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Arts/Culture

NYC must provide separate housing for trans people in homeless shelters under new settlement

Photo of Mariah Lopez, an activist with the Strategic Transgender Alliance for Radical Reform, or STARR, in front of the Stonewall Inn.
Mariah Lopez
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Photo of Mariah Lopez, an activist with the Strategic Transgender Alliance for Radical Reform, or STARR.

New York City must provide dedicated, separate housing for homeless trans and gender non-conforming people in city shelters in four boroughs, according to the terms of a recent legal settlement with Mariah Lopez, an activist with the Strategic Transgender Alliance for Radical Reform or STARR.

By December 2022, the city has agreed to make at least 30 beds for trans people available across the city with locations in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan. The beds, which must have access to single-stall toilets and showers or private bathrooms, can either be located in new dedicated shelters or in separate units within existing shelter locations.

The agreement also includes a pledge by the city to potentially add more beds for trans people as needed going forward, though it doesn’t include specifics on what would be cause for an increase. Lopez and her attorneys will receive reports from the city on their progress, monitor complaints of harassment, and visit the designated shelters to assess conditions.

The agreement comes at the culmination of a four-year long legal battle Lopez has waged mostly alone as a pro se litigant, meaning she wrote all her legal papers herself without the help of a lawyer. Part of that litigation she undertook while she was living on the street, she said, after she fled the city’s shelter system in 2017. The terms of the November agreement with New York City were first reported by Xtra Magazine.

“It was such a struggle to get to this point,” Lopez told WNYC/Gothamist. She said during the tedious years-long legal battle, she’d drawn inspiration from iconic trans activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Lopez had lived briefly with Rivera before her death in 2002 at Transy House, a Brooklyn safehouse for runaway trans youth. “None of this will change if this case dissolves and I give in,” she’d told herself.

Isaac McGinn, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Homeless Services, confirmed the changes in policy that the department was implementing as part of the settlement.

“We thank Mariah Lopez for her leadership on this issue – and as we continue this work, we intend to keep listening to feedback from partners and advocates, with the shared goal of ensuring the most affirming and inclusive environment for all,” McGinn said.

Lopez, 36, became homeless after the death of an aunt she’d been living with, Lopez said in an interview. She entered into the city’s homeless system and was soon transferred to Marsha’s House, a dedicated shelter for the LGBTQ community. But once at the shelter, she said she encountered an environment that was anything but welcoming.

According to Lopez’s original lawsuit filed in the Southern District of New York, staff regularly misgendered her or used the pronoun “it” to describe her. They used homophobic slurs like “faggot” and pressured her and other shelter residents into sex acts, with the threat of having them transfered to a different shelter if they didn’t comply, the lawsuit alleges. The conditions were so demoralizing, she said she returned to the streets and to sex work for suvivial. A relative helped her rent a room several months later. At the time, Lopez said she asked herself repeatedly, “What would Sylvia do?” referring to her late mentor, Rivera.

“I’m gonna go to federal court and sue the living bejeezus out of the city,” Lopez said she decided at the time.

In a separate suit in 2007, the city was ordered to cover the cost of Lopez’s gender reassignment surgery because she’d been diagnosed with gender dysphoria while in the custody of Administration for Children’s Services Custody.

Her latest lawsuit resulting in the plan to set aside dedicated housing for trans people began with an initial complaint that DHS had denied her a shelter placement with her emotional support animal, and was amended once she was admitted to Marsha’s House with her dog.

A federal judge declined repeated efforts by the city to have the case dismissed, according to legal filings. In addition to the new mandate to provide housing to trans people, the settlement also requires shelter staff to sign non-discrimination agreements and receive educational training about how to respectfully interact with trans and gender non-conforming people. Both groups experience homelessness at dramatically higher rates than cisgender people, according to data analyzed by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Lopez and her legal team at the Center for Constitutional Rights and Harvard Law’s LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic, which stepped in to help her during the settlement phase, will monitor Department of Homeless Services progress on their commitments for the next five years under the terms of the agreement.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us to make sure the city stays on track,” Lopez said, adding, “If you can get someone housing you can change their f***king life.”