Getting Unhoused People Into Shelter Is Hard, But Finding A Place For Trans Or Nonbinary People Is Harder
LGBTQ+ individuals experiencing homelessness who are under the age of 24 or over the age of 50, more often than not, are aware of programs targeted at them by various social service nonprofits and organizations. That’s because they are considered particularly vulnerable populations.
LGBTQ+ people experiencing homelessness are an especially vulnerable group within the population. This is part three of a series that looks at the unique challenges faced by unhoused LGBTQ+ people, in this case those who are in an in-between age group and who are transgender or nonbinary.
But what about all the people who fall between those age groups? In particular, transgender men and women or those who don’t identify with any gender.
“If you’re over 24, transgender or Black, you got nothing coming,” says Pepper, a Black, “40-ish” transgender woman who lives in a tent in Hollywood a few blocks from the Los Angeles LGBT Center.
“Once you get past a certain age, it feels like you don’t matter to them anymore … they don’t have any services for you,” she says. “I wouldn't even go there and ask for any help because you won’t get it.”
Pepper has been unhoused since 2018, and it isn’t her first time: she used to live at the Los Angeles LGBT Center when it was called the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center. (The Center didn’t include bisexual and transgender in its name until 2014.)
Pepper says the fact that there are few resources for people like her amounts to age discrimination in an already discriminated-against community.
“How could you be an organization that just helps out youth?” Pepper asks. “Especially for the gay and lesbian center, for people who are our people. We can't even get help from our people because I'm over ? That’s ridiculous."
Several unhoused people who I spoke with at various encampments around Hollywood, and said they identify as LGBTQ+, echoed similar sentiments. Some said they felt abandoned by a system not designed for them, others said the help comes with unrealistic expectations.
While nonprofits and other agencies have made significant focus on making gains for LGBTQ+ people, overcoming old perceptions and finding dedicated resources are still hard to come by for many.
All Housing Isn't Created Equal
Mariana Marroquin, program manager of the Trans Wellness Center at the LA LGBT Center, says what Pepper describes is a “sad reality,” adding those sentiments aren’t reserved exclusively for her organization.
“Something that is challenging is a lot of the services we have for people are only for youth or for seniors,” she says, recalling when she arrived in the United States more than 20 years ago to escape persecution in Guatemala. “If they aren’t youth or not HIV positive or not seniors, then we don't have many resources for them, and that’s a big challenge that we face.”
If they aren’t youth or not HIV positive or not seniors, then we don't have many resources for them and that’s a big challenge that we face.
Marroquin says the transgender community is often not a priority when it comes to funding and resources, but she’s happy to live in California where she says politicians listen to their concerns.
“The reality that [Pepper] mentioned is something that we advocate for: sources of funding for substance use, for mental health and health services,” Marroquin says. “I can relate to what she’s saying because a lot of organizations are not that friendly with us because we look or sound different.”
Pepper was scheduled to see an apartment the day after we spoke and was hopeful it would work out. I asked if she would have a housewarming party to celebrate once she moved in. She looked at me like I was crazy. Pepper said, for several reasons, she would be reluctant to invite anyone she’s made connections with while living outdoors in a tent or shelter, but mainly for fear of reprisal from neighbors or landlords. She even plans to keep her tent if she gets housing in order to have a safe space to hang out with friends.
Steve Fiechter, senior director of programming for PATH Metro LA, oversees street outreach engagement and interim housing for the organization whose name is an acronym for People Assisting The Homeless. PATH doesn’t have a client relationship with Pepper, but Fiechter echoed her sentiments about the challenges LGBTQ+ people face, especially those who identify as transgender, and in particular with problematic landlords.
“I would say typically that the folks who are experiencing homelessness are subject to such a great deal of prejudices and assumptions people make,” he says. “I can see why there's some fear among LGBTQ people if they live out and proud. There will be neighbors who don't appreciate that and then threaten their permanent housing.”
Fiechter adds that some leases have built-in regulations regarding visitors. He says PATH doesn’t have control over a landlord’s prejudices, but they try to make sure their clients are in housing that is stable for people who identify as LGBTQ+.
I can see why there's some fear among LGBTQ people if they live out and proud. There will be neighbors who don't appreciate that and then threaten their permanent housing.
Transgender men and women also face challenges with other residents at shelters, making them more reluctant to move indoors.
“We’ve had incidents in our shelters where people felt like they were treated differently,” Fiechter says. “Sometimes it's a matter of offering additional training to our case management staff. We require cultural sensitivity training.”
Fiechter says he would love to see more resources set aside for specific populations, and it’s made him think more critically about how programs are funded and who defines the needs.
“Interim housing settings have a broad range of perspectives,” he says. “Just because someone’s experienced homelessness doesn't mean they won't be a homophobe or racist. We’ve had them. I would be weary of my safety if I identified as LGBTQ+ going into any setting.”
Just because someone’s experienced homelessness doesn't mean they won't be a homophobe or racist. We’ve had them. I would be weary of my safety if I identified as LGBTQ+ going into any setting.
Shelly Rosenblatt, an intake and crisis specialist at My Friend’s Place, a nonprofit in Hollywood that helps unhoused youth, says there are no options for gender-neutral shelters in Los Angeles for people who identify as nonbinary or gender non-conforming, something she would like to see added. Los Angeles County didn’t get its first publicly funded bridge housing shelter for transgender women until 2019.
A spokesperson for L.A. City Council President Nury Martinez said in an email that the city recognizes it has a diverse unhoused population. She noted that $100,000 was included in the city budget to support the Hollywood-based Midnight Stroll Cafe, which provides support to unhoused transgender people, and by enacting the Enhanced Comprehensive Homeless Strategy, with a focus on vulnerable populations.
The Power To Make A Difference
More Americans are understanding that the LGBTQ+ community isn't one homogenous group, according to a 2021 Accelerating Acceptance study released by GLAAD that explored hetero Americans' familiarity, comfortability and understanding of the LGBTQ+ experience. The report found that many people understand that transgender and nonbinary people will continue to be more visible.
But the report also found that six-in-10 LGBTQ+ respondents reported higher levels of discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity in 2021 than last year.
The Trans Wellness Center’s Marroquin says there are ways for everyday people to help make a difference in the lives of transgender people, even though most transgender organizations are understaffed and underfunded.
“We need jobs, we need resources, we need people who donate to organizations and make sure that money goes to the community,” she says. “We can also volunteer our time and learn about the community, donating clothing, make-up, hygiene, food — a lot of the things that we take for granted means the world.”
Marroquin says trans people have been on the front lines of social change for a long time. And she and her team are ready to put in the work because they believe in the future.
“We can also see the resilience in our community,” Marroquin says. “We need to support everyone that is different. If humanity takes the time to learn from us they will learn a lot.
“People make assumptions about who we are, and we are just human beings trying to make it — trying to access employment, go to school, learn something and provide for the people that we love.”