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Study shows homeless FTMs at risk

Trans men face violence, rape in city shelters

GIMME SHELTER. Kyle Scanlan is a principal investigator of a study showing FTMs face danger in Toronto homeless shelters. Credit: (Jenna Wakani)

A new study shows that homeless female-to-male (FTM) transsexuals face abuse, discrimination and violence in Toronto’s shelter system.

The study — Invisible Men: FTMs and Homelessness in Toronto — was released in June. It was produced by the FTM Safer Shelter Project, spearheaded by the 519 Community Centre.

Kyle Scanlan, one of the study’s investigators and the coordinator of The 519’s MealTrans program, says the study grew out of The 519’s Trans Access Project, which works with shelters.

“FTMs started phoning asking for places that they could go for shelter and our coordinator couldn’t find any,” he says.

FTMs interviewed for the study said they were either forced to live as females to access women’s shelters or to risk attacks in men’s shelters. Only one women’s shelter in the GTA allowed trans men to stay openly.

“They could compromise their safety in men’s shelters or their dignity in women’s shelters,” said investigator Jake Pyne at the study’s launch on Jun 20.

Scanlan says the dangers to FTMs in men’s shelters are very real.

“It’s very dangerous to be a trans person in a men’s shelter,” he says. “There’s the risk of assault, of rape.”

The study showed that only 11 percent of homeless FTMs had used men’s shelters, while 29 percent had used women’s shelters. Many chose not to use the shelter system at all.

“One of the biggest surprises from the FTMs we talked to was they would rather sleep in a park than access a shelter,” says Scanlan. “That to me was eye-opening.”

The study began in 2004 with a grant from the Lesbian and Gay Community Appeal, then expanded with funding from the Wellesley Institute. Scanlan says the investigators were unable to find any similar studies anywhere in the world.

“This work wasn’t being done anywhere,” he says. “In a way that made it kind of easy. There was nothing and we were trying to create something. We were all FTMs and we had all been in some level of discussion about these issues when we got started.”

Scanlan says there’s no way to know how many homeless FTMs there are. The study interviewed 18 FTMs and 20 service providers in Toronto shelters.

“Our goal is to create access even if it’s only for one person,” he says. “We know it’s more than one person, we just don’t know how many more.”

Scanlan says the city was very cooperative with the study, directing shelter workers to answer investigators’ questions. He says Toronto has a history of trying to be inclusive in its shelters, pointing to a revised version of the city’s shelter standards adopted in 2002.

“It is expected that all shelters be accessible to transgendered/transsexual/two-spirited residents in their self-defined gender and that shelters will work toward improving access to this group,” reads the document.

Scanlan says he is especially pleased that Phil Brown, the general manager of the city’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration, attended the launch and committed to working with trans groups.

“We’re especially interested in more vulnerable groups like trans people,” said Brown at the launch. “We can always do much better and this is a timely, valuable addition.”

The study recommends that the city work more closely with community groups and with women’s shelters with experience with trans clients; undertake antiviolence campaigns in shelters; and institute mandatory trans access training.

The study calls on the city to “develop and appropriately fund specialized shelter programs to allocate beds for FTMs and other vulnerable homeless men who are at severe risk of violence.”

The study also advocates making FTMs a priority group for accessing transitional housing.