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HUD rule change on transgender guests at homeless shelters sparks debate

UPDATED: Thu., July 2, 2020

The sign for the Union Gospel Mission shines in the twilight on Jan. 25, 2018.   (JESSE TINSLEY)
The sign for the Union Gospel Mission shines in the twilight on Jan. 25, 2018.  (JESSE TINSLEY)

Spokane homeless shelters say a proposed federal rule change limiting protections for transgender guests will not alter how they operate.

Under the new rule proposed by Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, operators of sex-segregated or single-sex shelters would be allowed to screen guests based on the sex they were assigned at birth, not their gender identity.

That would be a drastic change from the 2016, Obama-era Equal Access rule, which barred shelters from discriminating based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

The new rule only applies to shelters that accept federal funding. HUD said in a statement released Wednesday that the new rule would “better accommodate religious beliefs of shelter providers.”

It was quickly and resoundingly criticized by advocates for transgender people and by civil liberties organizations.

Union Gospel Mission in Spokane assigns guests to its shelters based on the sex assigned to them at birth, not their gender identity, and transgender people are accommodated on a “case-by-case (basis) in order to ensure the privacy and safety of all individuals,” according to its website.

Its policies have been the subject of debate and scrutiny that led the city to step back from a land deal with the nonprofit in 2019.

Dave Wall, Union Gospel Mission’s director of engagement, told The Spokesman-Review on Friday that the proposed rule would not change how UGM operates because it does not accept federal funding.

In an email, Wall said UGM strives “to serve all who are hurting and homeless” at its shelters, but that “for the physical and emotional safety of all, we house people of like anatomy together.”

Despite the rule change, UGM will not attempt to access federal funding, according to Wall.

“For 68 years the UGM has operated debt free, relying only on community support. I don’t believe this will ever change,” Wall wrote.

Volunteers of America of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho, which operates the Hope House shelter for women and Crosswalk shelter for teens, recognizes its guests’ gender identity and will continue to do so regardless of HUD’s rule, according to Jon Carollo, the nonprofit’s director of development.

“We work really hard to accept people as they are when they show up at the door,” Carollo said.

A disproportionate number of those who access the Crosswalk shelter are LBGTQ youth, Carollo said, often because of a falling out with family over their orientation or sexual identity.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, more than 20% of transgender people have experienced homelessness.

The American Civil Liberties Union was sharply critical of the proposed rule change and said it would be particularly damaging to Black and Brown transgender women, who are disproportionately homeless.

“Shelters funded by taxpayers should be open to all – period. We should all tell the Trump administration that this proposed rule is not only wrong but deadly,” LaLa Zannell, the ACLU’s Trans Justice Campaign Manager, said in a statement.

The Trump Administration has repeatedly attempted to limit or undo protections for transgender people. Earlier this month, it announced that the government would eliminate a rule that protects transgender patients from discrimination by health care providers.

HUD is expected to accept public comment on the proposed rule change for 60 days.

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