“What Are You?”: Finding a Place for Transgender Homeless People
Laze Ma coats her eyes with dark liner, adding a few sparkles for fun. She dabs her lips with plum gloss and picks out her favorite dress. Even though she’s been chronically homeless for six years, she’ll do everything in her power not to look it.
“I used to wear towels on my head and glue fake nails on my hands with toothpaste. I knew I wanted to be a woman, but I didn’t think it was humanly possible,” Ma said.
The 30-year-old native Washingtonian began her transition from male to female when she was just 17. That’s when her trouble began.
Her mother, never fully accepting her transition, kicked her out of the house. After that, Ma was forced to seek shelter from the District. Roughly 62 percent of homeless gay and transgender youth have experienced discrimination from their families, according to a 2010 study by the Center for American Progress.
Members of the transgender community are at high risk for social isolation, physical and emotional trauma, chemical dependency, sexually transmitted diseases, and discrimination. These all act as limitations when seeking employment, housing, and health care, according to the Healthcare for the Homeless (HCH) Clinicians Network. Experiencing homelessness only heightens these risks.
In late February of this year, United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Julián Castro mandated that all nationwide, federally-funded shelters provide a bed, if available, to transgender individuals seeking shelter. From that point on, they can’t be denied shelter due to their gender identity or expression.
One in five transgender individuals have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. Even though this percentage is high, Washington, D.C. shelters trans women — women who are DMAB (Designated Male at Birth) who have physically transitioned or who self-identify as female — in the same shelters as men, putting them at risk for sexual violence and hate crimes.
“I couldn’t do the streets. I know a lot of trans women who live on the streets because they can’t deal with it at all in the shelters. I’m able to do that: stay in shelters, have a bed. But it’s still really treacherous,” Ma said. “It can be very dangerous, especially if a particular person doesn’t like our transition.”
Ma has stayed in a multitude of all-male Washington shelters, including NY Avenue Men’s Emergency Shelter, 801 East Men’s Shelter, Adam’s Place Shelter, and Sherwood Shelter– the only co-ed one of the bunch.
When Ma enters the shelters she’s greeted by bouts of mockery, laughter and questions like, “Are you a man? Are you a woman? What are you?” In order to just make her time in shelters bearable, Ma engages in sexual relations with some of the men in the beds over from hers.
“If you have sex with them, it’s not that bad, but if you don’t have sex with them, you’re gonna have problems,” Ma said. “I did some things–entertain them, appease them in some way, so it’s okay… It’s not fair at all. The thing I always worry about is violence and sexual assault.”
Approximately 58 percent of homeless gay and transgender youth have experienced sexual assault, compared to 33 percent of homeless heterosexual youth, according to the Center for American Progress.
One time, when Ma was showering at the Adam’s Place Shelter, a man came into the shower behind her and touched her. She kept quiet and didn’t tell the guards because snitching makes things harder in the shelters, and the guards won’t believe her, Ma feels.
“I didn’t tell the guards because they’ll say, “You wanted it anyways,” Ma said. “It’s tough not even having the staff to back you up. You really feel like you’re all alone.”
According to Ma, the lack of support is nowhere near the worst of it. Specific guards have toyed with giving her bed away; one wouldn’t assure her that she had her own bed until she finally submitted and called him ‘Big Papi.’ Other times, she’s had guards proposition her for sex.
“It happens primarily to us, trans and homosexuals,” Ma said. “Guards came onto me, but it made things hard because I wouldn’t [reciprocate].”
According to Ma, there is a very small transgender and homosexual population that stays in the shelter system due to the treatment they receive from other residents and staff.
Family rejection, coupled with discrimination and violence, contribute to the disproportionate number of transgender and other LGBTQ youth who are homeless in the United States–an estimated 20-40 percent. Frequently, they are inappropriately housed in gendered space they don’t agree with, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.
“I was definitely a spectacle at Adam’s Place,” Ma said. “I’m trying not to be emotional about it. It’s like I have to accommodate their curiosity just to be able to relax.”
“Persons who identify as transgender and were not placed in a facility that serves persons of the gender with which they identify, or have experienced discrimination or harassment or feel unsafe in any way, are encouraged to call the Department of Human Services (DHS) Office of Program Review, Monitoring and Investigation,” an official statement by the DHS states.
The District’s DHS affirms that all people eligible to receive homeless services will in fact do so, regardless of gender expression. According to their statement, service providers may not ask for proof of gender upon entry.
Similarly, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, which is responsible for shelters such as Adam’s Place, New York Avenue and Harriet Tubman, states that they admit people as they present and see themselves.
“As a part of our agreement with The Community Partnership for the Homeless, we accommodate people who identify as female in a female shelter or male in a male shelter,” said Erik Salmi, Catholic Charities’ Director of Communications. “We try our hardest to protect the most vulnerable and their needs, including members of the LGBTQ community who need shelter.”
However, according to Ruby Corado, the founder of Casa Ruby, the only LGBTQ-specific shelter in the District, there are a slew of recent cases where trans-females have been turned away from female shelters and therefore forced to seek a bed at a men’s shelter.
“By law they can’t be turned away for being transgender, but most get turned away [from female shelters] by claiming that shelters are full and there are no beds available,” Corado said.
Casa Ruby, as an organization, began nearly 10 years ago when Corado began her advocacy for the LGBT community. However, the shelter located on Georgia Avenue began in June of 2012.
On any given night, 10 emergency beds are reserved for LGBTQ adults, where the funding comes from within Casa Ruby. The remaining 12 beds are for LGBTQ youth and are funded by the Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness.
Ma has been volunteering there daily for the past four months.
“Coming here to Casa Ruby has helped me a lot, to regain myself,” Ma said.
After being the victim of a hate crime nearly two years ago in Maryland, Ma refused to dress as a woman for a full year. She was walking down the street, dressed in women’s clothing, when a man attacked her. During the course of the attack, he broke her arm, gashed her forehead and stripped her of her clothing, forcing her to walk home naked.
As many as 60 percent of transgender individuals have been victims of harassment or violence, HCH Clinician’s Network found.
“I showed him I didn’t want to cause him any harm even though he was causing me so much harm. But, he got off on that; he connected with it. He just wanted to hurt me. I was done after that,” Ma said. “That attack scared me out of women’s clothes for a while.”
Stumbling naked through her front door, she was greeted by her mother whose facial expression seemed to say, Well, this is what you get, according to Ma. During the year that she abandoned women’s clothing, her mother took her back in, only to kick her out again when Ma returned to her female identity last year.
“I didn’t invest all of my life just to back out. I paid the price for all that. I had to give so much, I can’t just leave it. Money, my family, relationships…my mind,” Ma said. “ It’s so free and uplifting to be able to dress as a woman. This is not a costume. It’s my identity, it’s who I am.”
Ma spent her life grappling with who she is, since she came out as a homosexual as a teenager and then a trans woman at 17. She turned to drug addiction and prostitution as a coping mechanism. Sober for a year now, Ma used to dabble in cocaine, marijuana and ecstasy.
“Since I came out, I used to do it–prostituting. Because, I used to hate being at home and the only people that came around were prostitutes,” Ma said.
Prostitution afforded Ma a cash flow for her transition, as well as a way out. “The biggest issue for transgender people is just finding a place in this world,” Ma said.
“Homeless people need to be safe. Unfortunately, for transgender and gender nonconforming gay and lesbians, the current shelter bases in our city are very unsafe.” said Corado. “What they do find is places where they are not wanted. Very often they have found violent conditions where they have been attacked simply for seeking shelter and being who they are. The current facilities don’t want us.”
After getting off of a bus at age 16, Corado ended up in Maryland. She was fleeing a civil war in El Salvador. By age 22, she had moved to Dupont Circle and began her transition. That was when she started opening her apartment to LGBTQ youth.
“I just wanted to be around people like me, but little by little I kept seeing that some of them didn’t have a home. For the ones who had a home, sometimes home was a living hell,” Corado said. “Casa Ruby was a dream I had many years ago. One time I actually had a dream that I was running a shelter and putting satin sheets on the bed. Now, I’m living my dream. I can serve my community and I can do it in a way that I understand where they’re coming from because I’m a member of the LGBT community and I’ve been homeless.”
Corado’s transition as a trans woman spiraled her onto a path of homelessness. Her decision to embrace her identity as a woman cost her her job, leaving her no choice but to enter the District’s shelter system, where she cycled in and out for nearly two years.
She recalls the number of times she would fax her resume and receive a call back almost instantly, only to be told the position had been filled when she walked into the subsequent interview.
There are not federal laws that consistently protect LGBT individuals from employment discrimination. More than half of states are without laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and 32 states lack laws prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity. This results in job discrimination for the LGBT community, including not being hired, being denied a promotion, experiencing on the job harassment, and being fired, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
“When I transitioned, I transitioned into poverty because no one would hire me. We walk into shelters not because we want to be homeless, but because we can’t get jobs, we get fired from jobs, our families reject us and throw us away because the rules are not making sure we’re protected,” Corado said. “So what do you do? You risk your life. Many of us have risked our lives in these facilities or simply the street. I hit the streets, I engaged in things I didn’t want to engage in, like survival sex work, and that was hard. But you quickly recognize that’s your livelihood.”
More often than not, job or housing discrimination leads transgender individuals directly to the streets. Without proper employment, many transgender individuals turn to survival sex– increasing their exposure to violence and sexually transmitted diseases, HCH Clinicians’ Network reports.
Corado tried to avoid the District’s shelters due to the harassment, mockery and violence, but would weather them for self-preservation.
“There were times when I did sleep in shelters because I was too wounded and I felt like sleeping on the streets would be suicide and I wasn’t ready for it. I really felt like if I sleep tonight on the streets, I’m gonna die. And I’m not ready to die, so I made that choice to be disrespected in shelters. I made the choice to risk my life in a shelter because I just couldn’t commit suicide on the streets.”
After working with lawyers, Corado was able to collect a Social Security Disability lump sum that she had earned working in her younger years. Being on Social Security for two years allowed her to retake her life, getting herself off the streets and into an apartment, where she eventually secured enough funding to start Casa Ruby.
“I feel like I made it, I survived the Holocaust of gender extermination of people who are different. Now, a big part of my work is restoring the dignity of people who have been thrown away by society. I get to see what the world doesn’t see. I get to see people who are embracing who they are and I celebrate it. Sometimes I wonder, am I the only one who gets to see this?” Corado said. “I get to love people whose only crime has been to want to exist in their own self. As society punishes them, I’m building a system that loves them. I’m not going to wait for society to take responsibility, I’m going to take responsibility and my community is going to take responsibility.”
Earlier this year, Mayor Muriel Bowser introduced a five-year strategic plan to end homelessness in the District. Corado is hopeful that the Mayor will address the growing crisis, though she was disappointed to see that there was not a specific mention of ‘transgender’ in the plan.
Though Corado feels the homeless transgender community is underserved, she takes comfort in the fact that each night, 22 people can survive. And that number is quickly growing. This month, Casa Ruby opened a new three-story house for LGBTQ youth on Columbia Road, NW.
“We live in a city that does not respond to homelessness in a way that is kind and a way that is responsible,” Corado said. “Even within the homeless environment, people who are transgender are often left behind.”
Corado is grateful to be serving her community–a community she feels, more often than not, is simply misunderstood.
“Misery doesn’t last 100 years. There have been some miserable times in my life, but I’ve made it. I have to remind others, too, they’re gonna make it,” Corado said. “They’re in the right place.”