equality

Shelter Settlement Spawns New Policies to Support Transgender Homeless

Stevin Bonifacio says he suffered anti-transgender discrimination while navigating the city’s shelter system.
Stevin Bonifacio says he suffered anti-transgender discrimination while navigating the city’s shelter system. Photo: Courtesy of the New York City Anti-Violence Project

The city Department of Homeless Services is revamping how it deals with transgender and gender-nonconforming residents at its 447 shelters, four years after a transgender man filed a discrimination complaint with the city Commission on Human Rights.

A settlement in that case last month, secured by the New York City Anti-Violence Project on behalf of client Stevin Bonifacio, requires all staff at DHS and its programs to be trained on the new policies.

The Bronx-based Acacia Network, which was named in the complaint and is the city’s second-largest shelter provider, will be required to designate a housing specialist to work with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex clients for three years and for the next two years must report any claims of gender-based discrimination to the commission.

In addition, the settlement provides for an update to the guide for DHS peace officers, directing them to use individuals’ preferred personal pronouns.

“In the middle of homelessness, people don’t need to be treated like they are subhuman,” Bonifacio, 29, told THE CITY. He said he was called a “liability” and ultimately forced to leave a Jamaica, Queens, men’s shelter in June 2015 after telling a staff member he was transgender.

“To really go about overcoming homelessness, people need to be treated with respect,” he added. “People are already in a situation where self-esteem is low, morale is low, so why add insult to injury?”

Called a ‘Liability’

On the books, New York City already had some of the strongest gender-identity protections of any U.S. municipality, according to Hilal Khalil, an attorney at the Anti-Violence Project. Ensuring they’re followed is another matter, he says.

Last year, Acacia was part of a Commission on Human Rights settlement after a complaint alleging it for forced transgender women to reside with men in drug treatment facilities.

“At AVP, we’ve been hearing many cases of harassment and discrimination within the shelter system,” Khalil said. “However, unlike many of our other clients, [homeless people] don’t have the financial means or ability to take on a huge institution like DHS.”

Bonifacio’s challenges in the shelter system began when the Department of Homeless Services abruptly transferred him from an Acacia-run shelter after he revealed his gender identity to an employee.

“I was asked about my status, and then they just used that against me,” he said.

When he asked why staff members wanted him out of the Queens shelter, he was told that he was “a liability,” he said — “and those were the exact words.”

“I don’t see how I could ever be a ‘liability,’ ” Bonifacio added. “Trans people are not a ‘liability,’ period. We’re just not. How are we a ‘liability’ for simply existing?”

Three days after Bonifacio was transferred, he left the second shelter, near JFK Airport. He felt unsafe at the new location, which was far from a culinary school he attended and lacked air conditioning, even in the hot July weather.

Following a short stay with a friend — and just after submitting his complaint to the Commission on Human Rights — he returned to the shelter system, this time to a site in Washington Heights.

There was a problem there, too. DHS officers picked him up because of an outstanding warrant, he said, and he was outed as transgender when his former name was used in front of others. Bonifacio had legally changed his name, he said, and showed officers the documents illustrating that.

“I was outed. And I tried to get them to transfer me because it caused a safety issue,” he said.

It took days, and a visit to DHS’ downtown office, for him to secure a requested safety transfer.

“They just put me on my way with a MetroCard,” bound for a shelter in New Lots, Brooklyn, he said.

Systematic Inclusion

Steven Banks, commissioner of the Department of Social Services, which includes DHS, agreed that Bonificio was treated terribly.

“What happened to that client did not reflect our values,” said Banks.

To develop the new policies — which urge staff to avoid terms like “drag queen” and directs them to make official record of each individual’s preferred name — DHS partnered with social and legal services providers and groups like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and AVP, as well as transgender and gender-nonconforming clients, Banks said.

The result is “the most comprehensive policy in the nation for providing shelter services to trans and nonbinary people,” according to Banks. “This individual case highlighted the urgency of doing the right thing.”

“The Acacia Network is committed to supporting everyone who walks through our doors equally,” said a spokesperson for the Acacia Network. “We take great care in providing for our neighbors in need — regardless of gender, race, religion, ethnicity, or income. We diligently adhere to the policies of the City’s Department of Homeless Services and strive every day to improve the lives of our fellow New Yorkers.”

Bonifacio ultimately received a voucher for an apartment and settled in The Bronx. He received $55,000 as part of the lawsuit settlement and plans to open a pizzeria that would train and hire LGBTQ employees.

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