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Stories from Shelter Organizing #DHSIsAMess

In the fall of 2018, SRLP launched our Shelter Organizing Campaign to support the safety of trans and gender non-conforming (TGNC) people in the New York City shelter system. Low-income TGNC people and TGNC people of color receiving services from the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and who are in need of re-entry services, housing support as undocumented folks, and who are disabled, are vulnerable in city systems, face harassment, violence, and lack of support. Our campaign has focused on DHS, in addition to other agencies like HIV/AIDS Service Administration, Office of Hygiene and Mental Health, the Domestic Violence Shelter System, youth shelter system, and more.

For decades, our communities have faced issues accessing supportive housing services at DHS and face overall barriers to affordable and safe housing. Sylvia Rivera believed deeply in fighting for our rights for safe and affirming housing. Her legacy and our struggle continues!

We launched our Campaign for Safe Shelter demands last year. After months of negotiations with DHS led by TGNC people of color and low-income TGNC people sharing their own conditions in shelter and demanding change, we issued a new set of demands to DHS in March in response to the outbreak of the pandemic.

The urgency is clear: DHS can not keep TGNCI people—or anyone—in their care safe and healthy, and the spread of COVID-19 has only exacerbated these conditions.

In our letter on Friday, May 8, one of our many demands was that DHS provide wi-fi in shelters so that community members could access resources, make calls to their providers, and seek safe shelter when DHS accommodations are failing them. We have not received a response from DHS, and they have yet to implement even this low-level change. 

Recently, in our meetings with the DSS Office of Disability Affairs Director Liz Iannone, DHS Office of Program Development and Implementation Kevin Thrun, and Director of Disabilities Access and Functional Needs Claudette Jordan, our members have laid out the failures of DHS to provide adequate safety, accessibility, and accommodations. 

Our members have expressed their personal experiences to DHS staff and consistently been met with neglect. Instead of actually following up with our community members to address these needs, they’ve been told their experiences would make “great stories for trainings.”

We reject bureaucratic responses that use the lives of our community members for training purposes and improvements at an unknown future date, while shelter conditions have not changed.

Hear more directly from our Shelter Organizing Team members:

“Right now, I know many, many TGNCI people of color who are suffering in the shelter system, who do not even want to be in the shelter system. They are being forced out into the streets because they are suffering in there. They are not practicing social distancing. They are not giving them medical treatments. DHS is not giving them soap to wash their bodies or food to eat.”

Our members have recently met with Legal Aid Society and Urban Justice Center to learn more about past cases against DHS’ neglect of people with disabilities, including Butler vs. DHS. These same issues have been raised in multiple class action lawsuits and yet our members continue to face the same neglect.

Our people are still struggling, and we have yet to receive a response to our letter of demands or these larger issues.

We know that we are only at the beginning of this pandemic with a potential second wave predicted for as soon as the fall, and the continued lack of response from DHS will only exacerbate the harm, violence, and lack of safety our communities are experiencing.

In solidarity & care,
The Sylvia Rivera Law Project collective

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