Roberts: Homeless services must become more inclusive
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I was shocked to read that the United States federal government is proposing to institute a policy allowing homeless shelters to ban transgender people from entering their facilities.

This is not just bad policy. It’s discrimination and it’s wrong.

More than a decade ago, we learned how to design our facilities and how to utilize inclusive language in our approach to helping transgender people who were homeless. We never considered banning people from our programs because of their gender identity.

We have evolved over time and learned how to better serve and understand the people we help. For example, In the late 1990s the agency I run operated a transitional housing/shelter facility in Southern California. At that time, many people thought homelessness was a personal behavioral issue. They thought individuals ended up in shelters because of job loss, addiction or were simply kicked out of their homes. Like every other homeless program back then, we instituted strict behavior conditions — forcing people to sign shelter rules, making people perform chores, implementing strict sobriety requirements. And, if people broke the rules they were evicted from their beds. As if they had to “earn” their right to have shelter.

A lot of people could not adhere to these controls, and just stayed on the streets. And sure enough, homelessness increased both in California and across the country.

We learned our lesson.

We realized that people ended up on the streets, not just based on bad behavior, but because bad situations were happening to them. Women were fleeing from domestic violence. People were unable to handle the traumatic memories of war. Young people were being kicked out of their homes because they were part of the LGBTQ community.

It was time for those of us running homeless programs to shift, to welcome everyone — not just people who could conform to our rules. We began reducing the rules and increasing the support to help people get into housing.

And it worked. More and more people were getting off the street, getting the help they needed.

We became more sensitive to people struggling with mental health issues, realizing that an individual’s mental health issue could have occurred because of some traumatic event in their past or their time sleeping on the streets. We became more protective of women and men who were fleeing from abusers. And we changed our approach toward people within the LGBTQ community.

Years ago, we asked the city of West Hollywood’s Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board and Transgender Advisory Board to train our staff. We learned how to intentionally listen to people’s experiences and worldview. We changed our wording, signs on doors and how we used pronouns. We designated bathrooms differently, created new policies on where people slept and redesigned how we approached case management.

It was not an easy process. But we knew it would better serve people within the homeless community. And we advanced as an agency; we advanced as a society.

And yet we have so much more to do. With the federal government proclaiming that it’s okay to exclude people based on their gender identity, I fear we have taken a significant step back. It sickens me to watch our government, who is supposed to represent all people in our country, target a certain class of people — particularly those struggling with homelessness — when our elected leaders instead should be protecting our most vulnerable.

California has seen a dramatic increase in homelessness. And while we certainly need more housing, we also need to continue lowering the barriers for people in need of services.

But if we embrace an approach of excluding certain classes of people from getting desperately needed help, we will never end homelessness.

San José Spotlight columnist Joel John Roberts is the CEO of PATH, a statewide homeless services and housing development agency that provides services and housing in San José. Joel is also a Board member of Silicon Valley’s Destination: Home. His columns appear every fourth Monday of the month.

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