Madison's transgender homeless population finds shelter system unwelcoming

Winters in Wisconsin are anything, but mild. The temperatures drop below zero with heavy wind chill and snowfall.

For transgender people without homes, the reception in Madison’s shelter system can be almost as chilly.

Even though Dane County has over 3,300 people served annually by the homeless shelters, transgender individuals have a hard time staying at those shelters due to shelter policies and a lack of security.

Madison has two main shelters. The Salvation Army Shelter serves single women, families and children. Porchlight runs a shelter for single men.

According to Steve Starkey, the executive director of the OutReach LGBT Community Center, transgender people have the most difficulty in finding shelter when homeless because they do not fit in either category of the two shelters.

“I think that transgender people really suffer a lot more than the L’s, the G’s and the B’s,” Starkey said. “Society’s acceptance of transgender is maybe 20 to 30 years behind what it is for gay and lesbian people.”

Even though Madison has an ordinance outlawing discrimination against transgender people, neither of the shelters fits their needs. Starkey said he has discussed the issue with Madison Mayor Paul Soglin.

“The city funds the women’s shelter and the city funds the men’s shelter and they don’t fund a transgender shelter,” Starkey said. “That’s a housing issue and they are violating their own law.”

OutReach’s mission is to promote equality for LGBT people. They offer many different resources to aid transgender members of the Dane County community such as the Transgender Support Group.

Through OutReach, Donald Haar created Willma’s Fund to help the LGBT homeless in Dane County that do not fit the shelter system. Haar works for the Salvation Army of Dane County and saw there was a limited amount of resources in the shelters for transgender people.

According to Starkey, Haar created the fund five years ago and ever since there has been a constant flow of clients needing the fund.

“We’ve raised $35,000 for that fund so far and it’s kind of rolling. It seems as soon as we raise money, there are clients that step forward that need it,” Starkey said.

Ginger Baier, a transgender woman and small business owner has also helped many transgender homeless people. She said they often face discrimination from other homeless people in the shelters, and that the situation is worst for transgender women.

“I have transgender friends who were assaulted in the shelters and weren’t allowed in the shelters,” Baier said. “They were male to female and they were told they were not allowed in the shelter unless they wore pants.”

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, this is a common occurrence.

The Salvation Army has an LGBTQ statement that says people coming to their shelter will be served regardless of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

Scott Peterson, director of marketing and community relations at the Salvation Army of Dane County, said many transgender people feel safer on the street then the shelters.

“The homelessness in the LGBT community is heartbreaking,” Peterson said. “They are so isolated. They are so on their own. I can’t imagine the burden of living that way.”

The Salvation Army works with Willma’s Fund to try to find a temporary solution for transgender people. Many members of the LGBT community leave their homes at a young age, so often they have a lack of basic skills, according to Peterson.

A lot of the work done by the Salvation Army is trying to figure out how to help a homeless person succeed after staying in the shelter. Shelters are temporary solutions, where the homeless can figure out how to manage their lives.

Peterson said the Salvation Army is looking towards building a new facility in the next 18 months to two years. He also said the new facility might have design elements that could provide more privacy and security.

“We might be able to manage a transgender person differently depending on how we design the facility,” Peterson said.

He believes that the new design could make transgender people feel safer. Starkey said OutReach is also working on some additional solutions to the LGBT homeless problem in Madison.

OutReach is currently working on creating a grant that would create six host homes where transgender individuals could live for six months.

“The idea is not only to provide a roof over their heads, but also to do some coaching,” Starkey said. “With grants, there is no guarantee that it is going to be funded.”

While there is no official long-term solution to the LGBT homeless problem in Madison, OutReach and other LGBT rights organizations are working towards finding a solution.

One of the largest problems for the LGBT is isolation, but through support groups and efforts from organizations such as OutReach, more people are able to create relationships and feel accepted.

“I think that the focus is changed from just a support group to something more,” Starkey said. “Those meetings are more like parties now, celebrations and fun rather than woe is me.”