ON THE OUTSIDE, SEEKING WELFARE

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A man walks into the Human Resource Administration office on Livingston Street in downtown Brooklyn and walks out with an application for food stamps. The same person walks back into the same office later, but he is now a she, and the city worker accuses him of identity fraud.

This is the situation that Lourdes Hunter, formerly Thomas L. Hunter, found herself in as a transgender person when she wanted to change her government benefits card to reflect her identity as a woman, in anticipation of boarding a flight that she had already booked as Lourdes Hunter.

It is also the kind of scenario that has been recounted many times to Ra Findlay, a board member of the Welfare Warriors, a new group dedicated to raising consciousness about the difficulties facing underprivileged lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and “gender non-conforming” people. The group kicked off its efforts with a speak-out event last month at the LGBT Community Center in the West Village.

Findlay finds discrimination to be common among all low-income members of the LGBT community. “They’re not looking to have new people on the rolls,” Findlay said of the city’s welfare system. According to her, many LGBT people are discouraged and intimidated by city workers’ attitudes. “People start giving up…It’s more humanizing to stay on the streets than to ask for help,” said Findlay. Fear of discrimination by welfare workers often prevents LGBT individuals from asking for help in the first place, she said.

Since March 1995, the number of New Yorkers on welfare has declined by 65.7 percent, according to the Web site of the Human Resource Administration (HRA). The numbers have been steadily declining for decades. In confidential small-group discussions at the speak-out, people shared numerous accounts of discrimination by landlords, and of harassment by employers and government workers — which may also serve to drive down welfare participation.

It is also unknown how many LGBT people receive or even qualify for public assistance. Joseph DeFilippis, executive director of Queers for Economic Justice, parent group of Welfare Warriors, says this is because government does not ask questions pertaining to sexual orientation or gender identity on any forms. “There’s really not evidence, which is a big problem and it’s impossible to collect any,” DeFilippis said. But “some things don’t require evidence” because politicians and the government know that discrimination exists against the LGBT community, he said.

HRA spokesman Stephen Morello said his agency “expects that all of our staff is going to treat all of our clients and applicants equally and with respect and dignity. The challenges that face transgender individuals in our community are of concern [to] Commissioner Verna Eggleston.”

Morello said transgender people may misconstrue a city worker’s attempts to properly identify a person as discrimination. “It is possible that in some cases…depending on how people present themselves, that those individuals might be offended or feel that they are being doubted or asked challenging questions. The [HRA] staff has to certify people’s identity. It is certainly not our intention to discourage someone from applying for benefits,” he said. Morello was also not aware of any specific complaints against the Human Resources Administration by any LGBT community members.

Doyin Ola, welfare organizer for Queers for Economic Justice, said Welfare Warriors’ community education campaign has begun working with organizations, churches and shelters to “debunk myths” about HRA, the welfare application process, and recipients themselves. [09/18/06]

-Sada Stipe