When Mariah Lopez sued the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) in 2017 and subsequently secured a settlement agreement promising a safer, more inclusive shelter system for trans and gender-nonconforming individuals, she hoped others wouldn’t face the same abuse and discrimination she said she experienced while unhoused.

But she now says the City missed a key deadline to build gender-affirming shelters stipulated in the settlement. By 2022, the DHS agreed to specific housing accommodations for trans and gender nonconforming (GNC) people, who experience homelessness disproportionately higher than cisgender people and often endure transphobia in the shelter system.

Two solutions were provided to the DHS to meet the agreement. One was to simply construct the standalone shelters in each borough save Staten Island. The facilities wouldn’t exclusively house people who identify as trans or GNC but would be specifically designed to keep them safe. The DHS could otherwise create 30-bed units within existing shelters in those four boroughs to provide similar, gender-affirming housing, “with the objective of establishing one or more trans- and GNC-affirming shelters during the settlement period,” which runs until the end of 2026.

The agency opted to work through the existing facilities and “committed” to building at least one standalone shelter, according to a spokesperson from the Department of Social Services (DSS), which oversees the DHS.

“DSS-DHS has set aside dedicated units in existing shelter facilities across the city to provide safe and affirming shelter for transgender and gender non-conforming clients, in compliance with this settlement,” a DSS spokesperson said over email.

However, Lopez said the units fail to meet the provision, seeing them as no more than repurposing beds in cisgender shelters for “warehousing” of trans and GNC clients. Beyond the actual place to sleep, the dedicated spaces are meant to be “self-contained with a common space” and otherwise separated from the host shelter. Additionally, the units were to provide trans- and GNC-reserved single-stalled toilets and showers, along with resources informing clients of their rights and how they can file discrimination complaints.

“They were supposed to open units in compliance with the settlement that comply with gender affirming accommodations, but also new facilities,” Lopez told the AmNews. “They failed on every aspect: the places we toured failed [and] the places they didn’t open are clearly non-existent.”

She said the City needs to build the standalone shelters to comply with the settlement agreement.

Lopez initially sued the DHS pro se, without legal representation. She alleged her shelter stay subjected her to “sexual assault, sexual harassment, retaliation and discrimination and harassment based on her sex and transgender status.” The lawsuit survived the motions to dismiss and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) was enlisted to negotiate the settlement agreement.

The CCR monitors and enforces the settlement agreement through site visits and reports from other trans and GNC individuals in the city shelter system. Mikaila Hernández, Bertha Justice Fellow and CCR attorney, concurred with Lopez’s assertions.

“We went in there and were able to see for ourselves and speak to some of the folks that are in those TGNC units,” Hernández said in a phone interview. “DHS has never been in full compliance with the settlement agreement, and efforts to hold them to their agreement are often met with defensiveness and excuses about budgetary and bureaucratic restraints.”

Also stipulated in the settlement were training mandates for DHS shelter staff on the rights of trans and GNC clients and enforcing corrective action like probation, suspension and termination against those who violate non-discrimination policies. The provisions tackled verbal harassment, like intentional misgendering, which involves purposely addressing a transgender and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) person by improper pronouns, as well as retaliation including involuntary transfers.

Those hired through third-party vendors are importantly included, as security contracted by the DHS are frequent culprits of transphobic harassment according to Hernández. Yet she said she continues to receive reports of discrimination from trans and GNC people in DHS shelters. 

Photo illustration by AmNews, Tandy Lau photo

Then there’s the matter of expanding channels for reporting harassment in the shelter system, which Lopez believes benefits all unhoused New Yorkers regardless of gender identity. The settlement agreement obligates DHS to make best efforts so clients can make complaints and seek support when the agency’s ombudsman—who exclusively fields calls and emails during normal business hours—is not available. Even within operating hours, the CCR reported some shelter clients could not reach the office. The plaintiffs have called for the ombudsman’s hotline to run 24/7. The provision also received a deadline for winter 2022.

“One of the other things that was in the settlement agreement that was really important, which the DHS has refused to do, is to extend the ombudsman’s hours past 5 p.m. despite agreeing to extend best efforts to do so,” Hernández said. “It’s safe to say that they haven’t extended best efforts because no effort is not best effort.”

With more than 14 lawsuits against government entities according to the New York Times in 2022, Lopez often seeks transgender rights through suing the City. She currently serves as the executive director of the Strategic Transgender Alliance for Radical Reform (STARR), an organization first founded by two legendary transgender activists—her adopted mother Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson—and later revived by Lopez.

Traditionally, debate on sheltering trans and GNC clients often grapples with the gender binary in single-adult shelters which split housing between male and female, leaving no room for other gender identities. But through Lopez’s lawsuits, the conversation was flipped, raising the question of why unhoused transgender people were forced into predominantly cisgender shelters to begin with.

To be clear, intake into the trans- and GNC-dedicated units are voluntary. Transgender clients can request placement in traditional men’s and women’s shelters if those facilities better affirm their gender.

At the end of June, on New York City’s Trans Day of Action, Lopez took to Foley Square calling for the city to construct permanent standalone shelters. She brought along other impacted trans individuals and, of course, a team of lawyers. Even Carolyn Wolpert, who served on the opposite side as deputy general counsel for the DHS during the Lopez suit came out to support her.
During the rally, couple Somayah Haskins and Tariq Mccorkle said the shelter system failed them as individuals, turning them away and causing them to live in a car despite the Lopez settlement going into effect. Shauna Brooks, a prominent model who appeared in Ebony magazine, recounted facing anti-transgender discrimination while navigating the city shelter system, all while living with a disability.

“The pronouns were not used in the right term,” she said. “Even with assets and help and resources that I was afforded, it still went against regulation, procedure and of course, the settlement Mariah Lopez [secured] against the City. There has got to be some sort of radical change for transgender and non conforming people.”
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member who writes about public safety for the Aficionperu. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. as salaam alaikum. annaepolis, md. formerly, trenton, nj. is mt. morris bath house, still on 125th iand amsterdam ave? JOHN A.WALKER 3RD (butch) butch muhammad. support akeem, bragg, sonia, in politics. i use to hang out on 152 st @amsterdam AVE. in washington heights in NYC. hit me up.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *