Privacy, safety at stake with proposed rule on homeless shelters

Womens homeless shelter Credit Monkey Business Images Shutterstock CNA Women's homeless shelter. | Monkey Business Images via Shutterstock.

According to proposed federal rules, homeless shelters partnering with the government might soon have to compromise the privacy and safety of their clients – and Catholics have voiced their concerns.

"No person should be denied a safe place to live," counsels for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops stated in comments on the proposed rule made in January, in conjunction with other religious groups like the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

Yet, they added, "while the regulations purport to protect health and safety, they fail to advance, and in fact positively undermine, these and other legitimate interests, including expectations of privacy."

In September, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is expected to rule that homeless shelters receiving federal funds must accept clients as the gender they currently self-identify with, and allow them "equal access" to facilities like beds and bathrooms. The proposed rule is titled "Equal Access in Accordance With an Individual's Gender Identity in Community Planning and Development Programs."

Thus, clients who are biologically male but who identify as female would be housed with women; those who are biologically female but identify as male would be housed with men.

One exception to the rule would be if a person identifying as transgender, and meeting certain conditions, requested that they be housed separately. No exception would exist for other clients who lodged complaints, like women who are concerned about their privacy and safety when a biological male is placed in their housing.

Both Catholic Charities USA and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops commented on the proposed rule in January. They expressed serious concerns both for the privacy and safety of homeless persons, as well as the religious freedom of faith-based groups that provide emergency shelter and transitional housing.

For the shelters that rely on shared sleeping quarters and bathrooms in single-sex housing, the proposed rules state that all persons should have equal access here, according to the gender with which they identify.

"The proposed rule, then, is that a man who asserts that he is a woman may not be refused access to shared women's sleeping quarters and bathing areas," the comments stated. "Similarly, a woman who asserts that she is a man may not be refused access to shared men's sleeping quarters and bathing areas."

HUD has explained the need for such a policy by pointing to surveys showing that the number of self-identified LGBTQ homeless is abnormally high.

As much as 40 percent of the youth homeless population identifies as LGBTQ, according to a 2011 report by the National Transgender Discrimination Survey cited by HUD.

Also, a survey of homeless youth by Washington, D.C. recently found that 43 percent of them identified as LGBTQ. Some studies have found that many of the homeless youth reported either running away from home or being kicked out of the house by their family because of their orientation.

Once they reach shelters, they can still encounter problems. "Transgender individuals in particular are impacted by violence and discrimination in ways that both contribute to their homelessness and keep them from accessing necessary shelter and services," a HUD report on "Equal Access for Transgender People" stated.

In addition, "nearly 30% of homeless transgender individuals report being turned away from a shelter due to their transgender status and 22% report experiencing sexual assault perpetrated by staff or other shelter residents," HUD reported, citing the 2011 survey again.

However, the bishops' conference and other groups stated, "it is not clear how the proposed regulations would remedy the high reported incidence of assault on persons claiming to be transgender and, in fact, the regulations may exacerbate the problem."

They added that "this is a client population with serious vulnerabilities," citing statistics showing a high rate of mental health and substance abuse disorders among homeless populations.

Catholic Charities USA brought this concern up in its comments as well, noting that shelter staff must be able to handle requests for shared housing together on a "case-by-case" basis given the vulnerabilities of the inhabitants, like women who have been abused.

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"Will staff be placed in an untenable position of pressure to accede to a request or demand, which is contrary to both their situational awareness and the reasonable concerns of other (often traumatized) shelter clients?" they asked.

Privacy of men and women at shelters is not an unreasonable concern, counsels for the bishops' conference added.

"Just as a patient may insist that a health care provider be of the same sex when this protects the patient's bodily privacy, a client's biological sex is relevant to decisions about single-sex housing and shared sleeping and bathing areas," they stated.

"Even prison inmates retain legitimate interests in such privacy."

The proposed rule could also infringe on the religious freedom of both homeless persons and the faith-based groups that shelter them, they explained.

For instance, a person seeking shelter might conscientiously oppose having "to share sleeping and bathing areas with adults to whom they are neither married nor related and who are biologically of the opposite sex."

Also, forcing faith-based housing providers to treat biological men as women, or biological women as men, "could substantially burden their religiously-motivated mission to provide housing to those who need it," the comments continued.

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Catholic Charities USA helps provide shelter for tens of thousands across the country. In 2014, the group reported, "member agencies provided transitional housing and shelter services to over 147,000 vulnerable individuals, including over 13,000 children. These member agencies operated 238 shelters with over 10,000 available beds."

Some shelters have already had to adjust to local laws on this issue. For instance, Washington, D.C. enacted a law in 2014 requiring housing exclusively for transgendered persons.

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