Homeless and Transgender

One woman's story of brutality, discrimination and living on the streets. By Erin Weaver

Photo by Think Stock

January 2011. As I sat in an informational meeting for a student-run homeless shelter, I would soon become one of 20 student directors for a new project. We would be starting from scratch to open an entirely student-run and student-funded homeless shelter. It opens its doors for the first time this month.

As the project grew from concept to reality, so did my involvement and interest in homelessness in Philadelphia. As part of the project, I became increasingly active in homeless awareness and relief organizations. One of the organizations I worked with was the 100K Homes Campaign. The mission of 100K Homes is to take a census of the homeless population in a city, determine the 10 most vulnerable homeless individuals in the city, and find them immediate housing.

My role in the campaign was to canvas the area near Front Street with two social workers from The Bethesda Project. Every morning from 2:30 to 6:30 a.m., we canvased the area, searching every park, bench and corner for anyone out on the streets. On the third day, around five in the morning, we found between 10 and 15 homeless individuals in a park; they gathered there every morning, we soon learned. And as we began our process of interviewing them for the census, asking about their medical history and living situations, I met someone named Jesse, who immediately told me that he preferred to be called “she.”

Jesse told me about her experiences during the past two weeks. It began when she caught a cold, feeling under the weather even though it was May and the weather was starting to become more favorable. Jesse said she usually avoids homeless shelters because of insensitivity and hate for transgender people. That day, however, she was desperate. And when she showed up at the shelter, she was verbally attacked by other homeless people. After a while, their abuse turned physical. Some of the workers at the shelter even joined in, and finally threw Jesse out on the street.

When she called the police to report the incident, the shelter defended itself by saying Jesse “disturbed the peace.” With several broken ribs and a bleeding head, Jesse pleaded with the police to help. Instead, the two officers on the scene beat Jesse with their batons, calling her “unnatural,” “offensive to God” and “disgusting.” Finally, they left Jesse alone, unconscious. A friend would call 911 to get her the help she needed.

Like many transgender people living on the streets, Jesse’s encounter is not unusual. LGBT homeless experience higher rates of physical violence than heterosexuals. LGBT youth also make up 20 percent of the homeless youth population, a figure that’s disproportionately high.

Jesse admitted that, sadly, it’s normal for her to experience abuse, whether physical or verbal. She also says this is not the first time the police have failed her. The incident ultimately went unreported because Jesse did not want anyone to know what happened to her, and she didn’t want to be bothered by the police again. Defense, she says, seems “out of the question” when it comes to being attacked because she is transgender.

Fortunately for Jesse and others like her, the City of Philadelphia is set to open a transgender shelter in response to the violence many homeless people face on our streets because of their gender identity. And at our new student-run Emergency Housing Unit in Philadelphia, we will house 10 LGBT youth starting in December. In addition to providing housing and food, we are hoping to find more permanent housing for our guests by April.

Although it helps, these two shelters are certainly not enough. The LGBT homeless population is inordinately high in Philly, and support for them is scarce. In fact, homeless LGBT youth are more susceptible to behavioral problems, substance abuse, victimization, and suicide living on the streets and 62 percent of LGBT homeless youth end up committing suicide. So much hate for LGBT homeless can’t go unnoticed forever. Two new shelters opening within one year will hopefully add to the much-needed awareness of this problem, and hopefully one day, a respect for people who are homeless. Until then, I’ll do my best as to make a difference, one person at a time.