Chapter Sways Shelter to Serve Transgender Youth

Homeless transgender youth no longer will be turned away from Covenant House Texas, Houston’s largest shelter for homeless youth, thanks to a change in policy advocated for by the NASW Texas Chapter’s GLBT Equity Committee.

On Jan. 25, Covenant House Texas adopted a policy that prohibits discrimination on the basis of “gender expression in any phase of its admissions, programs or activities,” in addition to race, gender, disability, age, national origin, religion and sexual orientation.

The shelter also will go through the process of becoming a “Safe Zone,” an environment that is respectful and responsive to the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Designated Safe Zone areas typically are marked by a pink or rainbow-colored inverted triangle.

With 21 locations in North and Central America, Covenant House claims to be the largest privately funded agency serving homeless and runaway youth aged 16-24.

Andrea Moore, a Covenant House Texas Board member and chair of its Human Resources Committee, said the national organization hopes to share with its other locations “the things that we ‘get right.’”

Moore, who drafted the nondiscrimination policy, told NASW News: “We’re reaching out to our critics to engage them in helping us make Covenant House Texas a more ‘attractive’ option for GLBT young people and hopefully, working together, we’ll get a lot accomplished.”

Josephine TittsworthJosephine Tittsworth, chair of the Texas Chapter’s GLBT Equity Committee, led the effort to secure the change.

Josephine Tittsworth, chair of the Texas Chapter’s GLBT Equity Committee, led the effort to secure the change after learning from Transgender Foundation of America Director Cristan Williams that the Covenant House’s practice was to deny services to transgender youth who refused to live as their birth sex. The TFA provides social services to transgender members of the Houston community, and for several years Williams had been keeping track of youth denied services by the shelter.

Moore contends that Covenant House Texas refused services for transgender youth. “If I had to sum it up, I’d say that Covenant House Texas was trying to serve these young people but we simply weren’t addressing their specific needs.”

Tittsworth’s efforts included alerting Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s office, as well as city council members Jolanda Jones and Wanda Adams, to the situation at Covenant House Texas.

In a letter to Parker, who issued an executive order last year expanding the city’s nondiscrimination policy to include gender identity, Tittsworth urged the city to re-evaluate funding for Covenant House Texas “until it has proven its policies have changed to incorporate transgender acceptance.”

She also met with representatives from Covenant House Texas and other stakeholders to mediate an agreement over the shelter’s nondiscrimination policy.

Tittsworth, who serves on NASW’s national GLBT Issues Committee, told NASW News that by turning transgender youth away at its doors, Covenant House Texas was violating the city’s policy, not to mention subjecting them to a “very risky” life on the street. She said that because people who are transgender cannot pass unnoticed in society, they are more likely to be victims of harassment and violence.

According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, as many as 40 percent of homeless youth are GLBT.

Homeless GLBT youth also are more likely to be victims of physical and sexual abuse, use illegal substances, be depressed and report a higher number of lifetime sexual partners than homeless heterosexual youth.

Covenant House Texas’ history of treatment toward transgender youth is indicative of a broader lack of understanding about gender identity by social services professionals, Tittsworth suggested.

“Even today, people just don’t understand what transgender is,” Tittsworth said, pointing to a study she and her colleagues wrote about in 2007 for the Journal of Baccalaureate Social Work. “Less than 10 percent of the social workers we surveyed said they felt their education prepared them to work with transgender people. When they are faced with working with a transgender client, they are at a loss. They revert back to what they were taught and all those myths and misperceptions come into play.”