After three years of talks with advocates for the transgender homeless, the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) has announced a dramatic policy change that assigns transgender homeless clients to city shelters according to gender identity, rather than birth gender.

Under previous intake practices, trans clients were often asked for legal identification and sent to a corresponding shelter. As a result, many experienced dangerous and degrading treatment at the hands of other shelter residents and staff [see “Transgender Homeless Seek Safety,” City Limits magazine January/February 2005]. All-male facilities like the 954-bed Ward’s Island shelter were considered particularly unsafe.

“We’ve had women coming out of Ward’s Island who report having been gang-raped and beaten up,” said Jay Toole, a transgender veteran of the city shelters and an organizer at Queers for Economic Justice (QEJ), one of three groups who led the campaign.

Under the new policy, staff at intake shelters will receive training on diversity, transgender and intersex issues. Training will be implemented in phases and include staff at city intake shelters managed by private nonprofits as well as security personnel.

“This policy reinforces DHS’ commitment to making sure all people experiencing temporary homelessness can get the help they need in safe and respectful environment where clients are treated with understanding, dignity and respect,” said Angela Allen, a spokesperson for DHS.

Local advocates applauded the announcement. “I’m walking on a cloud,” said Toole. “Things are being set right. It’s just too big to put into words.”

While QEJ, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center (LGBT Center) and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) spent three years negotiating with DHS, advocates say talks became considerably more fruitful last September, when shelter directors endorsed the change.

“The shelter directors confirmed that the policy change would be a good thing,” said Carrie Davis, coordinator of the LGBT Center’s Gender Identity Project. “Basically DHS’ people on the frontlines said ‘we can do this.’”

In October, the groups sent Mayor Bloomberg a letter, signed by over 30 organizations such as the Coalition for the Homeless, the Empire State Pride Agenda and the National Gay and Lesbian and Task Force, demanding an overhaul of city practices. DHS announced the imminent policy change in December.

“It was dramatic,” said Davis. “In three years we’ve really seen a change in the way New York City handles trans clients.”

While similar policies have been adopted in San Francisco, Boston and Toronto, advocates say New York City’s policy is now the most progressive in the country. “I’m really proud of it,” said Dean Spade, founder of SRLP. “It’s the best I’ve seen. It spells everything out, and it’s really significant that the written policy came with a commitment to train and evaluate. I can’t think of a more important victory for our community.”

The next step, advocates say, is to ensure the policy is implemented effectively, and to push for periodic, mandatory training for all staff throughout the shelter system, to be conducted by transgender people, who best understand the population’s needs. “All of us really believe it’s critical that the city bring in trans people to do any training,” said Toole. “So that’s the next goal.”

–Abby Aguirre