Several years ago, Covenant House in New York was in the news because of its rejection of transgender homeless youth.
As noted in the Village Voice article, workers at Covenant House genuinely want to help homeless youth, but often bring their own biases with them to the Catholic organization.
Covenant House is up to it again, this time in Houston, putting trans youth in dangerous, humiliating situations, or turning them back to the streets.
As Sassafras Lowrey, editor of the excellent anthology of LGBT youth stories "Kicked Out" (pictured above), says:
The streets steal stories. Crush the bodies of boys and girls with molars of jagged concrete; tear at tender hearts with incisors of glass shards. I tried to remember who we wanted to be. Where we came from before our names shriveled under the labels of 'at risk," "street involved," "runaways," "throwaways," "trash." The streets ingest lives. Bodies decompose in the acidic reality of survival. We were swallowed by systems incapable of digesting us. I collected the stories of my friends, repeating their histories like a chant when they moved-on or disappeared....
The sad thing is that there are many resources to help shelters and shelter workers learn how to help homeless trans youth.
Local trans advocates and local politicians in Houston held a less than satisfactory meeting with the director of the Covenant House Houston youth shelter.
The story, the transcripts, and contact info to voice your opinion to those in power after the jump.
The Houston Covenant House Meeting - "We Treat All With Dignity"
The following was composed and sent by Cristan Williams, Executive Director Transgender Foundation of America (TFA) on 14 June 2010:
On Friday, June 11, 2010, a meeting was held at Covenant House to discuss their long-standing practice of refusing to house transgender youth.
Those in attendance were Cristan Williams; Darin Quintero, Vice-President for Board of Directors of TFA, Jolanda Jones, City of Houston Councilwoman and her aide, Josephine; Houston Covenant House Director/CEO Rhonda Robinson and Josephine Tittsworth with the National Association of Social Workers -Texas GLBT Equity Committee.
The Director of Covenant House Houston, Rhonda Robinson stated that her position was that Covenant Houston does not refuse services to any child and that all children - even transgender children - are treated with dignity.
She went on to state that their unwritten policy is that transgender children are placed according to their anatomical sex and not their gender identity.
She went on to admit that Covenant House has no policy whatsoever concerning protecting GLBT youth and that equal treatment is, in fact, discretionary for staff.
Council Member Jones took the Covenant House director to task and stated in no uncertain terms that transgender kids need to be housed in the gender they present, that they need to be referred to as the gender they present and that no child should ever be refused services due to their transgender status. Council Member Jones also stated that she knew transgender children were being turned away because the Harris County Juvenile Probation contacted her office after Covenant House told them that they do not house transgender kids.
Covenant House's Claims of Non-Discrimination Fall Flat
While the Director of Covenant House believes that discriminatory actions by staff do not occur, TFA has received numerous reports in which transgender clients encountered discrimination.
On April 23, 2010, TFA received the following:
I received 'shelter' at Covenant House for almost 1 week.
I was told when I arrived that I could only be there if I stayed with the girls, because I was legally female. I agreed because I had no other option, it was there or the street.
They roomed me with a female who said she felt uncomfortable being in the same room as me... the shelter's response was to pull me out of the room and insist that I sleep on the floor of the girls wing in front of the night staff.
I was constantly harassed by others in the shelter as well as the staff themselves. I was discovered to be physically intersexed by another shelter recipient who walked into the individual shower section I was in with the intent to start a fight.
When I was later told that even though I agreed to be there as a female that I could not use the female restrooms or showers, I was instructed to use a single person bathroom and shower on the first floor of the building. I was happy about that because I was obviously not comfortable using the multi-person restrooms and showers anyway.
When the girl who discovered I was intersexed told the staff, they made me get a "physical" at the little medical place attached next door. When it was confirmed I was indeed intersexed, I was told I had to leave the shelter because they had no place for me.
I was kicked out 2 days before my 16th birthday. It saddens me that shelters, especially ones aimed at youth, are allowed to be run this way.
On February 27, 2007, Cristan Williams received the following request for assistance from an HIV case manager:
I'm hoping you may be of help with this. A young transgender, 18 yrs old, is having a hard time finding someplace to stay. She mentioned trying Covenant House and not being well received, or even allowed to participate in their program due to transgender status. She mentioned encountering the same reception at shelters (Open Door Mission, Star of Hope).
In response, Cristan Williams called Covenant House. Directly after speaking with a Covenant House representative, she preserved the conversation:
Cristan: (explains the situation)
Hay: Yes we do take transgenders, but he would have to program as a male.
Cristan: Ah, so you would have a certain set of gender stereotypes this youth would have to adhere to in order to access services.
Hay: Well... um. Yah, I guess you could put it that way.
Cristan: So, if this youth looks like, sounds like and walks like a female and has breasts you would make her sleep with men?
Hay: Well, yes. He would need to be housed with men.
Cristan: How would you go about ensuring her safety then?
Hay: Well, the same way we go about providing safety for all the kids.
Cristan: I see. So would you force her to use the restroom with men, shower with men and... how would you protect her against rape?
Hay: Hum... well. It is a matter of policy. All of the Covenant Houses are like this.
Cristan: Interesting. I know that the Covenant House in California accepts transgenders and houses them with the correct gender. In other words, a male-to-female transgender youth is housed with the females.
Hay: Well, it isn't supposed to be that way... but each place makes... they might have their own programs that are a little bit different from other locations.
Cristan: Hum. In any event, so if I refer this person to you, you all will force them to live as a male? It has been my experience that doing that to trans youth is extremely psychologically damaging. How would you address that?
Hay: Well, I don't... My boss and I have had discussions about this. This is our policy. I mean, can't you imagine... If we house him with the women... What if he... you know, one night decides that he.... You know.
Cristan: Wow. I can't recall ever hearing a case like that anywhere. Ever.
Hay: Well, we have to prevent that...
Cristan: I understand, but at the same time it seems that your policy seems to be based more on fear than on rational facts. We are talking about someone who has been chemically castrated - their penis does not work.
Hay: Uh, well. We are a Catholic organization... you have to understand. We are against abortion, we...
Cristan: So, if I am understanding you correctly, you are saying that your policy - a policy that results in child homelessness and/or psychological trauma - is based upon your organizations interpretation of the Bible.
Hay: Well, I wouldn't put it that way.
Cristan: I mean, the principles your policy is based on are Biblically inspired, right?
Hay: Well, yes. The thing is, this policy comes from New York.
Cristan: I see.
Hay: Things are changing, but it will take a few years.
Cristan: Okay. Well, can you refer me to another agency that will help this child?
Hay: Hum. I don't know of any. Have you tried [names off a few providers who also refuse services to transgender people].
Cristan: Well, I appreciate your time. Actually... Would you be willing to advocate for this child. They need help maybe...
Hay: Well, again... these things take time. Really, this policy is set by New York.
Cristan: I see. Okay. Well, thank you for your time.
Hay: Well, okay.
Cristan: What was your name again? Could you spell it or me?
Hay: Victor Hay... H-A-Y.
Cristan: Okay... Thank you. Bye.
After The Meeting, Covenant House Continues To Humiliate Trans Youth
On June 14, 2010 at 3:30 PM, three days after the meeting with Covenant House, a Transgender Center representative contacted the Covenant House intake and spoke with an intake specialist named Angela:
Acting as a "secret shopper," the TG Center representative called Covenant House Houston and stated that they were a case manager and had an 18 year old transgender youth who needed housing.
Angela stated, "He can come in but because there's no room in the men's dorm, he'll have to sleep on the floor in the intake area."
The TG Center representative asked, "I wanted to be clear, my client is a female-to-male transgender." Angela became flustered and stated that she thought that the client was a male-to-female transgender youth. She then went on to state, "They'll have a physical and be housed by what's down there."
The TG Center representative asked, "By what name will you refer to when working with this client? I ask because the name everyone knows this female-to-male transgender youth is a boy name. Would you be willing to call this FTM client by the name they are known by, or will you refer to them by their birth name?" At this point, Angela relayed the question to another Covenant House staff and replied, "No. We only go by what's on their identification."
The Meeting Outcomes
City of Houston Councilwoman Jolanda Jones informed all of those present at the meeting that the Houston Covenant House is receiving federal funding through the City of Houston and stated that she will take this issue up with the national headquarters for the Covenant House located in New York.
Covenant House was unable to identify any written policies on how to work with transgender children in intake, assessment, placement, and other services. Currently, all treatment is all based on subjective interpretations of what is believed at the time by the staff. The Director of the Covenant House stated the she sincerely wants to do what's best for transgender children.
The Covenant House Director agreed to work with the transgender community to create policies to present to their Board of Directors in September. The Transgender Foundation of America and the NASW-TX GLBT Equity Committee have taken on the task of helping draft policies to be included into the Covenant House policies. The next meeting is scheduled for July 6 at 11:00 AM at the Houston Covenant House in order to discuss possible policy implementation.
Request for Community Feedback
We are asking that those of you who are concerned about this issue take a moment and contact the following:
Click here to contact Council Member Jolanda Jones
Please let her know that the community appreciates that she showed up to this meeting and that she fought hard for the rights of transgender youth.
Click here to contact Covenant House Houston Director Ronda Robinson
Please let her know that, while the community is displeased with the track record of Covenant House, we are very pleased about her willingness to work with the community to institute explicit policy concerning GLBT youth.
Click here to contact Council Member Wanda Adams
While she was not able to be at the meeting, her aide was present for the last 5 minutes of the meeting. Wanda is responsible for negotiating the meeting between community members and Covenant House. Please thank her for her involvement!
Click here to contact Covenant House National
Please make inquiries about policies concerning the transgender population. Please voice your support for the end of discriminatory practices.
More about the Transgender Foundation of America: TFA seeks to improve the quality of life for transgender people. TFA is a 501[c]3 nonprofit. Helpline: 713-520-8586
If you wish to discuss this in more depth, you may contact TFA Executive Director Cristan Williams and National Association of Social Workers -Texas GLBT Equity Committee Liaison Josephine Tittsworth
Resources on Trans Youth Homelessness
I was unable to find references to any articles discussing Covenant House New York's current treatment of trans youth, but it's my impression that the 2007 New York City non-discrimination policy covering trans people in homeless shelters has made a positive difference. That might be something for Houston to consider as a remedy for this problem.
There are many other resources out there for shelters that want to help homeless youth, including transgender youth.
For example, The National Task Force and the National Coalition for the Homeless wrote an excellent booklet for homeless shelters on the topic of "Transitioning Our Shelters."
More resources and studies and information on trans homelessnessare available from the National Center for Transgender Equality.
h/t Phyllis Randolph Frye