discussion and updates to nondiscrimination policies for gender identity and gender expression,” adds Schultz.
Under the proposal, shelters would be able to cite “privacy, safety, practical concerns, religious beliefs” as the basis for denying transgender applicants access, or forcing them to use bathrooms and bedding areas that don’t correspond with their gender identity. Research suggests that transgender people are especially vulnerable to housing instability and housing discrimination. Furthermore, a growing body of research, including reports from a former U.S. Surgeon General, HUD and the World Health Organization, has shown a significant link between housing status and health outcomes. A 2008 report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation concluded that “poor quality and inadequate housing contributes to health problems such as chronic diseases and injuries.”
Transgender Coloradans are significantly more likely than other Coloradans to report poor physical and mental health, according to a June 2019 report by the advocacy group One Colorado. Experiences of discrimination, isolation and housing insecurity are common, the group found. (The Trust contributed funding to create the report.)
“If you look at the findings from any number of studies, housing insecurity has an impact on every aspect of a person’s life,” says Schultz. “If you give people stable and sustainable housing options, so many things begin to come together for them.
“When people don’t have that, they tend to engage in ‘survival industries’ and may eventually find themselves incarcerated, which leads to a number of other issues. It’s an interlocking system.”
Stephanie Miller, chief executive officer of The Delores Project, which provides shelter, housing and support services for individuals experiencing homelessness, including women and transgender individuals, agrees that the brunt of this new policy would most likely be felt in states that do not currently provide additional legal protections for sexual orientation or gender identity. As a result, she says, weakening the equal access rule may lead to many transgender people migrating to places like Colorado that do offer such protections, potentially overloading support providers.
Miller says The Delores Project currently operates a shelter facility and 35 units of low-income, permanent supportive housing within the Arroyo Village community, which also features Rocky Mountain Communities’ 95 units of affordable housing for individuals and families in the workforce. The Delores Apartments at Arroyo Village currently house five transgender people, with more expected later this year.
Anderson, of the Empowerment Program, disagrees that state laws alone will likely sufficiently protect transgender Coloradans, especially Black transgender women like her and other groups within the transgender community.
“They like to say in Colorado, people respect everybody for who they are. But even with those laws in place, that is not the case for so many people like me, who still face discrimination on a regular basis, even within the trans community,” Anderson says. She predicts that enforcement of the new HUD rule would likely lead to a spike in the already chronic problem of homelessness among many transgender people.
Those who are concerned about the proposed federal changes should speak out, says Miller.
“You should not assume that your voice doesn’t matter or assume that someone else is going to speak up on this,” she says. “The time is now to raise your voice. That’s where advocacy begins.”