Denver, CO

Denver wants to do more to help homeless who are transgender

David Heitz

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Meg/Unsplash

By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) If you're transgender in Denver, you're far more likely to become homeless.

But Denver wants to change that and offers culturally informed services to people experiencing homelessness. That means organizations like Colorado Coalition for the Homeless provide health care services sensitive to the needs of transgender people.

Transgender people experiencing homelessness typically avoid shelters where many people sleep in one large room. Transgender people on the street often tolerate abuse and assault. Some perform sex work to survive.

Transgender people in Denver have services available to them, said Marvyn Allen, health equity and training director for One Colorado, an LGBT advocacy group.

Allen spoke last week during a Colorado Coalition for the Homeless seminar, "Transgender and the Unhoused: Systemic Hurdles and Where to Seek Assistance."

Alexis Whitman, Coalition communications director, said the organization needs to elevate the voices of transgender people.

Data shows transgender discrimination

According to Whitman, national data shows:

· Twenty-nine percent of transgender people live at or below the federal poverty line.

· Twenty percent of transgender adults experienced food insecurity in the past year, while only 8 percent of cisgender people did.

· Eight percent of transgender adults experienced homelessness in the past year.

· Cisgender people take home 32 percent higher wages than their transgender colleagues. Trans people report feeling less support at work than their cisgender colleagues.

· When comparing transgender people of color with white people who aren't transgender, the data on food insecurity is, even more, stark – 28 percent v. 6 percent.

· More than one in 10 transgender people have been evicted because of their gender identity.

· Trans men earn 70 cents on the dollar compared to typical earners. That number is 60 cents for trans women.

· According to the 2020 Point-in-time count, the number of adult transgender people experiencing homelessness has increased 88 percent since 2016. The number experiencing unsheltered homelessness increased 113 percent during the same period.

· Male-to-female transgender workers can see earnings drop nearly a third after their transition.

· Black (40 percent) and Latinx (45 percent) transgender adults are more likely to live in poverty than transgender people of any other race.

· Transgender people are disproportionately unsheltered. Sixty-three percent of transgender individuals experiencing homeless are unsheltered vs. 49 percent of cisgender people experiencing homelessness.

· The number of transgender people has doubled in recent years.

· About one in five people ages 13 to 17 identify as transgender.

LGBT youths face life on the street

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Urban Peak serves trangender youth and young adults in Denver.

Transgender youths are at particular risk of homelessness because their families are more likely to throw them out. Abuse and even sexual assault of transgender people have been reported at shelters.

Reasons for LGBT people becoming homeless include:

· Forced out/ran away

· Aged out of foster care

· Family poverty

· Other family issues

· Abuse at home

'Hopefully, it's better here'

These data points are national, not local, Whitman emphasized. "Hopefully, it's better here."

"We still struggle to have numbers about our communities," Allen said. "There is some inhumane treatment that happens."

He said when people are treated poorly; they don't return for services.

Nicole Schmitt, an outreach supervisor at Urban Peak, said LGBT youth remain homeless longer than their non-gay counterparts.

"We provide basic direct care services to people living on the streets of Denver," Schmitt explained. That includes going to encampments and passing out bottled water, granola bars, socks and more. Urban Peak also operates a daytime drop-in center and helps connect people experiencing homelessness to housing.

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Urban PeakAn Urban Peak case manager helps a client

The Center on Colfax and The Gathering Place also serve transgender people experiencing homelessness.

Assaults, sexual exploitation common

"Social service and homeless shelters that work with this population often fail to culturally and appropriately serve transgender homeless people, including denying them shelter based on their gender identity (and) inappropriately housing them in a gendered space they do not identify with," according to a PowerPoint presentation during the seminar.

Allen believes people working in the shelters want to do better for transgender people. "They want to give shelter to everyone, they want to give safety to everyone, but actions don't always show it."

One sexual assault is a life-changing experience, Allen said, but transgender people – especially Black transgender women – often face multiple sexual assaults during their lives.

Woman explains transgender dangers

Allen said they had a client who recently had facial feminization surgery. It's a happy ending to a story fraught with abuse. The woman moved in with someone who is an abuser after she lost her housing.

Allen said their social worker instincts kicked in. Their first reaction was to help her get a job so she would not be dependent on the abuser. But she said she would have to ride the bus to work, and that's not always safe for transgender people.

She said the abusive relationship was the safest place for her. "And I had to realize that I had no idea what her life was like," said Allen, who is trans but said they have not been homeless since childhood.

Now that she's had facial surgery, the client is exploring the next steps, such as getting a job, Allen said. Transgender people often don't even have money for a razor. Facial hair can be embarrassing for transgender women.

Transgender homeless people fill jails

With transgender people seldom using shelters, they remain on the street, where run-ins with police become common. Arrests over camping bans lead to more arrests when people fail to appear in court. It becomes a vicious cycle of catch and release.

While jail is traumatizing for anyone, transgender people often must present as the sex they disagree with during incarceration.

Few people openly advocate for transgender men and women. Supporting transgender rights has become so unpopular that Hillary Clinton told Democrats last week that they must stop pushing the cause. "Democrats seem to be going out of their way to lose elections by elevating activist causes, notably the transgender debate, which are relevant only to a small minority," she told the Financial Times.

Colorado Medicaid pays for gender-affirming surgeries

There is good news for transgender people in Colorado. The state offers gender-affirming surgeries to people on Medicaid, for example.

"The state's plan under the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will include jaw, cheek and eye modifications, face tightening, facial bone remodeling for facial feminization, breast or chest construction and reductions and laser hair removal," according to the Associated Press.

'Be their full selves'

"People who need access to this care will not only be healthier because they are getting the care they need through a doctor, through a licensed health care provider, but also that that will have positive impacts on their health overall … as a result of being able to transition and be their full selves," Christy Mallory told the Associated Press.

Mallory is legal director at the Williams Institute, a research institute based in the University of California Los Angeles' School of Law.

In an interview this week, Denver City Council member Robin Kniech told NewsBreak much work remains to advance transgender rights. "As we know there are still significant gaps in federal law in terms of employment and transgender rights," she said. "But we know that a fully inclusive community is about more than just legal rights and protections. Transgender individuals still face barriers to employment and equal earnings (and) finding culturally competent health care providers can still be a challenge in Denver. So, it's important for our city to keep improving to deliver on the promise of equal opportunity."

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career at local newspapers. Today, I report on Denver and Aurora city halls for NewsBreak. Prior to joining NewsBreak, I worked several years as a health reporter and branded content writer in the healthcare space. I also worked many years as a news editor and city editor. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver.

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