We Must Deal With LGBT Poverty

Poverty

Do you remember what it was like before? Before the thrill of marriage equality, the explosion of media visibility, the intoxicating — if sometimes still faint — taste of acceptance? When school and home — teachers and parents — were dangerous? When talking about your life at work meant losing a job? When it was risky if your landlord or neighbors found out? When the police and hospitals were more threat than sanctuary? Do you remember what it was like before, when it wasn’t safe to be you?

For many low-income LGBT people, that isn’t before. It isn’t 1968 or 1986 or 2004. It’s today. LGBT people who are living in poverty still bear the brunt of savage homophobia and transphobia, without the resources to challenge them or even escape them. The results of this discrimination are devastating: homelessness, unemployment, hunger, and violence. Yet low-income LGBT people remain largely invisible and silent — in the public imagination, and perhaps also in our own. That blind spot has led to a yawning gap in action and service that leaves hundreds of thousands of LGBT people in desperation, with nowhere to turn. We can do better.

In truth, poverty is an LGBT issue. Contrary to the stereotype that LGBT people are financially privileged, LGBT Americans are actually more likely to be poor. To cite just a few statistics: 20.7 percent of LGBT people living alone have annual incomes below $12,000 — close to the poverty level — compared to 17 percent of non-LGBT people living alone; single LGBT adults raising children are three times more likely to have incomes near the poverty level than single straight adults raising children;  and transgender Americans are nearly four times more likely to have a household income under $10,000 per year. 

I work for Legal Services NYC, a large antipoverty organization in New York City that provides free civil legal services to people without means. We recently released a report titled “Poverty is an LGBT Issue: An Assessment of the Legal Needs of Low-Income LGBT People” — the first assessment of its kind in the nation. It analyzes data from more than 300 low-income LGBT New Yorkers on a range of civil legal issues related to violence and harassment, housing, income and disability assistance, immigration, health care, family, employment, education, and veterans’ rights.

The results are staggering. Here are just a few:

• 62 percent of low-income LGBT New Yorkers had difficulty paying for a basic need in the past year
• 39 percent of survey respondents were verbally harassed in public for being LGBT in the past year
• 50 percent of low-income LGBT New Yorkers reported experiencing violence
• 32 percent of respondents experienced problems with public assistance or social security in the past year, including applying for and receiving benefits
• 12 percent reported housing problems related to their LGBT identity, in the past year alone
• 44 percent of respondents had housing repair needs that went unmet in the past year.

Each of the numbers underlying these statistics represents a person, a story, a life. Survey respondents also described discrimination, harassment, and violence in a range of contexts. Transgender respondents reported particularly pervasive discrimination.

Low-income LGBT people often cannot escape this anti-LGBT bigotry — from landlords, neighbors, employers, government officials, and others. Leaving a rare affordable apartment in the face of abuse from landlords and neighbors can mean homelessness. Leaving a low-wage job after a supervisor uses antigay slurs can mean long-term unemployment. Challenging a government worker for a bigoted comment or improper gender pronoun puts essential benefits like food stamps at risk. Reporting a violent attack to the police may lead to further discrimination — or worse. This is especially so for low-income LGBT people of color, who made up more than 70 percent of our survey respondents.

The result is that many LGBT people who are living in poverty are also living with unacceptable homophobia and transphobia. These challenges are also frequently connected to (and compounded by) racism and xenophobia against LGBT people of color and immigrants. Low-income LGBT people need resources and advocates to document and confront this discrimination.

But addressing homophobia and transphobia alone is insufficient to protect LGBT people living in poverty: Also essential are access to safe and affordable homes, fair government benefits, good public schools, and a living wage. These too are LGBT issues.

Lawyers have a crucial role to play in addressing these challenges, whether preventing evictions, securing access to food stamps, or zealously confronting discrimination and violence. So do donors, community groups, nonprofits, government agencies and workers, and all people of good conscience.

Like all of the individuals and families that my organization represents, our LGBT clients lack resources and power. But low-income LGBT people are too often also at the margins of efforts to provide help: at the margins of the antipoverty and legal services community because they are LGBT, and at the margins of the mainstream LGBT movement because they are poor. It is time to change the status quo. Here is how:

LGBT organizations — all of them — should explicitly join the fight against poverty and direct resources to address the specific needs of low-income LGBT people. That means addressing poverty in mission statements, policy work, organizing, legal efforts, outreach, and direct service.

Antipoverty and legal services organizations—again, all of them—must explicitly join the fight against homophobia and transphobia and direct significant resources to serve low-income LGBT people. That includes taking special care to welcome and respect LGBT clients.

LGBT publications should give voice to those who are living in poverty, with articles reflecting the stories and the issues that affect the lives of low-income LGBT people — including income inequality, its many sources, and its many consequences.

Government agencies that provide services to the poor must challenge homophobia and transphobia among their employees and policies, and work to create safe access to services for LGBT people.

Donors, foundations, and other funders that support the LGBT community should put money behind programs that explicitly target advocacy for LGBT people who are living in poverty, and ask mainstream LGBT organizations that receive funding to tackle the needs of low-income LGBT people. All of these groups should work together to collaboratively face these challenges and share their respective insights, resources, and expertise. Together, we have the skills and power to transform the response to poverty in the LGBT community. Let’s start talking.

These steps, even collectively, will not end LGBT poverty or discrimination against low-income LGBT people. But they will result in dramatic, concrete improvements in the quality of life for tens or even hundreds of thousands of people. This is the front line of the battle against homophobia and transphobia. It’s time to get started — because this is our fight. And because we remember.

adam heintz
ADAM HEINTZ is director of pro bono services at Legal Services NYC, and one of the primary authors of the report Poverty is an LGBT Issue: An Assessment of the Legal Needs of Low-Income LGBT People. He has also worked at several LGBT community-based organizations that challenge violence against LGBT people.

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