As the pandemic hit the U.S. last year, Arizona resident Lewie Lewis found themselves without a stable place to live. On top of struggling to find work, they also struggled to find housing. A previous eviction and their identity as transgender and intersex compounded an already difficult process.
Sometimes they stayed with friends. Sometimes they slept in a park nearby.
“I just feel like I have nowhere to go,” Lewis said.
Pre-coronavirus, LGBTQ people, particularly transgender and gender non-conforming people, were deeply impacted by housing insecurity in the United States. According to a 2015 survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality, an estimated 30 percent of transgender people have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. Between 2016 and 2019, the number of homeless transgender people in the U.S. increased 88 percent, according to the 2020 HUD Point-in-Time Count, which measures the nation’s sheltered and unsheltered homeless population every January.
Right now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium is preventing an estimated 29 to 43 percent of renter households from losing their housing. When state and federal moratoriums inevitably end, the absence of a rent forgiveness program may still lead to a massive wave of evictions among those who fell behind on payments during the pandemic.
Twenty five percent of Americans have indicated trouble paying their bills during this period. A 2018 Harvard study found that 10.9 million Americans spend more than half of their income on rent or housing.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem. While President Joe Biden has extended the CDC eviction moratorium to March 31, hiring remains slow and Americans across the country are suffering from mental health issues. Many activists believe the transgender community especially will bear the brunt of an elongated global crisis — and may already be experiencing the consequences.
“Transgender people are among the more marginalized people in the United States,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “And we’re much more likely to be homeless because of that economic marginalization.”
In January, Biden signed an executive order affirming that LGBTQ people are protected from housing discrimination. The order is aimed at reducing the factors that contribute to the staggering housing insecurity within the transgender community. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) quickly followed that order with an announcement that they would expand their investigations into housing discrimination complaints based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The National Center for Transgender Equality says one in five transgender people in the U.S. has been discriminated against when seeking a home, and more than one in 10 have been evicted from their homes because of their gender identity.
“That is the context in which we live, and it’s nothing new,” said Ruby Corado, one of the founders of Casa Ruby, a nonprofit housing organization that focuses on transgender and gender non-conforming people in Washington, D.C. “We come from a history where we are … denied opportunity.”
When the virus reached the U.S. and caused lockdowns, Casa Ruby saw approximately four times as many people seeking housing than in previous years, Corado said.
Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, the deputy executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), explained that discrimination can “creep in at any phase” of a home-buying or renting process, but is often hard to identify.
Discrimination can appear when the renter has to share their legal paperwork, which may only contain their former name, Heng-Lehtinen said. Some housing providers have been known to set different terms, deny loans or insurance and even outright refuse the sale, he said. Even if a transgender person has legally changed their name, a more robust background check may reveal the transition.
“The past still haunts us,” he said.
Researchers for a 2017 Suffolk University study sent transgender and gender-nonconforming people, as well as non-transgender and gender-conforming people, to pose as housing searchers, and found very subtle differential treatment towards certain groups. Transgender and gender non-confirming people were told discouraging things about the properties and weren’t shown amenities like pool areas. In one instance, a house provider failed to mention the security deposit could be reduced by 75 percent with a move-in incentive.
While discrimination based on gender identity is prohibited under the Fair Housing Act, HUD actively scaled back enforcement under the Trump administration.
In July, HUD under Ben Carson’s leadership proposed allowing homeless shelters to reject transgender people at single-sex shelters, a move that LGBTQ advocates say would harm many individuals already in precarious situations.
The proposal included guidance on determining someone’s gender based on height, facial hair and the presence of an Adam’s apple. Keisling asserted that this violates the Supreme Court ruling that transgender people are protected under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
“To make anybody’s housing more insecure during a pandemic is bad government,” she said.
In part because of NTCE’s push to spread the word about the proposal, HUD had to sift through 60,000 public comments about it, which meant counting carried on past Trump’s time in office, according to Heng-Lehtinen, and it has not been able to move forward.
“I think the Trump Administration underestimated how offensive people would find this,” Heng-Lehtinen said.
During the Trump Administration, the NCTE noted dozens of policy decisions and appointments that indicated bias against the transgender community, including a ban on transgender military service members, which Biden reversed soon after taking office, and multiple actions by the Department of Education that restricted transgender student access to bathrooms and school sports.
“Under Trump, almost every single separate agency directly attacked trans people,” Heng-Lehtinen said.
He said there’s progress already being made within the new administration. In addition to his executive order on housing and a stop to the military ban, Biden appointed a transgender veteran to his transition team and nominated Pete Buttigieg, an openly gay man, to be his secretary of transportation.
“Now we’re going to be able to not just fix all of the mistakes, but we can actually move the ball forward,” Heng-Lehtinen said.
But reforming how the government treats transgender people won’t fix the marginalization they often face in their personal lives. LGBTQ people are still often rejected by parents, caregivers and communities because of their identities. A 2015 survey from the Williams Institute suggests transgender people experience bullying and rejection at even higher rates than their LGBTQ counterparts.
Lewis was 18 when they were kicked out of their parents’ home — not yet finished with their senior year of high school.
They explained that, after someone outed them without their permission, “my parents got mad, they said a bunch of slurs to me, and then the next day I was packing my bags and finding somewhere [else] to live.”
The strain from this type of rejection can be a consistent source for mental health problems, as numerous surveys and studies confirm, and can lead to a spiral of financial stress.
“You’re sort of put on a path towards marginalization,” Keisling said.
And while many transgender and gender non-conforming people find communities of support, they also face high rates of abusive relationships, causing mental and physical harm that can affect their ability to maintain jobs and consistent housing payments. A recent article from the New England Journal of Medicine found that domestic violence has increased since pandemic lockdowns began.
Lewis recalled how their ex-partner would stop them from leaving the apartment by locking them in the bedroom, which meant Lewis couldn’t pay rent and eventually got evicted, blemishing their renter’s history.
Nine months after getting evicted, they found both a job and a stable place to live but admitted, “with the pandemic, it just made it harder to get work.”
And a year later, on the anniversary of becoming homeless, they said they felt emotionally overwhelmed thinking about that moment in their life.
“I didn’t even remember it until I got really triggered,” Lewis said. “I learned that sometimes the mind can react to an anniversary even when you forget.”
Community-led organizations like Trans Queer Pueblo and Casa Ruby can help fill the gap for financial and emotional support.
“We never foresaw what would happen with the pandemic,” said Fernanda Jiménez, via translator. Jiménez is a part of the Mutual Aid Committee within Trans Queer Pueblo, an Arizona-based mutual support organization that serves LGBTQ migrants of color. “There’s always just so many bills to pay.”
Last summer, Jiménez was still looking for a job, trying to avoid work “that is meant for men” like construction jobs.
“I really like doing makeup, and I like cutting hair,” she said. “The thing is not to lose hope and ask God for strength.”
Stephanie Figgins, media and culture shift coordinator for Trans Queer Pueblo, said community members often work frontline jobs that are especially hazardous in the pandemic — such as custodians, delivery drivers, cooks and sex workers — or have lost their employment altogether.
Valeska Castillo, who is also part of the Mutual Aid Committee, said she turned to sex work this summer in order to pay off the late fees for her rent.
“They know we’re living in times of pandemic,” she said via translator. “I had hoped the landlord would be understanding if we pay late.”
For the transgender community, coping with the stresses of housing discrimination will require them to rely on one another. Figgins said especially in times of crisis, the LGBTQ community really rallies together to organize.
“We have a saying here: ‘We are needy but more than needy, we are powerful.’”