Transgender St. Louisans say area shelters aren’t abiding by federal housing laws
Kara Fitzgerald left her St. Louis home in April 2022 for a hotel after leaving an abusive relationship. She called a few shelters across the region and eventually spoke with a staff member at the Women’s Safe House in St. Louis about a place to stay.
“They told me that I had to have bottom surgery in order to have access to their facility,” she said. “I told them that was illegal, and they responded with ‘Well, we don't take men.’”
Fitzgerald called right back to beg the staff member to help her get a room at the domestic violence shelter. She even proposed showing staff her state-issued identification when she arrived to prove that she was legally a woman, despite the gender she was assigned at birth.
“In any situation where I feel like I have to state to people, it says on my ID that I am female, I feel like at that point, I have already been discriminated against,” she said.
A few moments later, she spoke with management. The situation was immediately rectified, and Fitzgerald was told that transgender women are welcome at the shelter.
Beatríz Gonzalez found himself desperately searching for a safe place to stay with his three children in November 2021 after fleeing from an abusive partner. Gonzalez called dozens of housing hotlines and organizations from a motel to help him find emergency shelter in the St. Louis area. While in the motel, many of the shelters he called would not accept him because his gender identity did not match his gender assigned at birth.
“I ended up realizing that only a handful of all the resources that I was gathering was actually useful and able to help me,” he said. “And out of that handful, none of them would take a trans man with children.”
Gonzalez, Fitzgerald and other transgender people in the region are complaining to housing organizations that shelter operators are denying them shelter because of their gender identities. Transgender people and housing advocates say shelter employees are not aware of current federal housing laws and are discriminating against them. In 2021, the Biden administration announced that federal fair housing laws prohibit housing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
After a few days of searching for a shelter, Gonzalez and his children moved into Bridgeway Behavioral Health Women’s Center. He completed the necessary paperwork to enter the St. Louis-area domestic violence shelter and disclosed that he identified as a non-binary transgender man, which some housing hotline staff advised him against doing to better his chances of receiving shelter.
Gonzalez and his children went to their rooms to unpack. About two hours later they were called back to the front office.
“We got down there and we were told that we needed to leave because the internal policies of the shelter would not allow someone who is not women-aligned to stay there,” he said.
Shelter operators are trying to adapt their policies to the law, but some employees are not complying with the new changes, said Keith Rose, director of LGBTQ initiatives for the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council.
Housing advocates at EHOC say that in recent years they have seen an increase in calls from transgender people who are reporting housing discrimination within federally funded shelters.
Gonzalez filed a housing discrimination complaint against Bridgeway Behavioral Health in October. He claims the center denied him shelter because he is a transgender man.
Matthew Lemmon, a spokesperson for Bridgeway Behavioral Health, said officials could not comment on any investigations that may be pending. But he said the shelter enforces a nondiscrimination policy concerning gender identities or sexual orientation.
Rose said more people would make formal complaints to federal housing organizations and area housing officials about shelters if they were not intimidated by policies about gender or name changes or afraid of being excluded from future housing.
“Before a couple of years ago, many people were told that they didn't have the right to not be discriminated against, and so they didn't feel like it was something they could file a complaint about,” he said.
Gonzalez said that before the domestic violence center asked him to leave, the staff offered him and his family more housing shelters in the area to contact, but he said none of the shelters would accept him because he had kids. His housing discrimination case is still pending.
Transgender housing report
In a June EHOC housing report, the Trans Housing Initiative St. Louis — a transgender housing group — noted that one-third of the 93 transgender adults seeking housing in St. Louis could not find emergency shelter for the night because of their gender identity. Nearly half of the respondents were people of color.
The St. Louis Queer Support Helpline, a peer counseling organization, also participated in the housing report. It found that 16% of about 350 calls to the organization in the past three years concerned housing. Almost half of the callers did not have a place to stay, and the rest contacted the hotline to share information about unsatisfactory housing situations. Some complained about living with people who do not accept their sexual orientation or gender identities, and others had issues locating housing in LGBTQ communities.
People call the hotline with several complaints about how difficult it is to find safe and adequate housing as a transgender person, said Avi Ivaturi, an organizer with St. Louis Queer Support Helpline.
“The most common thing we encounter on the helpline is that shelters are queerphobic,” Ivaturi said. “Trans folks feel really unsafe in shelters, and often come to us looking for … recommendations on which shelters would be the safest to go to, which we often don't always have an answer to because they all have their pros and cons.”
St. Louis County officials say they are unaware of any recent incidents of discrimination at any of their shelters. County spokesperson Doug Moore said the shelters welcome all members of the LGBTQ community.
St. Louis health officials are working with Trans Housing Initiative St. Louis to improve their housing policies for transgender people. The city health department signed an agreement with the organization last year to help train shelter employees to better serve its residents after transgender people complained about discrimination at some shelters.
Fitzgerald lived in the Women’s Safe House for about six months, but she said she did not feel safe there.
“It was an issue of pronouns, there was an issue with terminology, transsexual was used constantly,” she said. “There was a person that had called me sir, really sternly, when I went to go get a glass of water in the middle of the night.”
Mary Ann Owens, the executive director of Women’s Safe House, said in an email that she cannot comment on residential matters, policies or training for staff, as she wants to protect the privacy of residents and employees.
Fitzgerald and Gonzalez want regional officials to hold shelter operators accountable for their roles in how they have restricted housing opportunities. They hope their discrimination complaints force shelter operators to comply with the updated federal housing law.
“As community service workers, I think they should be well-versed in trans issues and how to treat a trans person,” Fitzgerald said. “If you're going to help your community, might as well help everybody right.”