Trans Homelessness Addressed at Town Hall Meeting

Trans Homelessness Addressed at Town Hall Meeting

Homelessness in Transgender Communities Town Hall Meeting

As people gathered into a large room on the third floor of a University of Maryland Medical Center building on June 14th, there were a lot of friendly conversations and familiar greetings among those in attendance. It was clear that this was a group of people where many folks already knew each other, both professionally and personally.

This wasn't surprising, considering the relatively small, but fiercely dedicated, number of organizations and individuals that have been working and fighting together for transgender rights in Baltimore for many years. Despite this history, the event for which we were all gathering was the first town hall meeting in Baltimore on homelessness in transgender communities.

There were a number of organizations who were represented at the meeting. Speakers included individuals from the Transgender Response Team, Trans United, Project PLASE, Taylor Wilks Group, Equality Maryland, and the Mayor's Office of Human Services. Kate Briddell, Director of the Homeless Services Program in the Mayor's office of Human Services and a member of the housing and homelessness working group of the Transgender Response Team, was not in attendance. Several attendees expressed disappointment that the Mayor's Office of Human Services sent an outreach coordinator, a position of lesser authority, instead of Ms. Briddell. They say this signaled a lack of priority on transgender issues by the Mayor's office.

The meeting began with a presentation by Harriet Smith of the Taylor Wilks Group. She first discussed the results of the 2010 National Transgender Discrimination Survey[1], which describes the widespread and extreme instances of discrimination faced by most trans folks. This discrimination often leads to unemployment, poverty, homelessness, incarceration, drug abuse, police brutality, and other forms of violence. Ms. Smith then discussed the results of a local survey of homeless service providers in Baltimore. While many service agencies claim to be welcoming to transgender clients, very few have explicit anti-discrimination policies that include gender identity and expression. Most have no other special accommodations for trans clients who face potential abuse and harassment from both staff and other clients. This occurs despite Baltimore City's 2003 ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity or expression in housing, employment, and public accommodations. Very few shelters in Baltimore are known as being welcoming to trans folks. One shelter that has a reputation for being welcoming to transgender clients is Project PLASE, located on Maryland Avenue.

After the survey presentation, there was a panel of three trans individuals who told their stories of being previously homeless, as well as a letter from a transwoman incarcerated in a men's prison in Maryland. Among the panelists was Chrissy Polis, a transwoman who was recently the victim of a violent hate crime at a local McDonalds. The attack made international headlines in April.

The rest of the meeting was devoted to discussing the city's new homeless shelter, the Housing and Resource Center (HRC) at 620 Fallsway, slated to be opened within the next month or two. The HRC shelter, to be managed by Jobs, Housing, and Recovery, Inc (JHR), will be the city's first dedicated, year-round homeless shelter. It is effectively replacing the Code Blue shelter downtown, a temporary shelter opened during the 2010 snowstorm and kept open since then due to high demand. However, the 275 bed capacity of the HRC shelter is less than the Code Blue's 350 beds. What will be added are eight beds in the HRC shelter to be set aside for clients with “special circumstances”, according to Gabby Knighton of the Mayor's Office of Human Services. These eight beds were set aside “with transgender people in mind”, according to Ms. Knighton, but beds are also first come, first serve. No beds will be left empty by the end of the night, so it is unclear whether trans clients will actually be able to get these beds or not. Also, what exactly constitutes “special circumstances” will be determined by JHR, however, not the city, which raises accountability concerns among transgender advocates.

Many attendees left frustrated that the city didn't have more answers, but the organizers hoped this would galvanize community support for the needs of homeless transgender folks. The circumstances of the new homeless shelter seemed to be on the minds of everyone there. How well the shelter meets the needs of Baltimore's growing homeless transgender population will be of much interest in the coming months.

For those interested in seeing the new shelter before it opens, there will be an open house on June 23rd from 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm at 620 Fallsway. Another way to get involved is to attend the monthly open meetings of Stop Homelessness and Reduce Poverty (SHARP), a local coalition of homeless service providers dedicated to creating policy and system change. Info can be found on their website, baltimoreunitedcongregations.org. You can also get involved with the Transgender Response Team by contacting Jean-Michel Brevelle at jbrevelle@dhmh.state.md.us, or 410-767-5016.

[1] http://transequality.org/PDFs/NTDS_Report.pdf

Picture courtesy of DW-Photography, LLC.

Daniel Staples

Daniel is a collective member of the Indypendent Reader.  His interests include technology, feminism, sexuality, economics, and music.  Daniel has a Master's degree in Women's and Gender Studies from Towson University, and develops mesh network technology at the Open Technology Institute.  He maintains the Indyreader website.

Reach him by e-mail at dan.indyreader[at]riseup.net, or follow him on twitter @0xDanarky.