AUSTIN (KXAN) — Transgender people experiencing homelessness in Austin and Travis County face a higher rate of violence than their cisgender counterparts, while also navigating resources that lack consideration of the LGBTQ+ community, according to data from Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO).
The Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), created by ECHO, gathers data from people who are experiencing homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Summer Wright, governance and equity manager for ECHO, identified disparities in the data between transgender and cisgender people.
Her findings are summarized in a post on ECHO’s Instagram page:
“When we started revamping our coordinated entry system to have a more equitable focus, I really pushed us to include trans folks in that,” Wright said. “We’re able to collect whether or not people are transgender, and ask questions on different vulnerabilities people face. Through both of those we can see correlations.”
ECHO’s 2022 “Continuum of Care” report gathered data from 12,919 homeless people in Austin and Travis County, 71 of whom identified themselves as transgender (0.55%). The small population faces more violence than cisgender homeless people per the HMIS data.
Wright says that the low reported number may represent limitations in the data, as the number is only people who engaged with ECHO and willing to disclose their transgender identity.
“When I was on the street, I kept that close to my chest. I would not have shown up in that number,” Wright said.
ECHO says that Austin is several thousand beds short of meeting demand, and Wright notes that what resources do exist are not set up or educated on transgender and gender diverse people.
“Generally, shelter policies tend to be very binary. I think a big issue is not having any real diversity of options,” Wright said. “There isn’t a large contingent of people who serve homeless people in Austin. But the education isn’t always there on how to make services as safe as possible.”
Currently, there are no officially designated shelters in Austin that are “trans-specific.” However, Wright says that this isn’t the case in other cities.
Wright, herself a transgender woman who experienced homelessness in Philadelphia and Austin, wants to see an end to homelessness.
“I experienced homelessness as a passing transgender person and as a non-passing transgender person, and both were acutely dangerous situations,” Wright said. “There was harassment for being a woman and the potential danger of then being outed, which can be even more dangerous.”
Wright began gender-affirming medical care at 18, during a time of stability. However, she experienced homelessness again, and the years of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) were disrupted.
“The homelessness-focused resources that I went to weren’t communicating with queer resources and didn’t always know that they existed, which was a barrier to accessing them,” Wright said. “There are certainly more things that we could be doing in a qualitative way with how we’re delivering services that could better serve transgender people.”
Queer community steps in
One grassroots LGBTQ+ support group, Little Petal Alliance, helps provide shelter and find housing for homeless people through their housing program Queertopia. The shelter is far smaller than any official one in the city — only a single-floor home with multiple rooms.
Danielle, who owns the house, says that the entire effort receives very little funding and only through donations. She says that the HOA has issued nearly $2000 in fines against her.
“We have been telling different major organizations, including ECHO, for two years now that we want a facility for transgender and queer people experiencing homelessness,” Danielle said. “We have approached them many times to tell them that we want one, and that we are more than qualified as people with lived experience who are queer.”
ECHO, in a partnership with St. David’s Foundation, asked groups that serve people experiencing homelessness to apply for grant funding last year.
“Little Petal Alliance was among the 22 organizations that applied for a total of 96 full-time employee positions; we were able to fund 12 positions total across three organizations,” said ECHO Community Manager Chris Davis. “Too many deserving organizations were not funded.”
Davis says that it is unusual for ECHO itself to distribute funding in this way, but encourages Little Petal Alliance and other organizations to continue to apply for funding. He says that the majority of funds for homelessness resources come from the City of Austin, state and federal government, private philanthropy and other sources.
To highlight the disparity in care, Danielle relates a time when she brought a cisgender man to a Salvation Army shelter. The shelter staff, which knew about Queertopia and Danielle, told her that the man could not “crossdress.”
“They were like, ‘He can’t wear women’s clothes here. We know you guys help transgender people, we looked you up,'” Danielle said. “We were like, this is a man who does not wear women’s clothing.”
She says that her group would not risk bringing a transgender person to a Salvation Army shelter.
“I did not expect them to say something like that so outwardly,” Danielle said.
Salvation Army of Austin provided a statement saying “The Salvation Army respects the confidentiality of our clients, and we are not at liberty to discuss details regarding any individuals who are or have been under our care.”
KXAN also asked for a copy of Salvation Army’s shelter policies, which was not provided as of Thursday afternoon.
Waiting on Stability
Lucas, who currently is staying at Queertopia, began came out as transgender at age 13. However, he has not yet sought medical transition, due to a lack of stability. He has lived in the Austin area for most of his life.
“I have been in and out of homelessness since I was 10. Mostly couch hopping with friends or staying with relatives, but that ultimately ended up being unsafe,” Lucas said. “It’s been really difficult to find homeless resources that aren’t connected with religious organizations or have a history of being discriminatory towards the LGBTQ community.”
One shelter that Lucas stayed at advertised itself as LGBTQ+ friendly; however, he says that the policies in place did not reflect that messaging.
“I ended up leaving that shelter because of the harassment that I kept getting. Staff would either brush it off, tell me that I was mistaken about being harassed or that the harassment wasn’t as inappropriate as it was,” Lucas said. “I was working with that shelter to try and put some trainings in place to inform staff and clients about the LGBTQ community. But after I left, as far as I know, they have not continued working on that.”
Lucas faced death threats, misgendering and sexual harassment at that shelter, with insufficient action taken by staff to protect him. Now, Lucas is building toward a sense of stability.
“It’s been significantly better than staying at the shelter I was previously at. When there have been issues where I’ve been misgendered, Danielle immediately says something and corrects them,” Lucas said. “Even if someone gets aggressive with me, there are people here who will protect me.”