Study: city programs inadequately serve trans people deprived of safe housing

Skyline of San Francisco

Skyline of San Francisco

Professors say trans people leave homeless shelters because of mistreatment, harassment

Transgender people are more likely than other populations to experience homelessness because of family rejection, housing discrimination, domestic violence and more. Yet homeless support services in many cities often fail to meet their needs. Research by two San Francisco State University professors finds that one of those cities is San Francisco.

Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Studies Dilara Yarbrough and Assistant Professor of Women and Gender Studies Christoph Hanssmann contributed to the recent study, “Stop the Revolving Door,” that looked at the efficacy of the city’s homelessness support services. Featuring a section on trans homelessness, the research released last month is a result of a collaboration with the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, the Transgender Gender-variant and Intersex Justice Project, Mujeres Latinas en Accion at the Saint James Infirmary, El/La Para TransLatinas and other Bay Area universities.

“We need to look at trans experiences as a way to reveal the problems that span across these systems,” said Hanssmann. “Doing this study gave us a lot of great answers about how to address issues around housing deprivation and how to better support trans people.”

For the study, collaborators recruited 130 current and recently homeless trans people in San Francisco and conducted in-depth surveys, focus groups and interviews. “One of the most important aspects of the research was hearing firsthand about homeless shelter experiences from trans people,” says Hanssmann. “Through participants’ anecdotes, it became clear that the enforcement of binary gender norms in San Francisco shelters discriminated against and alienated trans people.”

(“Gender binary” is the increasingly challenged concept that there are only two genders, male and female, which is dictated by sex assigned at birth. Find more information about gender and sexuality on the San Francisco State Health Promotion & Wellness website.)

The study states that trans women (women who were assigned male at birth) are vulnerable to experiencing gender-based violence and harassment in shelters. “In my experience in shelters, many people want to victimize me, for example harassing me in the bathroom,” said one participant in remarks that were translated from Spanish. “They tell me I have to go to the men’s bathroom and not the women’s.”

In situations like this, shelter staff members sometimes call the police to address gender-based conflict. This makes trans women more susceptible to interactions with law enforcement that, in turn, can lead to trauma and deprivation of housing and shelter, Yarbrough said.

Other findings further reinforced that shelters in San Francisco are not welcoming to trans people. Of the 44 out of 52 respondents who lived in shelters, 85 percent said they made the decision to leave. Among those who left, 39 percent said they did it to escape mistreatment. Many respondents also reported avoiding shelters altogether — either because of bad experiences in the past or the reputation of San Francisco’s shelters as hostile to trans people. “It’s a dangerous place inside,” said one participant. “I know people who sleep outside because they can’t take abuse from staff members.”

Based on these findings, researchers made a list of recommendations for policy and structural changes with the ultimate goal of ending housing deprivation. Binary gender segregation in housing facilities can exclude trans and non-binary people, something collaborators want addressed at a systematic level. In the meantime, they want shelters to hire staff capable of providing gender-affirming care and addressing transphobia. One solution: recruit trans applicants who have experienced homelessness, Hanssmann said. Another approach is to provide gender-neutral bathrooms and shower options for trans residents, since these facilities are frequent sites of harassment.

And because San Francisco shelters sometimes rely on police for gender-related conflict, scholars also recommend that shelters end their reliance on law enforcement. Instead, the city should invest more in mental health and crisis intervention resources, Yarbrough said. For example, shelters should employ adequate staff trained in dealing with mental health issues and de-escalation. Having more non-law enforcement resources available would help avoid unnecessary trauma, she added.

“We’re experiencing a time when many people nationwide are rethinking how we respond to social issues,” Yarbrough said. “It’s a moment when we really need to push San Francisco to reallocate resources away from harmful responses to homelessness and invest in concrete solutions.”

View the “Stop the Revolving Door” report to see the full list of research collaborators.