What will it take to make them succeed?
Late last year, the city reached a legal settlement that requires it to create new, dedicated shelter facilities for unhoused trans New Yorkers. By the end of 2022, the Department of Homeless Services will designate at least 30 new beds just for trans, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming clients either in existing shelters or entirely new ones.
Mariah Lopez, a prominent trans activist and leader of the Strategic Transgender Alliance for Radical Reform, won the commitment from the city in November 2021. Lopez’s victory followed years of litigation she brought against the city for discrimination and mistreatment she suffered in the shelter system.
“My personal experience shed light on issues that we could fix,” Lopez said.
The city has tried to make the shelter system work better for LGBTQ+ people before. In 2017, DHS established Marsha’s House, an 81-bed Bronx shelter designated specifically for unhoused queer New Yorkers. Last month, an NBC story detailed serious problems at Marsha’s House, including homophobic and transphobic abuse by staff.
Residents also complained to NBC about issues that typify problem shelters across DHS’s system: lack of security, lack of privacy, and the presence of drugs.
“Marsha’s as a concept,” Lopez said, “was just imagined wrong. Everything about it.”
She said that it was primarily designed as a political passion project by politicians including members of the city council’s LGBT Caucus, not as something thoughtfully crafted to serve the interests of vulnerable residents.
It was Lopez’s experience at Marsha’s House that led her to first sue the city in 2017. While there, she was initially denied disability accommodations and endured sexual harassment by staff, per her original lawsuit.
Now, Lopez and other advocates are keen to see city officials learn from mistakes at Marsha’s as they work to create the new, trans-dedicated shelters.
Per the settlement, the city will establish facilities that serve and affirm trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming residents. Beside the minimum number of 30 beds, they’ll also have single-stall or fully private bathrooms.
“Creating smaller shelters, providing bathrooms — I mean, it sounds like a simple thing, but what makes going to a shelter, the thought of that, so dreadful for a lot of human beings?” Lopez asked. “The thought of losing your humanity and your dignity and access to privacy.”
As Lopez stressed, those fears aren’t unique to the LGBTQ+ community. Lack of privacy and safety are the same concerns that have reportedly dissuaded New Yorkers surviving on the streets or subways from going along with Mayor Eric Adams’ new push to move them into DHS facilities.
“You’d be surprised to know,” Chineyere Ezie, Lopez’s lawyer, said, “how many other people in the trans and gender nonconforming community had that same experience of basically opting out of the shelter system in New York City, for safety reasons, because it is that hostile, that toxic and that unsafe.”
The LGBTQ+ community has long been disproportionately likely to experience homelessness. Trans people face especially high rates and are particularly vulnerable when unhoused.
Historically, that vulnerability has led the trans and broader LGBTQ+ community to develop separate, parallel resources. That legacy inspired Lopez as she crafted her settlement with the city.
She drew especially on Transy House, an independent and informal community in Brooklyn that sheltered trans New Yorkers, including the activist Sylvia Rivera. In fact, Lopez befriended Rivera there.
Lopez’s settlement stipulates that city officials turn to the trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming community for input on how to shape the new shelters.
There’s plenty of expertise from which the city can draw. In interviews this month, people who’ve run independent LGBTQ+ shelters weighed in about what makes such spaces successful and what the city could strive to emulate.
At Trinity Place, an Upper West Side shelter for LGBTQ+ youth aged 18-24, director Wendy Kaplan has tried to cultivate a safe, intimate, and humanizing environment. She thinks the city should aim for the same goal.
The shelter is in a barebones church basement, with 10 cots that line the walls. However, Kaplan tries to ensure privacy even in that setting. Each cot comes with a privacy screen. Trinity Place also provides residents with large lockers for their belongings and single-person bathrooms.
But Kaplan said there are also important intangibles Trinity Place offers that DHS facilities often don’t.
“I think that’s the most important thing we do,” Kaplan said. “We really respect and value the people who live here right now.”
In practice, that means taking residents’ input about how the shelter runs and emphasizing conflict resolution. Trinity’s Place is staffed entirely by social workers. There are no security guards.
That’s a stark difference from Marsha’s House, where security staff came under particular scrutiny after multiple accusations that they insulted, intimidated, and harassed residents.
Rev. Pat Bumgardner echoed Kaplan. Bumgardner helps oversee Sylvia’s Place, an LGBTQ+ emergency youth shelter hosted in Metropolitan Community Church of New York.
“Sylvia’s Place and any place that’s dedicated to housing queer youth is what they call a designer shelter. So it’s not a mega-operation,” Bumgardner said. “It’s not mass- anything. It’s designed to meet the needs of people.”
Mica Henderson, a social worker at the LGBTQ+ social services nonprofit New Alternatives, chimed in about the importance of having vital resources close at hand. Asked how she’d design the new city shelters, she said: “I would have everything that services the whole body, from mental health services to doctors to PT to nutrition to job training,” with as much of that on-site as possible.
Kaplan, Bumgardner and Henderson all stressed that the virtues of their models could benefit the city’s homeless population across the board, not just LBGTQ+ people.
Lopez agreed. “The idea is to change the system.”