Homelessness puts enormous stress on individuals and families. Not only does it jeopardize immediate physical health and safety, but it takes an enormous toll on mental health as well, especially for people who already struggle with mental illness and other challenges.
Physicians diagnose homeless individuals with a higher number of illnesses compared to the housing stable population. Also, housing unstable individuals statistically have much shorter lifespans: about 12 years, on average.
When you add transgender identity to this equation, the numbers look even worse. Homelessness disproportionately affects the most vulnerable members of our society, and it’s important for homeless shelters to make people of all backgrounds and identities feel welcome.
The following are five communication strategies that you can leverage to make homeless shelters more trans-friendly.
1. Begin by Asking About Identity
One of the best ways to create a welcoming environment for people of all gender identities is to ask about their preferred pronouns and find out how they would like to be addressed. Many people forget this important step or just feel awkward about asking, but it’s a simple thing you can do to start off on the right foot.
It is always best to ask about a person’s preferred pronouns privately, and you should be polite and respectful when doing so. If you slip up and use the wrong pronoun, always apologize. Most people will be appreciative that you are making an effort, even if you make the occasional mistake.
2. Keep Communications Gender-Neutral
If you’re not sure about someone’s gender identity or preferred pronouns, it’s best to keep communications gender-neutral. Using terms like “guest” or simply using gender-neutral pronouns like they/them reduces misgendering and makes the shelter environment friendlier to transgender guests.
This might take some practice. Most people have been brought up to use he/she pronouns by default. But it’s important not to make assumptions and to retrain yourself to speak in gender-neutral terms when appropriate. Note, however, that “it” is never an appropriate gender-neutral term!
3. Be Mindful of Your Body Language
It’s important to treat all of your guests with courtesy and kindness. In addition to being mindful of your guests’ gender identities and how they would like to be addressed, you should also be mindful of the messages your body language is sending. It’s important to treat all guests with equal respect, both in your words and in your gestures.
Relax. Smile. Make eye contact. People who are used to discrimination often pick up on subtle signs of discomfort. If you’re not sure how to address or welcome someone, your body language may be tense. Make a conscious effort to stay loose, relaxed, and friendly with every guest.
4. Make Guest-Centered Care an Organizational Prerogative
To really make the shelter environment more welcoming for transgender guests, there need to be organizational changes that emphasize guest-centered care. These changes need to start on a foundational level, with organizational policy. Policies should outline nondiscrimination for gender identity and expression. These policies should be readily available to guests to help them feel safe and welcomed.
It’s also important to train staff in communication and sensitivity to ensure that guests get a consistently positive experience in the shelter environment. Facilities should ideally be set up so that guests can safely and comfortably use a bathroom that matches their identity. Gender-neutral, single-stall bathrooms are the best way to approach this.
5. Create an Inclusive Environment
Representation matters. When creating a facility of inclusion, it’s important to represent all of the populations you serve in your marketing materials. Trans guests will be more likely to seek help and safety at your facility if they see themselves in your marketing campaigns.
That representation needs to continue at the shelter itself. Transgender guests will feel more comfortable if they notice inclusive signage within the facility. It might seem like a small thing to add an “All-Gender Restroom” sign, but it can make a huge difference for your trans guests who are used to uncertainty and discrimination when deciding which restroom to use.
Serving the Most Vulnerable
Homelessness can happen to anyone, but transgender individuals often face challenges that leave them vulnerable on the street. If their families don’t accept them, or they’ve been victims of hate speech and violence, they need a safe place to go. Homeless shelters need to be safe havens for everyone experiencing homelessness—especially those who are most vulnerable.
Guest Author Bio
With a Bachelor’s in Health Science along with an MBA, Sarah Daren has a wealth of knowledge within both the health and business sectors. Her expertise in scaling and identifying ways tech can improve the lives of others has led Sarah to be a consultant for a number of startup businesses, most prominently in the wellness industry, wearable technology and health education. She implements her health knowledge into every aspect of her life with a focus on making America a healthier and safer place for future generations to come.