WASHINGTON -- As temperatures dip far below freezing in the Northeast, the Obama administration is urging homeless shelter programs to respect the self-identified gender of residents, a move that advocates say will help make shelters safer for transgender individuals.
The guidance released Friday by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development addresses how homeless shelter programs should treat transgender people in single-sex emergency shelters and other housing. The guidance applies to certain recipients of HUD grants, which include nonprofits that run shelters.
HUD recommends a number of common-sense procedures, including that programs place residents in single-sex facilities based on their personal gender identification. "There generally is no legitimate reason in this context for the provider to request documentation of a person's sex in order to determine appropriate placement," the guidance says.
Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality, told The Huffington Post that nearly one in five transgender people has experienced homelessness at some point because of discrimination. And in shelters, they face additional hurdles, like harassment and physical and sexual assault by staff or residents.
Tobin pointed out that a shelter might say to a transgender woman "you'll only be welcome here if you dress like a man and answer to a male name, but we're definitely going to require you to stay in a shelter with men." She added, "That just isn't safe."
The HUD guidance says that if a resident expresses safety concerns, the provider should take reasonable steps like including a curtain or allowing a separate changing and bathing schedule. HUD also recommends that bathroom stalls have doors and locks.
It's up to recipients whether to follow this guidance, but if HUD discovers violations, the agency has the authority to suspend grant funds. The guidance builds upon a previous rule published in 2012 that says the agency's housing programs must be made available to people regardless of "actual or perceived" sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status.
The U.S. Department of Justice has already put out similar guidance on gender identity for domestic violence shelters that receive funding stipulated by the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013.
Tobin said she is hopeful the latest guidance "will really help ensure that starting now, people are not turned away or offered only shelters that are not safe for them, especially on nights like tonight."