The city’s homeless department has long had a delicate problem: where and how to house transgender clients. Now, after a public forum on the issue held in the fall, it seems the transgender community is divided over how exactly to solve it.

Most agree the current system isn’t working. Crowded into a large room at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, some panelists and audience members blasted the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) for placing transgender clients in shelters according to birth gender rather than gender identity. The result, they say, is often a scary and degrading experience.

“My main issue was safety,” said Stella Salazar, a transgender veteran of city shelters. “I had to reject a lot of sexual advances.” The shelters can be particularly menacing for transgender women, who are routinely placed in all-male facilities like the 954-bed Wards Island shelter.

Lourdes Hunter, a transgender woman who spent 21 months in the city’s shelter system, agreed. She pointed out that the problem goes beyond other residents–staff can be insensitive as well. “A lot of transgender kids are afraid of the shelters, so they turn to the streets,” she says.

Still, the solution isn’t especially clear. Some transgender clients would like separate shelters. “There should be a place where they feel safe, a place of tolerance and respect,” says Salazar. Such shelters would also create job opportunities for transgender people, she adds, who tend to have a difficult time finding work.

Others feel strongly that transgender homeless shouldn’t be singled out. “They shouldn’t be separated from society, it just pushes the issue back,” says Monica Forrester, a transgender woman who spent years homeless in Toronto, frequently sleeping in stairwells.

“The question of a trans-specific shelter is something we’ll have to hash out,” says Joseph DeFilippis, a spokesperson for Queers for Economic Justice, one of six groups that sponsored the forum as part of an ongoing series of talks with DHS. “The city has met with us and responded to the idea of having a trans-specific shelter,” he says. “We need to figure out how we feel about it.”

Until then, advocates agree that clients should be classified by how they self-identify rather than by birth gender. “DHS should make sure this population has a range of options,” says Jennifer Flynn, director of the New York City AIDS Housing Network. “But none of this will happen until DHS first acknowledges that it’s an issue.”

DHS spokesperson Jim Anderson said his agency is well aware of the problem and has been meeting with community advocates to strike the right balance between privacy and protection. “We’re all concerned about access issues for homeless transgender New Yorkers,” he said. “And finding ways to make the system as responsive as possible.”