Healer Trentyn Sanders schools us on the lack of accessibility in city shelters for trans-identified youth. Read his recommendations below:
I have never stepped foot inside a shower at any homeless shelter I lived in. As a trans person, I am terrified of what someone’s reaction will be when they see what’s underneath my clothes. My body is trans and my body doesn’t fit the binary.
The shelters that I lived in had little to no privacy in their bathrooms, whether that meant the doors were hanging off the stalls leaving large gaps for people to look inside, or there were no stall doors at all.
At one point, I didn’t have access to testosterone for too long and started experiencing health issues that made me feel extremely uncomfortable in a men’s shelter. I would be shaking and practically in tears because I was terrified of someone peeking in and hurting me. I had just gotten out of the psych ward and was, for the first time, living away from a small, hateful town. I was in constant fight or flight mode and the bathrooms in these Philly shelters were a huge trigger for me as trans person.
Something needs to be done about this. I wasn’t the first trans individual to go through Philadelphia’s homeless shelter system and I definitely wasn’t their last.
One of the shelters didn’t even offer a curtain around the shower or tub. People were fully exposed when they had to bathe. If I would’ve chosen to shower there I would’ve been outed as trans. When people look at me, they usually think I’m cis. My gender identity is rarely questioned now that I’ve been medically transitioning since 2014, but no matter how well I “pass” when I’m clothed, beneath some layers is still my undeniably trans body. It puts me at risk in the world. And so, I never showered in the shelter.
Luckily, I was born in Philadelphia and had family who had been here for generations so I was able to shower at relatives houses and then they would drop me off at the shelter that night. It wasn’t a daily thing, but it was really nice, and I truly feel grateful for that. The days where I wasn’t able to see them were the days I didn’t shower and that was really bad when I had shark week. There are resources for young people experiencing homelessness available in the city so they can shower, but as someone who was coming from the background that I was and was so unstable at the time, I preferred to shower at a relative’s place where I knew it was relatively safe. I know I had it a lot easier than other folks who have gone through this system.
There are a few main things I want to change with bathrooms in the shelters.
First, let’s talk about the toilet stalls themselves. I want them to offer complete privacy, modeled after public restrooms in Europe. This means that the stall doors would touch the floor of the bathroom and the sides of the stall as well, leaving no space for people to peek in. They would have a lock inside that would indicate on the outside whether or not a stall was occupied. I understand that in shelters, the staff sometimes want to be able to look into the stalls to make sure residents aren’t getting high or hurting themselves in other ways, but knocking on the door and calling their name to check in and get a response is one way to make sure they’re still alive at the very least, and if the staff member knows that a resident is in there getting high and they’re not responding, maybe shelter staff could have a key that unlocks the stalls from the outside that would be used in emergency cases only.
I also believe that all or most of the stalls should be able to accommodate a wheelchair, or at the very least, a walker. A lot of the city’s homeless population use an assistive device of some sort, so that needs to be kept in mind when redesigning the bathrooms in these shelters. Accessibility is a requirement when redesigning anything, and that’s why I believe that there should be a team of disabled folks who work with companies who design and construct buildings, but that’s a conversation I’d like to save for another time.
When it comes to the showers and tubs in shelters, I have a similar vision for their design that I do with the toilets. The showers and tubs should be covered by more than just a curtain. They need a door that offers complete privacy, but leave a gap at the top, close to the ceiling, so that steam from the shower can escape. The area would be large enough to accommodate the shower or tub itself, but also have a rack on either the wall or door to hold the person’s towel and clothes and keep them dry. The rack would have to be on the inside to avoid other residents coming in and taking them while the person is bathing and also avoid having to open up the door before being dressed and dry. Once again, and this is mandatory, these spaces need to be large enough to accommodate a person’s wheelchair, walker, or other assistive device.
The closest design that matched my ideas in a shelter that I experienced was when I stayed in Project Home’s Winter Respite. The showers were in the same room as the toilet and it was a single stall, meaning only one person at a time could be in there. It offered complete privacy and that is really important. However, the winter respite only housed up to 20 people (I believe) and shelters that house more people wouldn’t be able to have single person restrooms. Regardless, what they did with having completely private bathrooms is a step in the right direction.
Privacy is key. Lack of privacy is what kept me, a young trans person, out of the showers in shelters. And like I said, there are places in the city where young queer people can shower in a relatively safe environment, but shelters should already be providing a safe place for this so folks don’t have to go to a completely different organization just to shower.
I am not the only trans person in this city and this country who has experienced homelessness, and situations similar to this.
Did you know that not only have 19% of trans people been homeless at some point in their life, an astounding 55% of transgender adults have experienced harassment by shelter staff or residents, 22% were sexually assaulted by shelter staff and residents, and 29% were just turned away altogether from the shelter because of their trans identity. (1)
It’s sobering to read those statistics and see that 1. I’m not the only one who has experienced hell in a shelter setting because I’m trans but 2. It is an all too common experience amongst the homeless trans community. It shouldn’t be this way, and yet it is.
Now is the time to do something about it and change things for the better. If someone is experiencing homelessness and they need a place to stay and sleep at night, what are they supposed to do if the shelters are turning them away because they don’t fit in a nice, neat box of what gender is “supposed” to be? They end up sleeping on the streets or engaging in risky sexual activity in order to have a bed to sleep in or food to eat (“survival sex”), and this is extremely dangerous, especially for black trans women who are at more risk than other marginalized identities. (1)
Not only are people turned away from shelters for being trans but they’re also being turned away because of being disabled.
In Chicago, the city is being sued for lack of accessibility in its shelters. One woman was turned away from shelter for a week and ended up having to stay in the ER for multiple nights because of her disability which causes her to have difficulty walking. The shelters in her city were not accessible and couldn’t accommodate her needs, and so she had to suffer as a result. (2)
Closer to home, here in Philadelphia another woman was turned away from shelters because the city could not accommodate her. Leola Howell has cerebral palsy and after couch surfing with her 4-year-old daughter for a while, she decided to seek out services with the city’s shelter intake center where she was turned away. She requires a personal aide for 16-hours a day because her lower body is immobile. When she was finally placed in shelter, she experienced numerous problems like not having bars in the bathroom to help her transfer from her chair to the toilet seat, to even things like not having a toilet seat on the toilet itself or soap. When she was eventually moved to permanent supportive housing, the doorways weren’t large enough to accommodate her wheelchair. (3)
It’s a shame that in 2019, accessibility is still an issue for many folks everywhere, including at shelters where we’re supposed to house and support a very vulnerable community. And it’s also disappointing that we’re still fighting for basic rights for trans people.
One step in the right direction for trans and LGBQ people is that the Equality Act was introduced back in March of this year. This would offer a wide range of new protections from discrimination for the LGBTQ community, including allowing trans people to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that best match their gender identity.
Out of all the things that the current administration has done to try and erase trans people, this is one of the few good things that has been introduced recently and gives me some hope that maybe not everyone is out to get me and my community. In my next post, I hope to talk more about how the Trump administration has done a lot to try and erase the trans community and how we will never be erased.
Learn more about Trentyn and his work helping to develop a new drop-in space for LGBTQ youth at Einstein PRIDE at our 2nd Annual Heal the Future Conference. Register here.