Why is that?

The simple answer is because transphobia and ignorance are rampant in most institutional settings, especially in the shelter system. Institutional rules and policies that do not consider trans people often end up erasing trans people from existence.

Now for the explanation

It has come to be accepted that some shelters are not safe for trans people. Transgender youth are frequently rejected by shelters based on their gender identity and are regularly not permitted to access the shelter that matches the gender with which they identify because shelters often do not feel equipped to support trans youth. This forces trans youth to stay in a shelter that is not consistent with their gender identity, or to avoid the shelter system altogether.

Transgender youth face higher rates of discrimination than any other youth group. Agencies serving homeless youth in Toronto have reported great difficulty in providing support to trans youth. Most homeless shelters are segregated by sex, meaning that there are women’s shelters and men’s shelters, and that co-ed shelters have separate floors for women and men. The floor that a person will be placed on has more to do with the staff’s perception of a person’s sex and less to do with how an individual actually identifies, which of course, is highly problematic because not all individuals’ gender identity is congruent with the sex assigned to them at birth. For example, if someone presents as more gender ambiguous, then whatever the staff member perceives their sex to be, is what floor they will be placed on. Additionally, when there are only women’s and men’s washrooms, women’s and men’s floors, and when intake forms force people to either identify as female or male, any identity that does not fall into those two fixed categories are not included, and if they are not included, they are seen to not exist.

The sex segregation that occurs in shelters increases the risk for gender discrimination and gender violence to occur within them. It also creates significant barriers to access for genderqueer and gender non-conforming individuals, and individuals who are in the early stages of their transition. Shelter staff tend to receive minimal training regarding trans-related issues, needs and terminology. Staff often do not have an understanding of the importance of asking youth what pronoun and name they prefer, or that trans people can also identify as heterosexual and do not always fit into the category of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer (LGBQ). Some shelters even have rules regarding “gender appropriate dress code”.

You may be wondering:

Why don’t trans youth just stay in a shelter that is not consistent with their gender identity? How bad can it be?

Forcing a trans individual to classify themselves as the gender in which they do not identify is transphobic, and transphobia has very serious consequences on the lives of trans people. It is emotionally, psychologically, mentally and physically harmful.

Transphobia negatively impact youths’ health and well-being and leads to greater risks of developing habits such as substance use and self-harm.

Transphobia leads to suicide.

A large Canadian study entitled TransPULSE, which investigated health and trans people in Ontario found that 77% of trans people had seriously considered suicide, and that 45% had attempted suicide. Trans youth were found to be at the greatest risk of suicidality.

The City of Toronto shelter standards states: “It is expected that all shelters be accessible to transgender/transsexual/two-spirited (TS/TG/2-S) residents in their self-defined gender, and that shelters will work toward improving access to this group. Shelters will support the choices of TG/TS/2-S residents to gain access to services in the gender they identify will best preserve their safety.” However, female-to-male (FTM) transgender/transsexual youth who are homeless have distinctive needs that are currently unmet in Toronto’s shelter system. The FTM Safer Shelter Project – a community-based research project that investigated homelessness and shelter access amongst FTMs in Toronto found that the current shelter system has been described by FTMs as unsafe for transmen. FTM participants reported not feeling welcome in either men’s or women’s shelters and that the policies and practices in the shelter system were degrading to them. Among the critical recommendations that came out of the study, was a call for the City of Toronto to immediately fund specialized shelter services and allocate beds for FTMs, as well as other men who are vulnerable or at risk of violence.

Discrimination against transgender women on the streets and in the shelter system is rampant. The Coming Together Project – an arts-based, community-based participatory action research project investigated how trans and cisgender women experiencing homelessness in Toronto build support networks with one another. The study revealed that both trans and cisgender women are overrepresented in the homeless population and are at high risk of violence and trauma, and therefore, try to build social support networks as a source of protection and advocacy within the shelter system. This study also found that transwomen, in particular, experience severe marginalization and discrimination in the shelter system and on the streets based on their gender identity, as well as sexual identity, race, class, and age. Transwomen revealed feeling marginalized within support services and often feeling the need to “meet a high standard of femininity in order to receive the same services that non-trans women received”.

Unfortunately, shelters are not always made accessible to transgender, transsexual, and two-spirit residents in their self-defined gender. Trans and gender non-conforming youth are often denied access to shelters based on their gender identity. Regardless of the shelter standards and policies, shelter workers struggle most with issues around access to services for trans people. What follows is one young trans woman’s account of what it was like for her to navigate the shelter system:

They specifically use your ID to place you on a gendered floor, whatever your ID says, regardless of how far you are in your transition. Imagine being a trans woman with bottom surgery and all, placed on the male floor. This is also against the Toronto Hostel Standards. When I got there, they refused my name, forced me to wear gendered clothing and fought with me every step of the way as I tried to fix these problems (Homeless youth, 23 years old).

Trans youth in particular have reported barriers to accessing supportive and knowledgeable services, including shelters and health care services, which are often provided within shelters. The need for trans youth to have access to health care professionals who have a comprehensive understanding of transgender-related issues and transition-related health care is crucial. The health care needs of transgender youth differ from those of cisgender youth, whether they are homeless or not. For example, needs may include transition-related surgery, name changes, and identification that match their changed names, as well as hormones, which requires monitoring, including regular blood work. The complexity of these needs intensifies when one is homeless and does not have money, a health card, or a support network. The lack of specialized health care services for transgender youth often results in youth turning to unmonitored street suppliers for transition-related treatment (e.g. hormones, silicone injections), which can have severe health complications.

There are deep institutional and systemic problems inherent in the shelter system concerning trans access to shelters. Shelter workers and management inconsistently follow the rules and policies, and do not always receive trans awareness training. There is a fundamental lack of acknowledgment of trans people’s existence in the shelter system and part of the reason for this is due to institutional erasure, which means that the institution erases trans people by not including them in key forms, programs, reports, and statistics.

Solutions to these issues include practice and policy changes. But first and foremost, people should be respected and treated in their self-identified gender. For example, if someone says that they identify as male, then address them with male pronouns. If someone says that they identify as female, then address them with female pronouns. If someone says that they identify as genderqueer and prefer gender-neutral pronouns, such as they, then address them using they.

Does your shelter have gender-neutral washrooms? If not, you can easily convert a single occupancy washroom into a gender-neutral washroom by replacing the female and male silhouette signs with an all gender inclusive sign.

Taking the time to listen to trans youths’ perspectives and needs will help service providers create services that are safe, accessible, and supportive of trans and gender non-conforming youth.

Let’s work together to put an end to transphobia.


LGBT Youth Line – 1-800-268-9688, www.youthline.ca

Supporting Our Youth (SOY) – www.soytoronto.org

Toronto Hostels Training Centre - http://www.thtcentre.com

Trans Awareness Training - http://www.the519.org

How to be a trans ally: