When it comes to providing accessible shelter for homeless homos and trans people, Toronto looks good on paper. But how well do those good intentions translate into reality?
Jake Pyne, coordinator of the Trans Communities Shelter Access Project at The 519, says some shelters are doing “really, really good work” while others are unofficially not allowing trans people.
Robin Silverman, coordinator of the 519 Community Centre’s homelessness and antipoverty program, says there is still work to be done with shelter staff to make queer and trans-friendly shelters a reality.
“Not scratching the surface, [saying] ‘Oh yeah, yeah, we’re all gay-positive wonderful, wonderful,'” says Silverman. “Safe environments need to be provided for people to talk about their pre-judice and, most importantly, work through it.”
According to 2003’s Toronto Report Card On Housing And Homelessness 31,985 people, including 4,779 children, stayed in the city’s shelters in 2002. A 1999 report by the Shout health clinic found that of an estimated 4,000 homeless youths, 1,000 were queer or trans.
In the past there’s been talk of creating a queer homeless shelter, a safe haven for homos who find themselves without a home. Silverman thinks that’s the wrong way to go.
“I don’t like the idea because I don’t like ghettoizing people,” says Silverman, “and I really think that the existing shelters have to really make sure that they’re making it a safe… welcoming space for everybody.”
In 2003, the city adopted a shelter standards policy, which states that all homeless persons have the right to shelter service regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. “Staff must respect and be sensitive to the diversity of residents,” states the document. “Discriminatory and racist incidents or behaviours are not tolerated.”
The policy also deals specifically with transsexual, transgendered and two-spirited persons. It specifies that shelters need policies to ensure access to trans people, outlining how they train staff, designate beds, etc. If shelters cannot accommodate someone, they are required to refer them elsewhere.
Pyne says that in addition to being a place for emergency housing, shelters are important access points for other service providers such as addiction counsellors and housing workers. In a not-yet-published report by the city and Wellesley Central Hospital the trans people surveyed said they did not want a trans-only shelter, suggesting that it could be used to segregate them.
In addition to the shelter standards policy, the city also implemented a review process in which each organization was visited and assessed. The results are expected to be finalized over the next few months.
“Part of our quality assurance review process will be identifying organizations that have good access policies and are able to demonstrate that effectively,” says Maura Lawless, manager of hostel operations for the City Of Toronto. “The organizations that we have issues or concerns with… we’ll be working with over the next year or two in terms of a remediation strategy to bring them up to the Toronto shelter standards.
“We’re in a phase right now in the City Of Toronto that the focus is housing,” adds Lawless. “Our goal is to make sure that if there’s an opportunity for homeless gays and lesbians to be housed that would be the primary focus.”
Long-term, affordable housing is also something that the provincial government has been working on. Last June, Health And Long-Term Care Minister George Smitherman announced that 112 new supportive housing units – including 30 for people living with HIV/AIDS – would be completed by fall 2006 at the former site of Wellesley Hospital.