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Survival or Identity: the young adult, trans, homeless experience in Houston

The Salvation Army of Greater Houston’s Young Adult Resource Center (YARC) connects young adults experiencing homelessness, ages 18 to 25, to housing and other mainstream supports while also providing respite, meals, job and recovery coaching, and non-traditional educational support, tutoring, and re-engagement services. The YARC began in 2013 when a single client walked through the door looking for help and flourished from there.

The YARC sees an average of 40-70 clients each day and about 280 unique clients each month. The organization practices trauma-informed care to understand behaviors and successfully work with their clients. The YARC prides itself on being able to meet each client where they are and helping them with their specific needs while also giving them a space to heal.

Many clients of the YARC are young adults who, on top of experiencing homelessness, are facing another set of obstacles because they identify as transgender or gender diverse. So, what does homelessness mean for each of them? Jada and T, two transgender women who access services at the YARC, sat down to discuss their experience within The Way Home’s system.

“For me, as a transgender woman, it’s terrible being in shelters,” said T. “I not only had to take my shower last, but I didn’t even fit inside of it.” T says that she is not treated the same as other women because of how she identifies. Thanks to the YARC, she has a safe space she can go but is still waiting to be placed into permanent housing.

“There’s a lot of horrible things happening to gay and trans people right now,” said Jada who, like T, is a transgender woman accessing services at the YARC. “It’s sad to say that I feel like I have had a decent homeless experience because I haven’t been beaten underneath a bridge yet, but other people I know have.”

Jada also said that even though she strongly dislikes Rapid Re-housing, it is the quickest way for her to get off the streets. She has had to go to extreme lengths to pay her bills. “I have to do sex work to pay for my bills and my hormones,” said Jada. “And if I were to choose between my rent and my hormones, I would choose hormones every day.”

“Unfortunately, the experiences they’ve described are very common for transgender or gender diverse young adults experiencing homelessness or housing instability – especially of they are transwomen of color,” said James Gonzalez, Senior Project Manager at the Coalition for the Homeless. “It’s a constant negotiation between survival and identity.”

Recently, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) proposed a change to its Equal Access Rule which was established in 2012 and amended in 2016 to provide strong protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status. The recent proposed change has weakened these protections by allowing certain programs the opportunity to establish admission policies based on a person’s sex.

This is particularly troubling since a person’s sex does not always align with their gender identity, and this rule could have numerous negative impacts on the ability for trans people or gender nonconforming people to access safe, supportive, and affirming programs. The Coalition for the Homeless as lead agency to The Way Home Continuum of Care (CoC) is exploring options to strengthen local policies that could protect equal access in Harris, Fort Bend, and Montgomery Counties.

“As a system we must do better,” James continues. “Specifically, so people don’t have to risk their livelihood to identify as themselves in a homeless shelter or housing program, or risk their safety to get access to hormone replacement therapy.”

Kelsey Reynolds, a Youth Assessor & Housing Youth Development Specialist at the YARC, said that anywhere from 8 to 13 percent of young adults who access services at the YARC identify as LGBTQ. “If it were me and I was in Jada or T’s position, I would be terrified,” said Kelsey. “If someone who identifies as trans is not able to be themselves, a lot of people don’t understand that it can be a death sentence.”

Kelsey reiterates the importance of the YARC being a safe space for these individuals, and that a lot of their return clients keep coming back because that is where they feel most comfortable. “I would love to see people have more knowledge on this issue and realize that on top of all the system barriers these women are facing, they also have a world of trauma they’re carrying on their shoulders.”