A few months ago, on a blistering day in Melbourne, Australia, I found myself standing outside an open rental inspection. Having cycled 40 minutes from Carlton North to Kensington to see the place, I was a sweaty sight. I'd made an effort to dress for the occasion because, at a previous viewing, a friend overheard the agent say he wouldn't give a house to anyone who looked like me—someone with gender dysphoria.
With this in mind, I'd worn a hat under my
helmet to hide my shaved head and left my nose ring at home. I'd briefly
considered wearing a dress, but remembered I had thrown my last one out months ago—dresses make me feel like I'm wearing a weird Halloween
These are some of the more straightforward ways that applying for houses as a trans person can be a psychological mindfuck. But if you're also unemployed, don't have a considerable sum in your bank account, and can't easily pass as someone cis-gendered, you're at the end of an even more depressing set of statistics.
A recent analysis of housing in Australia reported: "Singles on welfare are among the most disadvantaged looking for housing, with less than one percent of properties affordable." Sally Goldner from Trans Victoria believes those numbers are compounded if you're transgendered. "There's a vicious cycle going on," she said. "There's a greater risk of trans people being homeless. There's a greater risk of police harassment. Once you start having these multiple disadvantages, it can be harder to pull out of the cycle."
Standing at the rental I knew I wouldn't get, homelessness felt very close at hand. In Australia, the bulk of organizations working with the homeless are religious. It may sound pessimistic, but for any trans person who has sought help from the usual agencies, discrimination is a familiar outcome.
In Australia, if an organization is registered as a religious charity, it's exempt from the Equal Opportunity Act of 2010. According to Sally, the problem is deep-rooted. "Even if the people at the roots of an organization disagree with those running it, the attitudes of those at the top mean trans people are less likely to access assistance," she said. While there is a move to be increasingly inclusive of LGBTI individuals, there's currently no legislative drive to ensure it.
A transgender friend of mine, Robin, describes the experience of homelessness as being "like quicksand." Once you're homeless, it's brutally difficult to get out of it. "Because I didn't have a home, I wasn't eligible for rent assistance. Without a fixed address, it's difficult to apply for any form of financial assistance. Without assistance, it's almost impossible to get enough money together to start a new lease."
These are all practical, frustrating, bureaucratic issues. But they're aggravated by conscious or unconscious stigmas. During one session with a Centrelink Job Provider, Robin says she was advised to "stop wearing women's clothing" if she wanted to be more employable.
Despite that ignorant suggestion, Robin did claim to have a positive experience with Centrelink, but felt the social workers wanting to help were trapped in a framework that rendered homeless trans people invisible. "It's easier to pretend we don't exist because if it's acknowledged, then they would have to do something about the problems." Robin said.
At a crisis center in Melbourne, Merinda regularly works with people who are, or have been, homeless. A large part of her job is finding them accommodation. She told me most of the time the most realistic housing options are private rooming houses. However, there are issues with the lack of regulations around them and they can be unsafe, unsanitary, and disproportionately expensive.
Merinda acts as a go-between and is sometimes asked by her clients to enquire if the rooms available are safe for trans people. Often the responses are disturbing.
"I had one guy saying, 'Is it a he or a she?' And asking personal questions about anatomy. I said it wasn't really relevant. I was met with, 'I'm not letting that freak live here,'" Merinda said.
For me, I considered the likelihood of ending up in one of these rooms and it felt unlikely. Then again, it can happen to anyone, like it did for my friend Jessie. It was only ever meant to be temporary. Jessie went from having a permanent base to staying with friends. Gradually everything she owned was spread out across Melbourne as she bounced from house to house. Things like making sure there were clean clothes got harder, as did organizing which friends had space for furniture and personal belongings.
It got to a point where she would post on Facebook every day asking for a couch to sleep on. Each post getting slightly more embarrassed and gently desperate as the support and assistance dwindled over time. Eventually a private rooming house was her only option.
The difficulty with talking about homelessness in the transgender community is that the bigotry and lack of understanding that make it difficult to get a job (or hold it) is the same bigotry that puts you last when applying for housing. Standing in that Kensington house, without even filling in an application form, I could already feel the knock-on effects of what it would mean to not get this house, or the next one, or the next.
Giving my details to the agent, I smiled and shook his hand. I got on my bike and cycled home under the still-hot sun. I lay down on my bed and drank as much water as I could. I knew my house would come eventually. But I knew it wouldn't be that one.
*Names have been changed
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