'I Can't Keep Living Like This': How Homelessness Is Killing Trans People
One in five people in the transgender community don't know where they are going to sleep tonight.
Illustration by Jennifer Kahn
In honor of the transgender men and women who lost their lives to extreme violence and suicide in 2016, we're taking an in-depth look at the social factors that contributed to their deaths. Read more of our coverage here.
On September 6, a transgender woman named Lexxi T. Sironen was found dead in reservoir in Maine. In a memorial online, Lexxi's family wrote that she "loved Rhode Island, camping, carpentry, mechanics, electronics, cooking, writing, drawing, designing tattoo's, gardening, and going to her Uncle Dan Coffin's home on Orr's Island in Maine." The 43-year-old mother of two was also fond of playing the electric guitar, designing jewelry, welding sculptures, and Anime. "She'd do anything for anybody," a friend said.
Lexxi's housing, however, was unsteady. It was reported that she had no permanent address and, according to the police, she sometimes would crash with family in Skowhegan, Maine. On the day she was killed, she was staying by the riverfront in Waterville, in a transient encampment. Unfortunately, little else is known about Lexxi's life and death.
Extreme violence has killed over 26 transgender people this year, and often homelessness, or housing instability, is an inextricable factor in the growing rate of trans murders. According to one of the largest surveys of the trans population in the United States by the National Center for Transgender Equality, one in five transgender people do not have a permanent home and black transgender men and women are particularly vulnerable.
For transgender people, housing instability often starts early and in the family home. While many families do eventually accept their children when they come out as transgender, an initial negative reaction can set off a lifetime of consequences. "There are teens who are living with their families, maybe going to school, and either their parents kick them out of the house or the family conflict is so bad that they actually feel like they have to leave even if they haven't explicitly been kicked out," Gabe Murchison, a researcher with the Human Rights Campaign, told me over the phone. "Obviously, if you're forced to leave home as a teenager your risk of becoming homeless is pretty high."
Indeed, it's not hard to get caught in a cycle of economic insecurity from there. Rejection at home, barriers to education, and employment inequity all contribute to a reality where trans people are pushed to the margins of society, and literally on the street, leaving them vulnerable.Access to housing is further limited by the transgender population's increased risk of hiring discrimination, losing a job due to their gender identity, or having to turn to criminalized work, like sex work. Homeless shelters, too, discriminate against transgender men and women, sometimes denying them a place to sleep based on their gender identity.
Even if one can afford a home, eleven percent of people who responded to the National Center for Transgender Equality survey said they had been evicted from housing at some point in their lives because they are transgender or gender non-conforming, while a sobering 40 percent of people said they had to move from their house or apartment due to anti-trans bias.
In response, the trans community and advocates have created networks of their own where traditional structures have failed them. One example is the Transgender Housing Network—a forum where transgender identifying people can post housing requests and also search through vetted listings of available rooms. According to Angel Archer, who currently moderates the Tumblr page after taking over the task from the network's founder, it's typical to see postings from young people who were forced to leave home after coming out or from people who appear to have lapsed into life of chronic couch surfing.
"People just get entrenched in long term unemployment or long term homelessness," Archer explained. "Once you are in that position it can get harder and harder to come out of that." She notes that transgender people who are in the beginning stages of transitioning, and who appear visibly gender queer, face outright hiring discrimination and have difficulty finding work. Without a job or resources to fall back on, becoming homeless is all too possible. "So once they've gotten further along with their transition, they've had years of not having a job, or a legitimate job. That can make it even harder, even if they pass. It can be hard to break out of."
I'm never in a permanent place.
Archer first came across the Transgender Housing Network Tumblr when she found herself in the latter situation—when she was homeless, not for the first time, in New York City and looking for a room to sleep. "Someone just helped me get off the streets for a couple nights," she said. While it wasn't long term, she was able to reach out to other online networks, like queer housing Facebook groups, to find a place to stay after that.
"I'm never in a permanent place," Archer explained over the phone. "I just haven't really settled down in a particular place either due to it being hard." She says she left her family home as soon as she turned 18 and has lived a transient life until recently, bouncing between Baltimore, Portland, Philadelphia, and several other cities. Her problems with housing instability have flared up over the years since. Archer says she has experienced being kicked out of living arrangements after being outed as trans. "I was thrown out of places and threatened with violence just because of how I was presenting. A lot of times that would mean sleeping in somebody's car. I thankfully wasn't [literally] on the street too much. But I have been on the street or like squatting. Thankfully it's not been too much of that," she said. "When I was homeless I definitely felt that I was in danger."
Another major hurdle she faced was losing all of her identification when she first became homeless. "It wasn't actually possible for me to look for work because I didn't have my ID and I didn't have the documentation required to get ID," she said. "Getting some of that stuff was a bit of a challenge both because I didn't have any money and I had some outstanding legal problems."
To varying degrees, being able to obtain the proper identification—including the ability to change their name and sex on their drivers license—is a common problem for many trans people. According to the Transgender Equality survey, "forty percent of those who presented ID (when it was required in the ordinary course of life) that did not match their gender identity/expression reported being harassed" and discrimination in workplace hiring and housing is much higher for those who do not have an updated ID.
Archer's situation shifted when she was able to use the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York to get all her documentation and to get her name changed. Now she lives in North Carolina where she says she is "not any longer in the dire situation that I was before." Archer says she's focusing on sex work to save up for a gender confirming surgery she needs, but that means she hasn't much time to moderate the submissions that are sent to the Transgender Housing Network. This includes the important work of screening out potentially threatening or predatory housing listings, which are yet another threat to transgender lives. Archer is currently searching for volunteers to help her manage the site.
Safe networks are a necessary tool that the transgender community has constructed and utilized to find shelter and survive, but they point to the underlying truth that the world is not safe for transgender people. It's important to remember that homelessness itself is a confluence of discriminatory patterns that plague the transgender community at every turn, in the form of both social attitudes and law.
"There are unfortunately no federal laws against discriminating against someone who is transgender, whether it's housing or employment or across a range of other areas. There are states that have those protections." Murchinson explained. "There are a number of states where it would be illegal to deny someone an apartment or deny someone a job because they're transgender, but that's not true in every state because there isn't a federal law."
The Equality Act would officially protect transgender people from discrimination in the sectors of life that often mark the line between safety and exposure to violence, but it has been languishing in Congress since it was proposed last year. So the fact remains that the lifetime rate for homelessness for trans people is 2.5 times that of the general population.
"I can't keep living like this. Walking the streets all night and all day. Sitting on a step, fighting hard to stay up and going to work... all day," one woman wrote in a post on the Transgender Housing Network a few months ago. As a society, we need to take the steps to ensure that she doesn't.