Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
In California and other states, transgender and non-binary people are more likely to be unsheltered than any other unhoused population.
The decision to leave home wasn’t easy for Greyson. After his mother was deported to Mexico, he’d been almost single-handedly taking care of his two younger sisters and his father, who was addicted to drugs. When he was 15, the family made plans to move from California’s East Bay down to Mexico, too. As a trans person, Greyson was scared. He had heard horror stories of beatings and assaults of LGBTQ people.
“It’s dangerous existing [there],” said Greyson, who didn’t share his last name. “It was either get murdered, kill myself, or run away.” He chose the third option.
That landed him in a homeless shelter in West Oakland for the next four days. There, Greyson found something he’s never known: peers who welcomed him. “It was my first real taste of having queer family,” he said. “It was wild how many there were.”
From the shelter, Greyson went to two mental hospitals, and then a series of foster care group homes in the Bay Area. When he spoke to CityLab last month in Berkeley, he said he was about to be kicked out of the latest housing program in Walnut Creek. He hoped to find an apartment with his girlfriend. “I might actually end up homeless for a bit, which is going to suck,” he said. “It’s better than my family.”
Greyson’s story is just one in a chorus of many from trans and non-binary people who are unhoused, unsheltered, or unsure where they’ll find a place to sleep next. Though trans people only make up a fraction of a percentage of the entire population of people living in homelessness, a significant proportion of transgender Americans—about a third, according to a 2015 survey—become homeless at some point in their lives. National figures from the 2018 point-in-time (PIT) count reveal that they’re more likely to be unsheltered than other populations. And of all the trans and non-binary homeless people counted nationally, a 2018 National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) analysis found that California was home to half of them.
Nationally, an estimated 40 percent of unhoused youth in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ. In some California cities, that proportion is higher: According to San Francisco’s 2019 PIT count, 46 percent of all unhoused youth are LGBTQ, nearly a quarter of whom identify as transgender and non-binary. In Alameda County, where the latest available demographic data comes from 2017’s PIT count and where they do not specify how many youth respondents were also LGBTQ, about 0.7 percent of the total number of unhoused youth identified as transgender. Preliminary data from Alameda County’s 2019 PIT count reveals that homelessness has leaped 43 percent overall since then.
Greyson says that many queer youth, particularly those who have transitioned or plan to, become homeless the way he did—they’re either kicked out of their house, or they flee because they don’t feel safe there. “For younger people, there’s a lot of family rejection that leads to them being homeless,” said Nan Roman, president and CEO of NAEH.
But once trans and non-binary people become homeless, they’re also more likely to avoid the shelter system than cisgender peers: 48 percent of cisgender unhoused adults were counted as unsheltered in 2018, according to NAEH, compared to 56 percent of transgender unhoused adults, and more than 80 percent of non-binary unhoused adults.
“For some people, being homeless is the worst thing in the whole free world, so they think, ‘Why wouldn’t you stay in a shelter?’ But that’s a very privileged perspective,” said Christopher Rodriguez, the program manager at Castro Youth Housing Initiative with Larkin Street Youth Services, San Francisco’s organization for homeless youth. “You could be raped in a shelter.”
The connection between homelessness and sexual violence isn’t just a problem for LGBTQ people, nor is it a problem that’s less prevalent on the street: The National Runaway Switchboard estimates that within 48 hours of leaving home, a third of teens will be recruited into sex work. Rodriguez says that often, it takes just 72 hours for youth to be propositioned for sex. Many young people find life on the streets safer than shelters, and trans and non-binary people may avoid them because they’re often misgendered or forced to go to the shelter that matches their birth certificate. That can cause psychologically damaging feelings of gender dysphoria, and can compound the violence and threats from other shelter residents.
“They don’t feel like it’s clear what kind of facilities they should use, and they don’t think that the regular assessments that get used for everybody necessarily address what their problems are,” said Roman.
In 2012, the Department of Housing and Urban Development established the Equal Access rule, which was meant to stop shelters and support centers from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But in May, HUD published a proposed change to the rule, which would allow shelter providers to use an unhoused person’s sex to determine where to—or whether to—house them in certain sex-separated facilities, depending on each providers’ “privacy, safety, practical concerns, religious beliefs.” HUD insists that the rule would still bar discrimination based on sex or gender identity, but this could make shelter conditions a lot worse, said Roman, and push more trans and non-binary people onto the streets.
For trans people just as much as anyone else, Greyson says the core problem is intergenerational poverty and lack of affordable housing. Trans and non-binary people are particularly economically vulnerable: They’re three times more likely to make less than $10,000 per year, according to True Colors United, a national advocacy organization for LGBTQ unhoused youth; trans people of color are four times more likely to be unemployed. “Without [housing], you can’t get a job, you can’t get mail. You’re basically stuck if you’re homeless, and it’s that way on purpose,” he said. “The government and society doesn’t want people at the bottom to rise any more than they’re allowed to. I think a lot needs to change.”
How to make a safer shelter
Bobbi, who is 23 and declined to share her last name, went up to San Francisco from San Jose last year, arriving with a few friends to visit the S.F. Art Institute. She fell in love with the city immediately—the energy, the hills, the beaches, the people, the neighborhood bars in the historic Castro neighborhood, which has long been a haven for the LGBTQ community. But outside one of those bars one night out, she and her friends were “confronted by this older white guy,” she said. There was an altercation; Bobbi defended herself, she says, and landed in jail for three months.
After her release, she turned to Larkin Street Youth Services, a San Francisco-based organization that runs housing programs and shelters for unhoused people ages 18 to 24.
For Bobbi, the shelter environment at Larkin Street’s 40-person “Lark-Inn” was just too hectic. She returned to San Jose for a time, couch-surfing and crashing where she could, as she had since she was 15. “Everything was just kind of bland there for me,” she said. “I kept thinking where was the last place where I was genuinely happy, and I kept thinking: San Francisco.” So she returned, and was re-admitted to the shelter.
For most of her life, she had identified as trans, though she kept that information mostly to herself. But when she confided in one of the shelter leaders, he told her about a new program Larkin Street was developing—a transitional house built specifically for trans homeless youth.
The Larkin Street house, a light-filled Victorian home in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, opened in March. Run by Larkin’s Castro Youth Housing Initiative, it’s the only program like it in the country, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Six trans youth ages 18 to 24 can live there at once, and can stay for up to two years, during which time they’re paired with case managers and connected with social services, job training, and education. They’re also given HIV prevention tools, supported if they choose to medically transition, and equipped with savings accounts managed by Larkin Street.
“It’s a client-led path, so the clients will tell us what they want, and we’ll help them work on it,” said Larkin Street’s Rodriguez, who is also the director of the house. “The ideal would be they go to a two-year college, work in a coffee shop in the weekends, save up some money, and at the end of two years, they’ll get their [associate] degree, we’ll give them back their savings account, they’ll move into a roommate situation with a friend that they met in our program … and just move on. And have only one experience of homelessness.”
By focusing on comprehensive support in this critical time in a young person’s life, Rodriguez says Larkin wants to reduce long-term homelessness. “Half of the chronically homeless adults were homeless when they were in the transitional age youth bracket,” he said.
Bobbi was wary of moving into such a brand-new program after the chaos of the shelter system—“I’m a bit of a control freak,” she says—but she says she feels safe there. A garden, tended to by local volunteers, blooms outside. There’s a large TV in the dining room, where Bobbi says she and her roommates gather to watch Netflix.
For those who can access it, the program could be transformative, but it has only six beds. (When CityLab visited in August, only four were taken.) In the East Bay, where Greyson lives, there are no shelters specially carved out for trans unhoused people. But even traditional shelters can retool their programming to be more inclusive of trans and non-binary people, says Roman. Along with the Equal Access Rule, HUD published guidance for shelter managers on how to use inclusive language, create appropriate facilities, and maintain confidentiality around what medication people are taking and what sex they were assigned at birth. Under the Trump administration, this guidance has been removed from HUD’s website, but it’s still up on the NAEH’s site.
More data on the magnitude of the problem is needed, Roman says, in order for there to be more resources dedicated. Point-in-time counts are infamous for undercounting all homeless populations, especially unhoused youth, who may be staying with a friend on the night the count is conducted but are still technically homeless. And trans and non-binary people are likely to be particularly wary of sharing personal information about themselves with people conducting the counts.
Roman says she was surprised that, based on NAEH’s analysis of the 2018 PIT count, transgender people were not technically disproportionately homeless: They make up 0.6 percent of the entire U.S. population, and 0.5 percent of the unhoused population. But Greyson and other trans homeless youth said that this reflects the flaws of reporting rather than the reality of the situation. “It’s wild recognizing how many people in my [trans] community are homeless, and also of color,” he said.
Transgender and non-binary people “were found in almost every state and two-thirds of the Continua of Care in the U.S,” NAEH’s analysis of 2018 PIT count data found. L.A. had the highest number of transgender people experiencing homelessness.
The concentration of unhoused LGBTQ people in California cities like L.A. and San Francisco can be explained in part by the historically welcoming nature of those places, says Rodriguez. “Everyone’s like, ‘I’m seeking safety and I came to San Francisco’ because that’s what we’re known for,” he said. “They’re often surprised that we’re in a housing crisis.”
The road to “normal”
Greyson spends a few afternoons a month at Youth Spirit Artworks, a Berkeley-based nonprofit jobs training program for homeless and low-income youth that uses art for skill-building. Warm and soft-spoken, he’s beloved there. A peer lit up when they saw him sitting at the table outside. “I love you, Greyson,” they said.
The community Greyson has found there, like the one he found in those first days at the West Oakland shelter, is another valuable source of support. It’s those kinds of connections that places like the Larkin Street transitional house want to foster, too.
“What we do here is provide mutual support from peers,” Rodriguez said. “Chosen families are very important … finding a group of friends that have something deeply in common that will come help you in the middle of the night.”
That chosen family—along with therapy—can help youth address the severe mental health issues that afflict the trans community: A 2018 American Academy of Pediatrics study found that 50 percent of adolescents (ages 11 to 19 years old) who had transitioned from male to female had attempted suicide. “Literally every trans and queer person I know has mental illness; most of it is PTSD,” said Greyson, who adds that more trans-centered housing options would help a lot. “If you’re trans you’re already turned away enough. You might as well be with people who understand the struggle you’re going through.”
After a few months in the house, Bobbi feels she’s on the right path to start a new life. “For the longest time, it was like, about surviving,” she said. “Just wondering where I was going to stay at night. This has been kind of the first time I’ve been super-stable and I feel like that’s something that’s given me the freedom to explore what I want.”
Growing up, Bobbi says, her parents were homeless; her aspirations always revolved around making a lot of money and having somewhere to stay. Now that she’s been saving up and has a roof over her head, she’s realized that “I could do so much more than that.” She’s getting her GED, and will use it to apply for a scholarship to the Arts Institute. There, Bobbi wants to study culinary arts, but she’s also exploring hair and makeup—she’s been practicing on her roommates.
“’Normal’ has such a negative connotation to it, but that’s my goal,” said Bobbi. “I want to come home after a 9-to-5 and just think about work. I want to have these things, and finally feel normal and complete.”