As colder weather finally rolls into our city, the men, women, and children who hunker down in makeshift homemade shelters outside or seek temporary housing indoors have one thing in common—Being homeless places them in one of the most disadvantaged social groups in country.
The homeless are by no means only a small number of city dwellers. According to the Baltimore City Homeless Point-In-Time Census Report 2011, “there were 4,088 homeless individuals in Baltimore City on January 25, 2011.” That’s 6.5 percent of the city’s population (620,961, according to the 2010 census). And “almost half (43.9 percent) of this homeless population were unsheltered that night.”
Moreover, “Baltimore’s homeless situation is on an upward trend.” The numbers display a startling reality: “The rate of homelessness increased by 13.9 percent from 2007-2009 and by 19.6 percent from 2009-2011.”
Inside these numbers live the percentage of individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender. How large or small? It’s hard to say, because the Baltimore census report doesn’t contain questions on sexual orientation. And while gender identity is included, only one respondent indicated he was transgender (0.3 percent).
This year, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force published research stating one-fifth (19 percent) of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals experienced homelessness at some point in their lives because they were transgender or gender non-conforming; and 2 percent of respondents were currently homeless. A 2006 Task Force study on LGBT youth says it all in its title—An Epidemic of Homelessness. According to the study, “between 20 percent and 40 percent of all homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.” Data from Safe Horizon, a New York-based victim assistance organization, also states that 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT—compared to 10 percent of the general youth population in the United States.
If the current research is correct, LGBT individuals—especially LGBT youth—experience homelessness at a disproportionate rate.
Here at Gay Life, we wanted to examine two local organizations providing a welcoming roof over the heads of our homeless LGBT community members, and examine one woman’s story from homeless individual to advocate.
Being Homeless and Trans in a Culture That Ostracizes Us
Sandy Rawls is the founder of Trans-United, an organization that “serves the community through advocacy efforts, and by offering accommodating, supportive resources to improve the quality of life and health of transgender individuals. For two years in Baltimore city when I was homeless, I saw many people trying to make it and get their needs met,” said Rawls. “It’s hard to stay grounded, being homeless and trans, and to be in a culture that ostracizes us.”
According to Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (2011), “the majority of those trying to access a homeless shelter were harassed by shelter staff or residents (55 percent), 29 percent were turned away altogether, and 22 percent were sexually assaulted by residents or staff.” While homeless, Rawls personally experienced this harassment.
“I slept on the train, bus and light rail during the day, and at night I stayed up and watched my back to make sure I was safe. Trying to find resources, I faced discrimination,” she remembers. “People didn’t want to accept us into their programs because they didn’t want the chaos they thought we would bring. The women’s shelters didn’t want to take me in and the men’s shelters didn’t want to take this ‘transvestite or transsexual.'”
When Rawls finally found a shelter that would house her, she still faced hostile residents who didn’t understand her gender identity. “I’ve been harassed by clients,” she said. “I’ve been told by a staff member, ‘Sandy, when you leave the room, they talk about you like a dog.'”
After she got on her feet, Rawls founded Trans-United to “let transgender individuals know the law and their rights,” to assist them in the often discriminatory housing environment and to connect clients to additional resources. While Baltimore city has had gender identity anti-discrimination legislation in effect since 2002, Rawls states, “People are still afraid to go into shelters.”
“Offering us beds in a place where we are not welcome is like giving us a biscuit instead of the whole meal,” she said. “It’s not publicly accommodating me to put me in a dangerous situation.”
So what solution does she advocate?
“I think our city council needs to work with Trans-United and its allies a little closer to bring a city solution to this issue. Places open their door to us just to get funding,” said Rawls. “Let us take the lead on our issues.” In the meantime, Rawls will continue to do advocacy and link people to care and to places that will accept them.
410.332.0234 or 443.447.3238
“Serving the Underserved” at Project PLASE
One of the few local adult homeless shelters accepting all sexual orientations and gender identities is Project PLASE (People Lacking Ample Shelter and Employment). According to Mary C. Slicher, executive director since 1987, their mission statement to “serve the most vulnerable and underserved” encompasses all members of the LGBT community.
“The LGBT population is a very diverse one, but we are glad to be able to house and serve these populations. I do think still in our culture, even though we’ve made progress, individuals still are in great need of housing and understanding from parts of our community,” Slicher said. “Some who are LGBT that live with us come with emotional and spiritual wounds and a sense of struggle.”
To make all residents feel welcome and supported, Project PLASE implements non-discrimination policies and frequent cultural sensitivity trainings for staff, by organizations such as the Mautner Project and the former AIDS Administration. These contribute to the generally positive feedback Slicher receives from gay, lesbian, and transgender clients.
“We have a policy that says people self-identify their gender identity, and they are housed in that facility. It’s around 2 percent of the individuals we house, but we will continue to support and house transgender persons who come to us,” said Slicher. In contrast, most other homeless facilities across the country house transgender men and women according to their birth gender, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Overall, staff, volunteers, LGBT residents, and other residents have related well with each other. Nonetheless, housing transgender clients has sometimes led to “concerns with a few residents,” she said. “We had a time where a transgender female ended up in a room with a female who had just came in and had recent sexual trauma. She was frightened.”
“The woman with sexual trauma needs to know that she is safe and the transgender woman needs to understand the emotion, even though she was in no way the cause. Simultaneously, the transgender person needs to feel how much she is cared for. Each person may have to make some adjustment and understand the other. Isn’t that way life is about for all of us? It’s addressing human issues,” Slicher said.
Project PLASE operates three transitional facilities for men and women in Lower Charles Village, housing about 62 men and women at a time. They also have a successful permanent housing program, which accommodates families with children younger than 18 years old. According to Slicher, “94 percent who have gone through permanent housing and received the support have stayed in housing.”
“Lesbian, gay, and transgender homeless are homeless people first,” Slicher said. “They have all the same needs as homeless persons first and then have special needs too. It’s important to ensure persons have a safe place to stay first. Then they can start to address any special needs they may have—around their sense of self-value and worth, healing trauma, or finding the strength in their identity.”
1814 Maryland Ave • 410.837.1400
Restoration Gardens Addresses Needs of Homeless Youth
According to their website, “AIRS was founded in 1987 by the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council as the faith community’s response to the AIDS epidemic.” AIRS now provides a variety of housing facilities and services in Baltimore city and county, including housing for disabled individuals, families and individuals living with HIV/AIDS, HIV+ individuals leaving prison, and homeless youth.
Restoration Gardens, “a 43-unit permanent supportive housing project for homeless and unstably housed youth ages 18-24,” is the latest venture for the organization. Located in southern Park Heights, it’s been open since last December. Mark Harrison, program manager at Restoration Gardens, calls it “a great place.”
Residents live in their own apartments, and are offered a range of supportive services, which many take advantage of. “We offer workforce development, cooking classes, job skills, and computer preparedness, but because residents are independent, it’s not mandated,” said Harrison. They also participate in council meetings, which build a sense of community.
Staff members receive diversity training, according to Harrison. Training focuses on sensitivity and non-discrimination in the areas of age, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and religion. “We don’t break training down based on anything specific,” he said.
And while Restoration Gardens does not keep any statistics on sexual orientation and gender identity for its occupants, “we understand this group is at high risk for homelessness, and is certainly represented in our building,” said Harrison. He wants all homeless youth to know they are welcome in the facility. In order for a young person to qualify for Restoration Gardens, they must apply, pass a screening and complete an assessment, receive life skills while on a wait list, and go through a process of approval from Section 8 housing.
1800 N. Charles St. • 410.576.5070
Additional Research and Information
Baltimore City Homeless Point-In-Time Census Report 2011
The Journey Home: Baltimore City’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness (Year Three Outcome Summary July 2011)
LGBT Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness
Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey