Still a struggle for transgender youth in Sacramento
LGBTQ homeless youth are ’7.4 times more likely to experience acts of sexual violence' than their heterosexual peers
Kevin West knew that there were emergency shelters available in Sacramento, but he couldn’t decide on where to go. “I didn’t want to stay at the men’s shelter, because I was terrified. I didn’t want to stay with the women, because I didn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable,” he said.
West was born anatomically female, but in his teen years, he came out as a male. He is among the one in five transgender Californians who will experience homelessness at some point after identifying as transgender.
He aged out of foster care nine years ago with only $1,000 in savings from working two years in retail. Having nowhere to go, he stayed in a hotel until his money ran out, and he was forced to live on the streets.
“I literally slept outside and then rode my bike to work [at Kmart],” he said.
While young adults like West make up a disproportionately large subset of the homeless population, all too often they face more serious challenges, such as access to hormone treatment and a sharply increased risk of sexual assault.
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, 19 percent of all transgender Americans have experienced homelessness at some point due to discrimination or family rejection.
“Those youth aren’t necessarily youth who were living in poverty,” said Ben Hudson, executive director of the Gender Health Center in Sacramento. “In many circumstances, those were youth who were living with a certain amount of privilege.” This often means that they are ill-prepared for living homeless, he said.
Sometimes, the most pressing issue facing transgender youth is determining where they will be welcome.
The NCTE reports that almost one-third of homeless transgender individuals have been turned away from a shelter due to their gender identity, and 42 percent “have been forced to stay in a shelter living as the wrong gender.”
Even if West were allowed to stay in a shelter with other men, he still had concerns for his safety. He did not yet have access to his hormones at the time, so he feared the worst: “It might’ve been in my head, but I was terrified of being raped and getting pregnant.”
This is a reasonable concern.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, LGBTQ homeless youth are “7.4 times more likely to experience acts of sexual violence” than their heterosexual peers.
Hudson said that homeless transgender youth—particularly transgender women of color—are at the highest risk of sexual violence. These individuals often do not have access to hormones. As a result, a victim of sexual violence who identifies as male can end up pregnant. This has happened before.
Beyond the safety concerns, homeless transgender youth regularly face obstacles in accessing hormone treatment. West said that his doctor would not supply him with any because it involved needles, and West “didn’t have any place to store [his] medication.”
This sort of treatment, according to Hudson, is not uncommon. “Sometimes a provider will say to a homeless youth, ’Well, is this really a decision that you are emotionally prepared to make?’ They’re held to a higher bar of accountability around their own decision-making simply because they don’t have a home. In reality, they likely left home because they couldn’t get access to their hormones.”
This, in part, is why Sacramento’s Gender Health Center exists. The nonprofit opened its doors in 2010 as an affordable counseling service geared toward the transgender community (though they pledge to serve anyone). Since opening, the center has expanded to include assistance in name and gender change, hormone prescriptions, and legal aid in tandem with Legal Services of Northern California.
While there are no hard statistics on the local homeless transgender population, Hudson said that the Gender Health Center serves about 30 transgender youth regulars, many of whom are in foster care, and a number of whom are either homeless or formerly homeless.
The Gender Health Center, with its 32 volunteer counselors, fills a large gap in services for the transgender community in Sacramento.
Meanwhile, state legislation protecting transgender youth continues to make headway: Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1266, which affirms protections for transgender youth in schools, this past Monday.
But the transgender community sees many more battles on the horizon.
A survey released earlier this year by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force showed an alarming trend of harassment for transgender Californians that came out in grade school or high school, with 75 percent reporting harassment and almost one-third dealing with physical violence.
The survey also revealed that 19 percent of transgender Californians have an annual household income of less than $10,000.
Today, West’s income hovers around that level, but not for reasons one might expect. He has just finished serving in AmeriCorps, the government-service program that famously pays its members wages at the poverty line. He currently lives with his girlfriend, Lindsey, a social worker, while studying education at Sacramento State University.
This past Sunday, the 27-year-old lay recovering from the triathlon he’d competed in that morning in Santa Cruz. He joked about his full beard and discussed the circumstances in which he may or may not reveal that he is transgender.
He recalled running into one triathlon volunteer at a transition station. She had seen him the day before in a T-shirt that read, “Nobody knows I’m a transsexual.” The woman commented on his completing the swimming leg of the race, which took place in unseasonably cold water.
“Thank God,” he responded. “My chesticles were gonna fall off!”