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Richmond Calls For LGBTQ-Inclusive Homeless Shelters

Richmond City Hall building
FILE PHOTO: Richmond City Hall (Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Richmond City Council approved a resolution Monday night, calling for the city’s homeless service providers to enact policies that affirm people’s gender identity and sexual orientation.

While the city doesn’t own or operate any shelters, it does act as a pass-through for millions in federal funding. According to Richmond officials, approximately $7.5 million in federal grants and CARES Act funding has been distributed to homeless service providers this year. 

The resolution calls on these providers to ensure that gay and transgender people “are not discriminated against on the basis of any such person’s gender identity or sexual orientation.” About a quarter of transgender people said they did not seek shelter when experiencing homelessness due to fear of mistreatment, according to a 2015 national survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Council member Stephanie Lynch co-sponsored the resolution alongside Mayor Levar Stoney. Lynch says the goal is to lay out guidelines for service providers and ensure transgender people experiencing homelessness aren’t retraumatized. 

“We need to do everything we can to protect and honor what our vulnerable population thinks is best for them, particularly those that are in a homeless shelter and already in a really at-risk situation,” she said.

Monday’s vote comes after more than a dozen local LGBTQ advocacy groups voiced concerns about barriers that can deter transgender and gender-nonconforming people from seeking shelter. 

The coalition, which includes local groups like Nationz Foundation, Side By Side and Diversity Richmond, sent a letter to Stoney and other city leaders in August. The coalition is being led by the statewide organization Equality Virginia. 

Among the policy changes called for in the city council resolution are: a commitment to affirming the gender identity of clients, including using their chosen name and pronoun; working with transgender clients on proper shelter placement; training for front-line staff on how to treat transgender clients with dignity; and including gender identity and sexual orientation in data collection.

Advocates say they are particularly worried about the mistreatment of transgender women of color. Survey data from the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce found that Black transgender women were more likely to be unemployed and experience homelessness and discrimination.

Zakia McKensey, whose organization Nationz Foundation provides HIV/STI testing and other health services to the LGBTQ community, said she’s heard the complaints directly.

“So many of the clients that I serve have went to access housing and either experienced discrimination, misgendering, or being asked to not present as who they are to be housed in a facility that is designated for either males or females,” she said. 

McKensey said these stories of discrimination can also prevent others from getting the help they need.

“Our community is like a network,” she said. “That gatekeeper has had a bad experience there, so they are going to tell other folks ‘They’re not affirming’ or ‘They’re going to ask you to do this.’ It spreads like wildfire.” 

City officials say the recommendations, specifically training for frontline staff, are not meant to be an unfunded mandate on homeless service providers.

Bill Harrison, executive director of Diversity Richmond, said his and other organizations stand ready to provide training and resources to any provider.

The guidelines outlined in the resolution are in line with the comprehensive anti-discrimination law signed into law last year. Dubbed the Virginia Values Act, the legislation prohibits discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodation and credit on the basis of a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation.