What does safe housing mean to you? What would your ideal home be like? Is the home located in a place where you feel free to be yourself? Perhaps an apartment in a city with public transportation nearby. Perhaps a home in a rural area, far from neighbors. For some people safety means living with others – having a multi-generational household, neighbors, or other close community. For others, safety may come from privacy. Safety for many means having a space that is free from the people causing us harm – whether they are strangers, partners, or family.
Safety may also be connected to the quality of the housing. Is it free from toxins like lead paint and mold? Does it have running water that is safe to drink? Is it strong enough to protect you from local weather conditions? Is the home affordable? If you lost your income, how long would you be able to stay there for a while without fear of being kicked out?
Housing should be a human right. People need places to sleep, eat, bathe, keep their things, and relax that are safe. Without this, it can be much harder to keep a job, continue with education, manage addiction or a mental or physical health crisis, or take care of ourselves and our families. Unfortunately, not everyone has safe housing. For many trans/nonbinary people housing is not available or accessible. (Skip ahead a few paragraphs if you find the statistics too overwhelming).
According to the U.S. Trans Survey from National Center for Trans Equality (NCTE), 1 in 5 trans people have experienced discrimination in housing searches and 1 in 10 have been evicted due to gender identity. Further 1 in 5 trans people have experienced homelessness in their lifetimes. Somewhere between 20-40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ+ – with the exact rates of trans youth being unknown. One in five adults report being physically or sexually assaulted while homeless. In an earlier study 38% of homeless or marginally housed transgender people reported either physical or sexual victimization in the previous year, with 11.9% reporting sexual assault and 33.3% reporting physical assault. These numbers are higher than those of non-trans people.
Compounding this issue is the fact that for many people homeless services and shelters are not safe – OR accessible to trans/nonbinary people. According to the US Trans Survey just under 85% of transgender and nonbinary people experiencing homelessness avoided sheltering systems entirely because of fear of mistreatment and harassment by staff or other residents. Of those who sought shelter, 41.4% were denied it, with 29.8% being openly denied shelter due to their gender expression. 44% reported experiencing mistreatment at a shelter in the past year.
Other studies demonstrate that not only are there high rates of sexual violence for people who are unhoused, there are also high rates of violence in homeless shelters. Seventeen percent of people who identify as transgender were sexually assaulted while staying in a homeless shelter. Black and multiracial transgender people reported higher rates of sexual assault at shelters than white transgender people. Transgender women were more likely (26%) than transgender men (15%) to report sexual assault at shelters.
On average, trans/nonbinary people also make less money and have less in savings, which impacts choices in housing.
FreeFrom, an organization that provides financial support to survivors, analyzed the demographics of survivors they funded. In FreeFrom’s most recent report, “Support Every Survivor”, they found that: 42.2% of trans survivors did not have access to consistent or safe housing, a rate of 2.1x that of cisgender (non-transgender) survivors. 41.5% of gender non-conforming or nonbinary survivors did not have access to consistent or safe housing, a rate of 2x that of cisgender survivors.
Safe housing for all is a piece of the violence prevention puzzle as well as a tool for supporting survivors of violence. Everyone should have access to safe, quality housing.
Why is this true though?
- Lack of housing increases the risk of experiencing sexual violence. People living in shelters or on the streets experience more sexual assault.
- Unstable housing increases family stress. This in turn can make it harder for families to provide high levels of support. Having stable, nurturing family/caretaker support is shown to protect against perpetrating violence in the future.
- Abusive people may use housing and economic resources as a means of control, keeping people in relationships with partners or family that commit sexual abuse because there is nowhere else to go or no way to safely have the abusive person kept out of the home.
While many people do experience sexual violence in their own homes, safe housing for everyone would help to prevent a great deal of sexual violence and would provide a critical support for survivors.
In research on a college campus, many students reported that housing played a role in their experiences of sexual violence. Older students had more private housing, which they would use to justify having dates at their dorms. Older students were also less supervised and had more access to drugs and alcohol. Many younger students reported that if they had been in their own dorms, they would have felt better able to ask the person to leave or to control their personal consumption of alcohol. This is not to say that more equitable campus housing would end all sexual violence. Nor should it ever be taken to blame students for the assaults that were committed against them. Instead, these stories help us start to see how the places we are in impact our experience.
Often survivors experience sexual violence outside of their homes – at bars, clubs, or parties. Some people report that the only option they have to spend time with friends or community members is out at these events – whether they feel safe there or not. Safe housing for all would give people other places to spend their time and connect with each other that may feel safer for some. We also need to do work to ensure that our social gathering spaces are free from sexual violence (but that’s a whole other blog post!).
Many teens and adults experiencing housing insecurity end up staying with acquaintances, friends, or family. People may be faced with the impossible choice between being assaulted by someone who lives in that home or not having a home to stay in at all. No one should ever have to be in that situation. Housing for all would mean that people do not have to stay in unsafe situations.
Safe, stable housing is one piece of economic stability for families. Economic stability in turn decreases stress, which increases the abilities of families to nurture, protect, and support each other. Child welfare investigations and the removal of children from the home are significantly more likely to happen to low-income families. There are massive racial disparities in child welfare investigations. Over 50 percent of Black children in the U.S. will experience a child welfare investigation before their eighteenth birthday (nearly double the rate of white children). Nearly 10 percent of Black children will be removed from their parents and placed into foster care (double the rate of white children).
Children are often placed in foster care, in part due to their parents/caregivers not having stable housing. The rates of sexual violence in foster care are extremely high. A study of children in foster care in Maryland found that they were four times more likely to be sexually abused than their peers not in this setting, and children in group homes are 28 times more likely to be abused. LGBTQ youth have a higher average number of foster care placements and are more likely to be living in a group home. They also reported being treated less well by the child welfare system.
Furthermore, nurturing families is a protective factor against both perpetration and victimization (to use the public health terms). What this means is that when families have the support and resources to be able to focus on creating a nurturing environment for children those children are likely to grow up with a better understanding of positive relationships, equity, and respect. So those children are less likely to commit assault. The supervision and support may also help diminish some of the other risk factors for experiencing sexual violence- which is how it is connected to reducing the risk of victimization.
Housing alone will not prevent all sexual violence. Many people are assaulted in their homes by friends, partners, or family. Homes should be places where we are safe. They are not that way for far too many people right now.
When survivors do want to or need to relocate, all survivors should be able to access safe, supportive shelter services and relocation assistance. Despite federal regulations that protect against gender discrimination, most services are not equitable for trans/nonbinary people.
Housing helps those who have already experienced sexual violence. Survivors deserve safe places to heal and take care of themselves. Recovering from trauma can be an intensive process. Many people who experience trauma find themselves feeling less stable, less in control of their emotions, and having more difficulty connecting with or trusting others. The stability of housing, of not having to worry about everything that comes with a lack of housing, can mean one less thing that people have to worry about. Trauma survivors may find that the impacts of trauma affect their abilities to keep and maintain employment, friendships, and control of their health. Without stable housing, survivors are at increased risk of losing their housing if these other supports are also lost.
In our current reality, safe housing is not accessible for everyone. Rent prices have been skyrocketing the past few years. Affordable, safe housing is harder and harder to find. Trans and nonbinary people are at higher risk of being unhoused or having unstable/unsafe housing. Trans youth of color face especially high rates of homelessness. This happens because of individual discrimination – parents kicking kids out, landlords refusing to rent to people, and employers not hiring trans people or only hiring for poorly paid positions. This also happens because as a society we don’t guarantee people housing and don’t have adequate protections against discrimination. Historic redlining and racist housing policies as well as the lack of control over rising rents, predatory lending, and other policies make safe housing inaccessible to so many people.
What can you do?
Help people access housing. Help survivors stay in their homes if they want to. So much funding goes to relocation assistance, but many people do not want to or can’t relocate. Trans people may live in areas because they are the safest places for them, because of access to community, healthcare, or other services. Same with disabled folks. It’s important to value peoples’ autonomy – and that often means making it possible for people to stay in their current housing. You can help by provide funding to change the locks, build a fence, or turn the lights back on.
Help find new safe housing. Some survivors will want or need to move, especially if the home is a trauma-reminder or trigger. Remember that everyone deserves housing that meets their needs. With higher rates of disability in trans/nonbinary communities, recognize that many people may require specific types of housing or housing in certain areas (such as on public transportation routes). Those needs often aren’t negotiable.
Learn about how to make shelter environments more accessible and inclusive for trans/nonbinary people. Check out these resources to get started.
- Sexual Violence Housing Resource Collection
- Equal Access for Transgender People: Supporting Inclusive Housing and Shelters
- FORGE has an extensive collection of resources on shelter.
Advocate for safe places for people to go any time of the day or night. Advocate for rent control and affordable housing. Help create additional protections for trans/nonbinary people against discrimination in housing and employment. All of these efforts will help communities – not just individuals – to be safer.
Know your rights. Housing and victims’ rights vary from state to state. NCTE has compiled many resources that can help you navigate your legal rights. Check them out here: https://transequality.org/know-your-rights/housing-and-homeless-shelters
Remember that you have the right to housing. Not being able to find housing or employment or struggling with money are all sources of shame for many people. However, they don’t need to be. Housing isn’t affordable for many people now. You are not to blame for a systemic problem.
It is okay to ask for help. Everyone deserves support. You can be strong, tough, resourceful, and still seek out support. Whether it’s from a social service agency that can help you navigate housing resources and laws, or from your local community to gather money for a rental deposit, know that it is okay to ask for help.