Pride Month 2020: Homeless LGBTQIA community needs federal laws prohibiting housing discrimination

Pride Month 2020: Homeless LGBTQIA community needs federal laws prohibiting housing discrimination
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As the global movement for equal rights for the LGBTQIA+ community gains traction, it is evident that a lot more needs to be done to abolish discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

However, the LGBTQIA+ community still faces myriad issues today, one of them being that of housing discrimination. There is no comprehensive federal law prohibiting housing discrimination against the members of the community. However, there are limited options that address this kind of discrimination, particularly with regards to public housing, and whether an LGBTQIA+ member can obtain redress depends on where they live, the nature of their lease, and whether they are a renter or other such factors.

The federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) prohibits discrimination based on color, race, national origin, sex, religion, disability, and familial status but it does not include sexual orientation or gender identity as a protected class. It is important to note that those with HIV are protected under the FHA because they are considered to have a disability. This disproportionally affects the LGBTQIA+ community.

Only twenty-two states and the District of Columbia expressly prohibit housing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Nineteen of those states and the District of Columbia also expressly prohibit discrimination in housing on the basis of gender identity.

Reports suggest that couples and transgenders have been discriminated against when shopping for a home. Some have been told they "cannot put both partners' names on a homeowner's insurance policy" – a necessary act if both partners share ownership of the home. Other couples have claimed of being discriminated against when filing a claim as some insurance companies have attempted to refuse claims or cancel policies on the grounds that the owners are "unrelated."

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Only 49 percent of the LGBTQIA+ households are likely to own a home – well below the national average of 64.3 percent. Moreover, 46 percent of these homeowners fear discrimination in the home-buying process. The top three priorities LGBTQIA+ people consider when buying a home are price, safety, and community friendliness. Housing discrimination is not always manifested in a negative way. Discrimination can be subtle, and home seekers may be treated in a polite manner, even while they are being discriminated against. If a home seeker is denied the housing of their choice, despite being qualified to live there, that may be an instance of housing discrimination.

The National Association of Gay and Lesbian Real Estate Professionals (NAGLREP) has a free online database to help consumers track down LGBTQIA-friendly real estate professionals who would help them buy homes.

Homelessness is also a critical issue for the LGBTQIA+ community, especially transgender people. LGBTQIA+ people comprise an estimated 20 to 40 percent of homeless populations, whilst only comprising five to ten percent of the wider population.

Nationally, approximately three complaints of sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in housing are filed for every 100,000 LGBTQ adults each year, compared to approximately five complaints of race discrimination filed for every 100,000 adults of color, and one complaint of sex discrimination filed for every 100,000 women. A 2017 study claimed that gay men and transgender people are less likely to be shown apartments by landlords and that they on average were shown fewer units. 

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Moreover, LGBTQIA+ youth are more adversely affected by homelessness. As a result of family rejection, discrimination, criminalization and a host of other factors, youth represent as much as 40 percent of the homeless youth population, while only forming seven percent of the general youth population. Homosexual young adults have a 120 percent higher risk of reporting homelessness compared to youth who identified as heterosexual and tend to become homeless at very young ages. On average, gay and lesbian youth become homeless in New York City at 14.4 years of age, and transgender youth at 13.5 years of age.

Amy Lemley, the Executive Director at John Burton Advocates for Youth based in San Francisco spoke to MEA Worldwide (MEAWW) about LGBTQ youth being disproportionately at risk to experience homelessness. Lemley says, "Even in 2020, young people are being forced from their homes due to their sexual orientation." 

She continued "When you combine parents who may not accept that [identity] with very difficult economic circumstances and just a lack of resources overall in the household, that can be a very volatile combination and can result in a young person essentially getting pushed out of their home."

Lemley adds that the current coronavirus pandemic has heightened the economic pressure on families. She says, "Perhaps a parent or both parents have lost their job. It's a lot of pressure and tension and economic stress that is being brought into a household that can really be a tinderbox and drive young people out of the home."

Lemley also added that homelessness support for young people is not the same as that for older adults as neither the state nor the federal government fund programs for homeless youth at the level they do for older adults, saying, "The long term priority has been and has been chronically homeless and veterans, and that has had the effect of really starving being the network providers for homeless youth."

However, young people often do not feel safe in shelters for older individuals and elect not to go to those shelters. A 2002 study by the University of Washington showed that LGBTQ homeless youth are physically or sexually victimized on average by seven more people than non-LGBTQ homeless youth. Moreover, homeless shelters often have a lack of staff prepared to work with LGBTQ youth, leaving many LGBTQ young people to feel unwelcome, misunderstood, and invisible when seeking services. Further, transgender homeless youth often are especially unsafe at shelters that require them to be assigned to beds according to their sex assigned at birth and not gender identity. 

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The Obama administration took major steps to tackle discrimination against the community. The 2016 Equal Access Rule, which was first issued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2012, made it explicitly clear that access to shelter and housing must conform with, and adhere to an individual's self-expressed gender identity. These regulations apply to all public ad assisted housing and rental assistance programs that receive federal funds including homeless shelters and other temporary housing, as well as to federally-insured home mortgages.

The rule also prohibits inquiries about the sexual orientation or gender identity of an applicant or occupant for the purpose of determining eligibility or otherwise making housing available. It does not prohibit any individual from voluntarily self-identifying sexual orientation or gender identity.

However, the HUD under the Trump administration and headed by Ben Carson, who formerly ran against US President Donald Trump to win the Republican ticket in 2016, is considering changes that would alter the protections offered under the 2016 Equal Access Rule. The current rule is still in full effect and communities are expected to comply with it, however, Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, the Deputy Executive Director for Policy and Action at the National Center for Transgender Equality believes that the administration will announce the proposed rule soon.

The proposed rule would permit shelters that have facilities, like bathrooms and sleeping quarters, separated by sex to establish a policy that considers a person's sex for allowing accommodation or admission to the facility or portion

Heng-Lehtinen told MEAWW, "We really need people to know this is happening, then there will be a public commentary. There is going to be an opportunity for everyone to officially submit their comments that they are against it. We know its coming because Ben Carson already announced it. (Our) top priority is to maintain these protections so everyone who needs to get into a homeless shelter can get into one, no matter their identity."

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He added, "The heartbreaking thing is that if the Trump administration changes this rule, there will not be any legal recourse. Part of this rule will likely also say that homeless shelters and other service providers do not have to provide an alternative when they turn the person away."

Heng-Lehtinen stressed the need for more homeless shelters, especially in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic as "things are only going to get worse as the country experiences a recession."

As both Lemley and Heng-Lehtinen have stressed, the current pandemic is set to aggravate the level of homelessness among the LGBTQ population, many of whom work int he service industry which has been severely affected by the lockdown measures to tackle the outbreak. The pandemic is also causing the closure of homeless centers across the country, leaving many homeless people at increased risk of suicide, health complications, or hate crimes.

However, there are many in positions of power who fight for LGBTQ rights. Last year, Ilhan Omar unveiled a massive legislative plan to invest $1 trillion in expanding affordable housing. Under Omar's proposal, “Homes For All Act,” would authorize spending to create 12 million new homes, primarily in public housing, over the next ten years. Moreover, the bill explicitly prohibits federally funded public housing facilities from refusing to rent to tenants based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

While everyone deserves the right to be able to earn a living, provide for themselves and their families and create a home of their own, many in the LGBTQ community face barriers that prevent them from enjoying the same rights as heterosexual people. The community is still vulnerable to discrimination in most parts of the country and there is room for much improvement when it comes to creating a vibrant community that is accepting of all people. There need to be executable anti-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community. Moreover, those in the housing sector need to be trained to comply with the law and welcome members of the LGBTQ community.

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