Credit: Virginie Ménard/Xtra
LGBT homeless youth
13 min

The challenges of being trans, male and homeless in Montreal

Why do so few shelters provide a safe space for trans men?

Getting an apartment is a rite of passage for thousands of Canadians in their late teens and early 20s, but for Esteban Torres, a 21-year-old trans man living in Montreal, signing the lease on his three-room apartment earlier this year was especially sweet.

Torres spent much of his adolescence in care after a falling-out with his family over his gender presentation. “My mother was really preoccupied with people’s appearances when I was younger. I had to dress this way and act that way, otherwise . . .” he trails off. “We had a big fight . . . and I ended up in a group home.”

After aging out of the system, he spent several years drifting from one insecure living arrangement to another. “I think I moved five or six times in two years.”

But Torres says he kept ending up with roommates who were either transphobic or racist, so he’d turn to his friends to help relieve the in-home tension. “Sometimes I would go sleep on friends’ couches when I needed some space, but my friends couldn’t put me up indefinitely,” he says. “I was scared at the idea of going to live on the street.”

For trans men who end up on the street in Montreal, finding a supportive shelter can be a real challenge. Shelters are segregated along gender lines; private time and space for changing or showering is often hard to come by, and staff are not often trained to address gender issues.

Unlike Toronto, Montreal does not have a set of uniform standards for shelters to address trans issues. Trans men who have come in contact with the Montreal shelter system express concerns about being misgendered and unfairly perceived as safety threats, even as they worry about their own personal safety.

Torres considered going to one of Montreal’s larger men’s shelters, but ultimately decided against it.

For trans men who end up on the street in Montreal, finding a supportive shelter can be a real challenge.

“When you go to a men’s shelter, you’re worried about what the other men could do, and when you go to a women’s shelter, they’re worried about you [being a threat to the women],” he explains in French.

“There is some transphobia there, but there are also cases of [support workers] just assuming that your genitals equal your gender, and putting you in the wrong place.”

The only safe space he found was at a youth-oriented shelter called The Bunker. The shelter is restricted to 12 to 21 year olds, although in 2014 the age was raised to 25 for trans youth.

If Torres had been older, he believes, his situation would have been much more difficult. “You either risk your safety [in a communal space], or you go back on the street — which is also risking your safety, although there’s not the aspect of going in a communal shower and thinking, ‘Oh shit, what will people say?’”

“Invisible Men”

Across North America, trans men and women are overrepresented in the homeless population.

A 2014 review of research by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council concludes that one in five American trans people are in unstable housing, homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

The same study found that 20 to 40 percent of young people at risk of becoming homeless identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.

A study by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, conducted in 2000 in Ottawa, is one of relatively few examples of Canadian research on the subject; that research also found that more than 25 percent of homeless youth identified as LGBT. Service providers interviewed 13 years later in Ottawa estimated that that number had not greatly changed.

The Ontario-focused Trans PULSE Project survey explored the challenges that place trans men and women at increased risk for poverty and homelessness — the median annual income of people interviewed for the study, for example, was $15,000.

“We have more success placing trans women.”  

Although some women’s shelters in Montreal have moved to better accommodate the needs of trans women, finding appropriate emergency housing is still a difficult undertaking for many trans and gender non-conforming people. And trans men face obstacles that many shelters aren’t yet prepared to deal with.

James McKye is the director of Quebec Trans Health Action, known by its French acronym, ASTTEQ, a nonprofit which connects trans Montrealers with gender-appropriate health care and emergency housing.

To understand the gravity of the struggle that poorer trans people face when looking for housing, all he has to do is pick up the phone. “I get one to five new walk-in clients per week, I have more than 700 clients, and that doesn’t include the people who occasionally email or call,” he says in French.

“If you’re looking for a place to stay, for a doctor or anything official, you call us. I would say 100 percent of our clients who have housing are at risk of losing it, because they are trans.”

McKye, who is a trans man, is concerned that trans men in particular may be falling through the cracks. “We have more success placing trans women. For the men, we don’t receive as many requests, but I have many more examples of people who I was not able to place in transitional housing.”

James McKye (left) of ASTTEQ and trans activist and educator Étienne Chamberland face an uphill battle connecting trans Montrealers with emergency and transitional housing. Credit: Ruby Pratka/Xtra

A 2008 report on trans men in Toronto called Invisible Men found that they face many of the same concerns as trans women: a history of abuse, loss of family support, and difficulty accessing jobs and public services. Over half reported living in unsafe or precarious housing, and 29 percent reported using shelters since they had begun presenting as men.

Many reported feeling uncomfortable in shelters designed for cis men. The report also states that trans men are often mistaken for butch lesbians or cis men, not recognized as trans, and not always directed to trans-friendly services.

“Because I hadn’t had surgery”

Garry Paré’s story is similar to that of the young men described in the Toronto study. “My mother kicked me out when I was 16, not necessarily because of my transition but because of other things that were going on,” says Paré, 23, who lives in Montreal. He moved from one temporary arrangement to another, often sleeping at The Bunker and En Marge, a shelter for 12 to 17 year olds.

Garry Paré (pictured) has had trouble finding housing because of his gender identity. Credit: Ruby Pratka/Xtra

Once he turned 18, he had fewer options. During the summer months, he sometimes slept outside. “I’m used to getting called all sorts of names, having stuff thrown at me. Not always because of my gender identity, just because of being homeless,” he says in French. “I’ve already had drunks on their way out of bars pour beer on me while I was sleeping. That’s life.”

When he looked for emergency housing in the winter, Paré said his gender identity left him in limbo.

“I couldn’t go to women’s shelters because my pronoun was ‘he,’” he says. “When I went to men’s shelters with my old ID, they would say, ‘You’re a woman.’ My only option was to go to women’s shelters where no one knew me, present myself as a woman and put up with being misgendered all the time.”

“When I went to men’s shelters with my old ID, they would say, ‘You’re a woman.’”  

Once the administrative aspect of his transition was complete, things did not get any easier, he says.

At Old Brewery Mission, the city’s largest shelter, which offers temporary and medium-term beds for men and women, Paré says he was told to sleep in the cafeteria, ostensibly for his own safety.

“When I was there, I slept on a bed in the kitchen,” he says. “I wasn’t allowed to use the showers and I had to be out an hour before the others. Sometimes I went to another youth shelter, but they didn’t want to let me in because I hadn’t had surgery.”

The outside of Old Brewery Mission in Montreal, Quebec. Credit: Ruby Pratka/Xtra

Without addressing Paré’s case specifically, due to client confidentiality, Matthew Pearce, the shelter’s CEO, says the Old Brewery uses the cafeteria occasionally to accommodate overflow or separate people who may present a risk to themselves or others.

“We will sometimes add cots in the cafeteria to avoid turning people away,” Pearce explains. “We will offer a bed in the cafeteria to someone whose behaviour may disturb the sleep of those on the upper floors [or whose] demeanour . . . may create discomfort for the others.”

“Sometimes people who we are worried might not integrate well are offered a bed in the cafeteria,” he continues. “We know those are not adequate, permanent solutions.”

“When there’s space, we try to set the person up in one of the smaller private rooms of the women’s pavilion . . . or ask staff to keep an extra eye on a person,” he adds.

“We will sometimes add cots in the cafeteria to avoid turning people away.”

“We don’t turn anyone away,” he emphasizes. “I don’t have statistics on the number of trans men or women that come to us, but I know it’s not a very rare occurrence.”

Pearce acknowledges that the shelter’s communal spaces, including washrooms, may not be ideal for trans users. He says the centre’s washrooms and showers are not adapted to provide privacy, and that employees may or may not be specifically aware of trans issues.

Of the four major Montreal shelters interviewed for this story, none reported providing hired staff with specific training on gender issues.

Pearce says he is open to meeting with representatives of the trans community and the local health authority to work toward the creation of a trans-friendly facility.

“We’re not structured to handle it”

Many of Montreal’s largest service providers for homeless adults acknowledge having little or no knowledge of the situation of homeless trans people, particularly trans men.

“I acknowledge this is a topic I don’t know a lot about,” says Kathryn Stephens of Welcome Hall Mission, a large men’s shelter in Montreal. “As long as someone presents physically as a man, they would be welcome here. If they present as female or their gender is really ambiguous, they would be redirected to services that are better tailored for them.”

When trans men sleep in the city’s larger shelters, they’re often told to sleep apart from the rest.

Stephens worries that a trans or gender-nonconforming person, particularly someone with a more feminine appearance or figure, may be at risk in a traditional men’s shelter.

“We have 250 people in extremely close quarters, with diverse backgrounds and diverse mental health issues, and maybe someone would react to [a gender-nonconforming person] in a way that would threaten someone’s safety,” she says. For this reason, when trans men sleep in the city’s larger shelters, they’re often told to sleep apart from the rest.

Esteban Torres is a trans man who has faced issues when seeking shelter in Montreal. Credit: Ruby Pratka/Xtra

Youth activist Esteban Torres has no patience for those who argue that segregation is the best way to guarantee users’ safety.

“Shelter staff need to make sure that all users know that transphobia, like any other kind of discrimination, is unacceptable and after two or three infractions, a person behaving that way should have to go somewhere else,” Torres says. “All we’re asking for is respect.”

Serge Lareault is the head of Montreal’s office for the protection of the homeless, which oversees shelter standards. He says funding and a lack of resources make it difficult to adapt existing shelters or open a specialized space for gender-nonconforming people.

“We have not conducted a full study on the needs of the trans population because we haven’t had the money,” Lareault says, adding that larger Montreal shelters are trying to move from a dormitory to a closed-space model with private showers.

“That is a big step toward making existing shelters more welcoming for trans people.”

Marie-Hélène Senay, communications coordinator for the province’s Federation of Women’s Shelters, tells Xtra in French that the network of shelters “accepts anyone who identifies as female.” Senay is clear that this includes trans women, although she seems unfamiliar with the terms of reference, referring repeatedly to transgender women as “transgender men” and vice versa.

In the case of a “woman with a more masculine appearance,” such as a person in transition or a person in Paré’s situation, who reverts to their assigned gender expression to be able to access services, Senay says, “male identity is more an attitude than an appearance.”

An external shot of Accueil Bonneau in Montreal, Quebec. Credit: Ruby Pratka/Xtra

Geneviève Kieffer Després of Accueil Bonneau, one of the city’s largest emergency and transitional housing centres for men, says men who want to get off the street are “welcomed unconditionally” into the centre’s transitional housing program.

She says a few residents who were assigned male at birth are now transitioning to women while in shared transitional housing, “and that hasn’t worked out too badly.”

But trans men face an uncertain place at the shelter.

“When it comes to people who [were assigned female at birth] but identify completely as men, that’s a big grey area for us,” she says in French. “We are aware that that’s an issue, but we’re not structured to handle it at the moment.”

Is there a safe space for trans youth?

One Montreal shelter stands out for its work with trans and non-binary youth of all genders. Le Bunker is a youth shelter run by Dans La Rue, a multifaceted street outreach organization which works mainly with youth.

“When I was younger, Le Bunker wasn’t known for being advanced on trans issues,” says Esteban Torres, who used the centre’s resources as a fallback plan during the months he spent couch-surfing.

“They asked the trans men to sleep on the girls’ side and the trans women on the guys’ side. Now when you go there, they give you the option of sleeping on the girls’ side, the guys’ side or in a separate [gender-neutral] room, and generally people who are trans sleep there.”

Since 2014, the facility has added a secure gender-neutral bedroom and increased its upper age limit for transgender residents, from 21 to 25 years old.

“We saw that demand was rising and we also saw that transgender people had fewer options as far as emergency or medium-term housing was concerned,” Philippe Lafrance, communications officer at Dans La Rue, says in French.

Interior of Le Bunker in Montreal, Quebec. Credit: Courtesy Dans La Rue

“The gender-neutral room is a starting point for our approach,” he says, “because we can help out people who have not been able to access resources in the past due to their gender [identity].”

Le Bunker is also the only shelter contacted for this story where staff are specifically trained to address issues of gender diversity, from transitioning to breaking away from stereotypes.

“We want to be able to welcome the person without necessarily slapping a gender label on them,” Lafrance says. “We want them to be able to go somewhere where they’re not going to be judged and where people are open to difference, no matter what their reason is for coming in.”

Torres appreciates Le Bunker’s efforts, but knows that if he ever needs a fallback option after he turns 26, he’ll have to look elsewhere.

“Some organizations for women are open to receiving trans women now, but if you’re 50 and you’re a trans guy and you’re in the street, then you’re really in the street,” he says.

Do other Canadian shelters have trans-inclusive policies?

In Toronto, shelter standards relating to trans inclusion have been in place since 2002. They stipulate that service providers must refer to clients using their chosen pronouns and house them according to their lived gender.

No such unifying standards exist in Montreal, leaving service providers in the uncomfortable position of having to determine a client’s gender identity. “Where do we draw the line between who is a man and who is a woman?” Geneviève Kieffer Després of Accueil Bonneau asks. “It would be up to one of our intervention workers to make that call.”

Vancouver and Calgary have also developed specific transitional housing spaces for LGBT people. And Toronto’s Egale Centre, scheduled to open in January 2019, will become the city’s first shelter exclusively reserved for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, queer, questioning and two-spirit youth age 29 and younger. In Toronto, just over 20 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT.

Egale executive director Helen Kennedy speaks about Egale’s LGBT youth shelter at a Dec 1, 2017 press conference with Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale in Toronto. Credit: Riley Sparks/Xtra

Vancouver’s RainCity Housing Support Society has operated an LGBT-specific shelter for youth for the past two years. Director Aaron Munro says the program has worked wonders, largely thanks to its mainly LGBT staff and a program heavy on peer support.

“It’s really exciting to see the changes people have been able to make; they have been able to get surgery, get jobs, figure their lives out,” Munro says.

Munro believes specialized spaces may be the best solution for homeless trans and gender-nonconforming people. Where those spaces don’t exist, he believes that education — of staff and of other residents — is key. “Transphobia is a thing that happens in our community, but it’s our job as staff to work that out. It’s not the trans person’s job.”

“Education helps a lot,” says Étienne Chamberland, 42, a Montreal-based trans-rights activist who went through his own struggles finding secure housing and is now building a street outreach organization for vulnerable trans people. “We need better-informed staff who will be able to intervene in case of violence or transphobic harassment.”

Chamberland says he and others in the trans community are “definitely willing to sit down” with service providers in Montreal to plan a specifically trans-adapted shelter space.

He says the reason trans men are often turned away from shelters is that staff are worried that trans men will be assaulted by other clients. “But if you have to stay outside, you’re even less safe than you would be in a shelter. It’s easier to say ‘we refuse’ than to put something in place that’s safer.”

He says training staff to use a person’s correct pronouns and to intervene in case of conflict, and installing more single-stall washrooms and showers, would go a long way towards making men’s shelters more trans-friendly.

Simply welcoming trans men while acknowledging and accommodating their gender identity would be a big step in the right direction, he adds.

“I don’t want to get shoved to the side as a trans man,” Chamberland says. “I have the right to be here.”