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Proposed Trump administration rule change could lead to homeless LGBTQ people being turned away from shelters

The new rule could deny transgender applicants on religious grounds, and force them to sleep in areas that don’t correspond with their gender identity.

A ribbon cutting takes place outside the first-ever Pennsylvania residence for LGBTQ homeless people in North Philadelphia.
A ribbon cutting takes place outside the first-ever Pennsylvania residence for LGBTQ homeless people in North Philadelphia.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

By announcing a plan to end protections for transgender people in homeless shelters late last month, the Trump administration raised the ire of Philadelphia area officials and advocates.

“We are deeply disturbed at the signal it sends,” said Liz Hersh, director of the city’s Office of Homeless Services.

“I was very saddened,” said Michael Hinson, president and chief operating officer of SELF inc., a Center City nonprofit that oversees nine emergency shelters in Philadelphia.

The proposed rule by the Department of Housing and Urban Development would allow federally funded homeless shelters to deny transgender applicants on religious grounds, and force them to use bathrooms and sleeping areas that don’t correspond with their gender identity, the website reported.

HUD officials have said the change would “offer local homeless shelter providers greater flexibility when making decisions about individuals who may misrepresent their sex to access sex-specific shelters.”

HUD has received pressure from some Christian shelter providers to make the rule change as a way to push back on admitting transgender people who are homeless, reported.

A HUD reversal

The announcement was made on May 22, one day after HUD Secretary Ben Carson told Congress that the agency was not going to eliminate the Obama-era 2012 Equal Access Rule, which barred federal housing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, the Washington Post reported.

Carson has yet to publicly address the apparent contradiction.

“We strongly oppose the proposed rule,” said Hersh, whose spokesperson said that the city received around $37 million in federal dollars last year to help fund shelters and other aspects of the system to aid people who are homeless.

Hersh went on to say that “Philadelphia doesn’t discriminate. Period.” She added, “We will continue to make every effort to ensure that every Philadelphian in need has equal access to homeless services.” Hersh said the city has worked for years to institute equal access to “ensure that LGBTQ Philadelphians should not have to worry about being discriminated against.”

Hinson, dubbed “the godfather of local LGBTQ policy change” by Philadelphia Magazine, served as the city’s first LGBTQ liaison between 2001 and 2008. Asked about the federal government’s suggested change, he said flatly, “It’s absolutely not going to happen in Philadelphia.”

‘Blind’ to transgender status

For years, the city’s Office of Homeless Services has “done a good job being blind to race and transgender status,” said Joe Willard, vice president of policy at the People’s Emergency Center, a West Philadelphia nonprofit that supports people who are homeless.

The Trump administration does not share that distinction, advocates said.

The proposal to trash Obama-era transgender reforms dovetails with other administration efforts to weaken protections for transgender Americans, according to the Post. Under Trump, the Department of Defense banned transgender troops, and a Department of Health and Human Services proposal allows medical providers to deny treatment to transgender people on religious grounds.

Such changes kill optimism for improving the lives of those who are not mainstream, advocates charge.

As it happens, said Mike Dahl, executive director of Broad Street Ministry in Center City, which offers services for people who are homeless, “being pessimistic about federal policy has proven to be prophetic recently.”

‘Beyond immoral’

Nearly half of all youth who are homeless identify as being LGBTQ, Hersh said.

And if transgender youth are denied basic services such as shelter, “then they are left to the mercy of the streets, which have no mercy,” said Al Vernacchio, sexuality education coordinator at Friends’ Central School, a Quaker preschool-through-12th-grade school in Wynnewood. Vernacchio is an author, lecturer, and nationally known expert on helping young people develop healthy sexuality.

“It’s beyond immoral," he said, "for a government to take a subset of its own citizenry and say, ‘We can do without you.’”

Once the rule is officially released, Hinson said, he plans to go to work “organizing and providing comments” against the change.

“Hopefully,” he said, “we’ll impact the way the Trump administration views this.”

Hinson added, “We’re talking about what could be life-and-death situations here.”