For transgender people, accessing social services, such as shelter spaces, can be perilous. The threat of facing discrimination, battery, or even sexual assault in these facilities can deter trans folks from seeking them out, even if doing so means remaining in violent relationships.
Becky Beier, a housing advocate with the YWCA, says she’s seen this in clients she’s worked with, and she understands its terrible genesis. “If, throughout the course of your life, you’ve offered up your true identity and it’s been rejected or misunderstood, as it too often is for trans people, and you add into that the random violence trans folk face in the world and the layer of interpersonal violence that trans people sometimes experience in their lives, you’re going to be experiencing a real terror about your surroundings,” Beier says.
It was with dynamics like this in mind that Beier helped design a new domestic violence program launched by the YWCA of Greater Portland, Ore., a year ago. The Yolanda Project employs an innovative “shelter diversion” model, which teams survivors of domestic abuse with advocates who work with them to assure that they remain safely and stably housed.
As Beier notes, one in four women experiencing homelessness in Portland cite domestic violence as the primary cause. “I think when people have been hurt or rejected, as in a relationship with intimate partner violence, it makes them vulnerable to homelessness, because they start to see the world as one giant system where they don’t have a place,” she says. “Being transgender and having experienced transphobia firsthand can magnify that. With the Yolanda Project, advocates help navigate areas, like housing, where there can be real discrimination for our clients, particularly transgender ones, and create an outcome where that isn’t true for them.”
As Beier alludes to, the degree of housing insecurity and discrimination facing the trans community in the U.S. is staggering. According to statistics from a National Center for Transgender Equality survey, “Injustice at Every Turn,” one in five trans people has been refused a home or apartment because of their gender identity, while one in 10 has been evicted.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this, one-fifth of the trans people surveyed had experienced homelessness due to their gender. Their experiences at shelters were horrifying. Over half were harassed by shelter staff or residents due to their gender identitiy, while almost a third were turned away altogether. Forty-two percent were forced to stay in a shelter for a population that did not match their gender, and, shockingly, 22 percent were sexually assaulted by shelter staff or residents.
Trans people experiencing such treatment face just as much vulnerability when seeking redress for it. As the trans advocacy organization FORGE states in Transgender Rates of Violence, “Nearly all trans survivors have substantial fears of being re-victimized by the individuals and agencies who are supposed to offer help and support.”
The NCTE’s statistics indicate there’s good reason for these fears, showing that 38 percent of trans people have been harassed by police officers, with 15 percent having been physically abused and seven percent having been sexually assaulted by law officers. Interactions with health care workers are even more violent for trans people, with one in four having experienced physical assault from a health care provider, and a staggering one in 10 having been sexually assaulted.
The Yolanda Project is designed to counter these terrible outcomes, says YWCA of Greater Portland executive director Susan Stoltenberg. “Shelter is a traumatic experience for everyone,” Stoltenberg says. “And we believe people who’ve had previous trauma — and trans people experience daily trauma and oppression — should avoid another trauma. Transgender people deserve the dignity of a space that is safe by their definition of safe. They should be able to go about their daily lives without having to defend themselves.”
Beier says the Yolanda Project is uniquely equipped to help this happen: “A lot of our program’s success with the trans population, I believe, stems from the Gateway Center — where the program is housed — and its commitment to diversity. LGBTQ clients accessing us at the center are immediately referred to specialists sensitive to their needs.”
In designing the Yolanda Project, the YWCA of Greater Portland turned to a best-practices “rapid rehousing” model championed by various federal agencies as well as the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and pioneered by groups like the District Alliance for Safe Housing in Washington, D.C., which allows people fleeing abusive relationships to remain autonomous and safely housed.
In the model, a survivor of domestic violence is matched with an advocate, like Beier, who assesses their need. Housing is arranged, often a motel at first, and eventually an apartment. The advocates are well versed in tenant law and able to circumvent the stigma and discrimination sometimes faced by domestic assault survivors and trans people.
“Having to deal with a landlord when their partners may have been controlling around finances can be complicated for survivors,” Beier says. “Having to explain to a landlord, who’s a stranger with power over them, this really personal, complicated situation and ask for help can be too much.” This is especially true for trans clients, she adds, “who feel at such a disadvantage already.”
Advocates help as well with securing employment for clients, arranging the counseling and medical care they need, and little things, like acquiring furniture and housewares as they’re settling in.
Beier views her role more personally. “When a person has experienced trauma, it takes away their voice for a while,” she says. “As an advocate, I can speak for them until they can speak for themselves.”