Lawsuit alleges anti-trans discrimination in a private DC shelter
Seth Canada was living in one of D.C.’s congregate shelters in May, 2018, when he learned that he qualified for a private room in St. Luke’s shelter. The shelter is owned and operated by the National United Methodist Church, which says on its website that all referrals come from the nonprofit Friendship Place. Canada learned about the shelter opportunity during an intake session for Friendship Place’s AimHire Job Placement program, which helps people experiencing homelessness find employment and directs participants to other resources. Canada told his AimHire intake officer that he was interested in applying for that room.
But the next month, Canada, who is a transgender man, received an email from the intake officer saying St. Luke’s told her they had never worked with a transgender person before and they would need time to “think about it.” Canada alleges that he was quietly rejected from St. Luke’s because he stopped receiving communications about the private room and was instead steered by AimHire towards other programs like rapid rehousing.
That email and the subsequent effort to find an alternative to St. Luke’s are at the crux of a lawsuit Canada filed in October against the National United Methodist Church and Friendship Place. Canada argues that he was twice discriminated against for being transgender — once when he was rejected from St. Luke’s and again when AimHire failed to push back against that rejection.
“My response [to being turned down] was that I’m used to it,” Canada said. “I’ve been discriminated for employment. That’s what led me to homelessness to begin with, so I’ve known discrimination for quite a while.”
Both the National United Methodist Church and Friendship Place declined to answer specific questions about the matter while the lawsuit is still pending. The National United Methodist Church, in a statement provided to Street Sense Media, denied that any discrimination took place, adding that “the Church has served and continues to serve members of the LGBTQ+ community and does not make housing determinations based on any protected status.”
According to its website, the NUMC voted in 2008 to join the Reconciling Ministries Network, an organization promoting inclusivity among United Methodist churches, and in doing so “[stated] explicitly that we are welcoming of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons.”
Friendship Place also denied that any discrimination occurred, emphasizing that they do not own or operate St. Luke’s and that AimHire is primarily an employment program — not a housing program. The organization said in a statement that it has “a long and successful track record of serving the LGBTQ+ community and have a commitment to this important work at all levels of our organization.” The nonprofit’s executive director since 2006, Jean-Michel Giraud, is openly gay and describes himself as a lifelong advocate in the LGBTQ community. The organization has focused on serving LGBTQ youth since at least 2015 and at least one of its staff members is a formerly homeless transgender woman.
Brook Hill, an attorney with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs who is representing Canada, compared the situation at St. Luke’s to the hypothetical of a shelter saying they’ll need to take stock before agreeing to house a Black person. “You wouldn’t say that, and it’s no different under D.C. law when you say, ‘I’ve never housed a transgender person before, or a gay person before,’” Hill said. “It’s all protected.” The D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977 includes protections based on gender identity.
As for Friendship Place, Hill said they treated Canada differently than they would have treated a non-transgender person in that case. Friendship Place, Hill said, “tried to give [Canada] housing according to different terms and conditions than they would have if he was cisgendered.”
According to Len Williams, operations director of the Wanda Alston Foundation and, like Canada, a formerly-homeless trans man of color, the case underscores systemic discrimination and a lack of resources for transgender people in homeless services.
The consequences of that discrimination can be deeply harmful for transgender people. “It’s debilitating if you go [to a shelter] and find the same thing you dealt with on the outside you’re dealing with in a space where the doors are closed,” Williams said. “Your living there, or your bed, is contingent upon if a staff member understands you or if they like you as a person or if they respect you.”
Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, agreed that resources are limited for trans people experiencing homelessness. He attributed some of the discrimination to an overdue reckoning with the changing demographics of the homeless population.
“The adult shelter system has been slow to adapt, especially some of the faith-based shelter organizations, to the new face of homelessness,” Whitehead said. “It’s a Black and brown person of color’s face and it’s also with different sexual orientations. And because the federal government doesn’t provide enough shelter and that job has to be taken on by faith-based organizations, again with no oversight, this is what happens.” Friendship Place is partially funded through federal grants. The church does not disclose funding sources on its website.
Part of the solution to the issues facing transgender men experiencing homelessness, Williams said, is spaces designed especially for them. Trans people in shelters often don’t have access to a strong support network. The Wanda Alston Foundation operates two transitional housing programs for homeless and at-risk LGBTQ youth.
Homeless services in D.C. would benefit from a system-wide standard action plan for handling instances of discrimination, Williams said, without having to turn to lawsuits. According to him, the most effective measure to curb discrimination would be increased training to help the staff of service providers form connections with transgender people and become comfortable treating them the same as all other clients.
“If there was a better understanding, a more genuine understanding that this person has a right to be here just as much as anybody else, this person in their body has a right to be protected,” Williams said, “then possibly that situation maybe wouldn’t have gotten to this level.”
After learning that he’d been turned down from St. Luke’s, Canada began looking for other options. In March of 2019, he obtained several scholarships that enabled him to take classes at Georgetown University. He hopes to attend law school and become a civil rights attorney.
Canada continued living in Adam’s Place shelter in Northeast D.C., where he’d lived while applying for AimHire, until his personal crisis coincided with the global COVID-19 pandemic. He caught the novel coronavirus in April 2020.
Since his illness was likely caused by living in the close quarters of Adam’s Place, Canada alleges that the hardship of developing COVID-19 is attributable to the same twofold discrimination he faced from the NUMC and Friendship Place. Catholic Charities, which is contracted by the city to operate Adam’s Place, did not respond to a request for comment.
Canada recovered and moved back to Adam’s Place temporarily before moving into Georgetown’s student housing in August of this year. He and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee filed their complaint against the NUMC and Friendship Place on Oct. 16. The first hearing in the case, a scheduling conference where the dates for much of the rest of the suit will be decided, will be Jan. 15, 2021, in D.C. Superior Court.
The suit seeks declaratory relief — a ruling from the court that what happened constituted illegal discrimination — and damages. Canada said his intent with the lawsuit is to stop what happened to him from happening to other transgender people.
“I understand that some individual organizations could still operate with their own established rules, and it could be a long struggle to have change and implement it system-wide in all of D.C., in all of the social services organizations and charitable foundations,” Canada said. “But I’m also hoping that this case may have some positive impact.”
Williams said he was happy to see the case being brought because Canada is speaking for many other transgender men who Williams said have been bullied out of making complaints when they faced discrimination.
“This is a lot of voices [Canada] has with him,” Williams said. “There are a lot of trans men that have not had this gusto to get here.”