This summer, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced its intention to amend the 2016 update to the Equal Access Rule. This policy protects transgender and gender non-conforming individuals experiencing homelessness by mandating that shelter providers accommodate a person’s self-expressed gender identity when they seek to enter shelter.
The proposed changes would remove these protections, a move that would only increase the vulnerabilities that trans people experience while homeless: trans people disproportionately experience trauma, violence, and unsheltered situations when on the streets, and should not encounter additional barriers or discrimination when seeking shelter.
No one knows this better than Shante Thomas. Shante was homeless in San Jose for ten years, and is now in housing with the help of Destination Home. Her time on the streets, though, makes it clear that trans women – specifically Black trans women like herself – will be put at an increased vulnerability if proposed Equal Access Rule changes are soon revoked.
“I had to go through a hell of a lot just to live my life. And I’m living now, I’m happy now, but there was so much coming at me. It was so frustrating, it was so irritating because I didn’t know who was going to come at me, who was going disrespect me, do something to me when I’m asleep, or do something while I’m just walking down the street,” said Thomas in a conversation with Alliance staff.
Her experiences living unsheltered – undergoing violence and significant physical harm due to her identity – are unfortunately shared by many transgender people experiencing homelessness. According to VI-SPDAT data, 56% of Black and 26% of White trans people experiencing unsheltered homelessness have been attacked while homeless.
“Somebody might get killed, somebody might go over there and kill them [….]. Too many people, too many of my queens, my sisters, my sisters and brothers are out there dying,” she says.
Thirty-one percent of unsheltered trans individuals report trauma/abuse, and 40% report being forced to do things they don’t want to do. Protections are needed to ensure that trans people experiencing homelessness don’t continue to experience such violence and discrimination, and are able to safely seek shelter.
During a global pandemic especially, the consequences of this rule change will make transgender people experiencing homelessness significantly more vulnerable – particularly Black trans people. Data shows that unsheltered Black trans people experience more ambulance rides, emergency room visits, police contacts, and jail/prison stays than their White counterparts. Not only is upholding Equal Access a matter of LGBTQ equity, it is clearly a matter of racial equity.
Thomas’s lived experience of homelessness as a Black trans woman reinforces the need for these protections to be maintained: “We need more help. [….] Anybody else doesn’t have to fight just to live. Anybody else doesn’t have to go through all the stuff we go through just to live. And no matter what, it’s not cool for us to be left out in the cold.”
The rates of transgender homelessness have increased over the past three years, and stand to increase further if the Equal Access Rule is rescinded. Removing these protections creates unnecessary barriers to shelter and housing at a time when service providers should be doing everything possible to serve people experiencing homelessness, not reject them.
“It’s harder for us now than ever before. And I would like to see all my sisters in a place. I would love to see that because you know what, we’re human just like anybody else is. I breathe the same air that everybody else breathes, eat the same kind of food everybody else do, and we’re no different, just the same as everybody else is... We are normal people just like anybody else.
“They – we – need more protection. We need more help than anything in the world. Help us more, by treating us like a human being. If I’m a female, or a trans man, or a trans woman, or however, treat us as we are.”
Thomas’s experiences are a testament to the need for Equal Access protections to stay in place. The Alliance is proud to join together with several national and local organizations all across the country, who are fighting to oppose changes to the Equal Access rule, so trans people can access shelter when they need it.
The Alliance encourages all concerned parties to make a public comment against proposed changes to the Equal Access Rule. The comment period is open through September 22, and can be accessed at housingsaveslives.org. This is a critical tool to register your opposition to discrimination against trans people, and stand up for equitable shelter access for all. Now more than ever, everyone should be able to access a shelter when needed.