Over the past week, I’ve struggled with the best way to recount the long and sometimes painful story of how Houston’s Covenant House youth shelter began supporting Houston’s homeless transgender youth population. My own history as an advocate within the transgender community is directly tied to Covenant House’s refusal to shelter homeless transgender youth. I believe it was in 1999 that Brenda Thomas brought a homeless trans youth to me and explained that Covenant House had just thrown the kid out due to her inability to act like a boy. I took the youth to the GLBT Community Center when it was located at 803 Hawthorne and began calling local homeless shelters only find that all of them banned transgender people.
My response was to get angry. I organized a rather large, vocal and embarrassing (to Covenant House) community response and they finally agreed to allow Brenda Thomas and I to train the Covenant House staff about the needs of the transgender population and how they, as a service provider, might best address those needs in the least disruptive way possible. The day we offered the training, we were asked that we tone down the community outcry while they worked to address their policy issues – which we naively did.
As soon as we took the heat off, Covenant House went back to conducting business as usual and stopped returning our calls. In fact, they refused to meet with me for a number of years. Then, five years later, the Montrose Counseling Center basically experienced the same song and dance with Covenant House. Throughout the years, I’ve watched one young life after another destroyed because Covenant House refused to work with the homeless transgender youth population.
Fast-forward to June 11, 2010
After 10+ years of watching our youth be thrown away by this organization, the trans community redoubled its efforts. Unknown to Covenant House, the trans community had become far more politically savvy since we last went toe-to-toe a decade ago. We were able to get a Houston City Council member to broker a meeting with the Covenant House Executive Director. Additionally, we were able to have another Houston City Council member attend this meeting. The last time the trans community had engaged Covenant House, were were fairly unorganized. This time, we showed up to the table with an engagement plan and political muscle.
During the meeting, Covenant House vigorously denied that any queer youth had ever been mistreated, bullied or denied services. However, after some intense questioning by Councilwoman Jolanda Jones, the Covenant House Director/CEO Rhonda Robinson admitted that Covenant House had no policy whatsoever concerning the equal treatment GLBT youth and that equal treatment was, in fact, discretionary for staff. Under pressure, Director Robinson promised to forward relevant Covenant House policy to the meeting attendees so that we could assist her in creating policy that would protect GLB and specifically TG youth.
Unsurprisingly, weeks and then months went by without any action on the part of Covenant House. Sticking to their decade-old playbook, Covenant House continued to completely ignore all of our correspondence and attempts to reengage in a dialogue.
Fortunately for our queer homeless youth, we were prepared this time. Council member Jolanda Jones stood squarely behind the trans community and took on Covenant House. Additionally, Josephine Tittsworth brought the gravitas of the National Association of Social Workers to the table. Darin and I represented the Transgender Foundation of America and brought our contacts, networks and community action machine to the table.
Historically, Covenant House would simply ignore us until we got tired. So, as Emeril Lagasse might say… I kicked it up a notch 🙂
First, I contacted Josephine Tittsworth and we agreed on a specific plan of engagement. Unfortunately, it’s way too early to go into exactly what that plan was.
Afterwards, I began video taping the testimony of queer youth who had experienced problems at Covenant House. I then began collecting stories from other social service providers whose clients had bad experiences with Covenant House. Then I uploaded it all to YouTube and created a website to leak the information to the public:
You can still watch some of the video testimonials here:
Council member Jones began investigating where Covenant House got it’s money from and if any of it came from the City or HUD. While Council member Jones had been told by Covenant House that they were not funded through the City and that they did not receive HUD funding, Jones discovered that the opposite was true. But before we had a chance to take our case to Covenant House funders, a Covenant House Board member began attempting to counter my videos and posts about their treatment of queer youth online. Most significantly, this represented a the first correspondence Covenant House had with us after months of silence:
At that point, I began engaging the Covenant House representative and imediatly brought Council member Jones, the Mayor of Houston, Josephine Tittsworth and others into an email dialogue.
After a great deal of online discussion, a meeting was set on December 9, 2010 (a full half year after our initial meeting) at Council Member Jones’ office. Those who were at the June 11, 2009 meeting attended this meeting. Additionally, Chris Kerr with the Montrose Counseling Center and a representative from the Mayor’s office were in attendance.
The meeting was quite intense, to say the least. I felt that the representative for Covenant House, Andrea Moore, was somewhat taken aback with the level of frustration we expressed. While she initially towed the Covenant House line about there not being a problem at Covenant House and that no policy changes were necessary, she began to change her tune around the second hour of the meeting.
At the end of the meeting, Moore agreed to get the Covenant House Board to review and possibly accept some new GLBT inclusive policy, look into implementing a GLBT SAFE Zone and to consider if Covenant House staff should undergo more training. After the meeting, most of us felt only somewhat hopeful about any meaningful change at Covenant House. Part of what was discouraging to us was that Moore seemed reluctant to believe that Covenant House treated our homeless youth poorly. Specifically, she maintained that Covenant House staff referred to trans youth using the correct pronouns as well as their preferred names and housed trans youth according to their gender and not their birth sex. We who represented the community knew the opposite to be true and both Chris Kerr and I were particularly vocal about our skepticism. The meeting went on for around 3 hours and another meeting for February 1, 2011.
The following day, I called Covenant House as a secret shopper. I posed as a case manager who had a homeless female-to-male transgender youth she wanted to refer for services. When I asked staff what pronouns they would use, they said they would use she and her and not the gender appropriate he and him. When I asked what name they would use, they replied that it was Covenant House policy to call the trans youth by the name that’s on their ID. When I asked where the trans youth would be housed, they said that it was up to a manager to choose. All of this directly contradicted what the Covenant House representative reported to me the day before.
During my investigation, I spoke with a couple of employees. I specifically asked to speak with one particular employee because I had received complaints from trans youth about him. When he answered the phone, he proceeded to engage me in a 30-minute power game. Instead of directly answering my questions as the other Covenant House staff did, he spent the next 30 minutes evading my questions and insinuating that I was being incredibly unreasonable.
Fortunately, I had the video camera taping the entire conversation. Afterwards, I immediately sent the video to the Covenant House Board of Directors member Andrea Moore as well as the other December 9 meeting attendees.
At this point, Josephine Tittsworth moved into particularly supportive role for Covenant House. After my direct actions, Josephine helped Andrea Moore with policy revisions, resources and gentle suggestions. In the coming months or years, I might talk more about the specific way Josephine and I worked together as a team inspire Covenant House to move in a way that supported the best interests of our homeless queer and questioning youth, but it’s not appropriate to do so today.
Fast Forward to February 1, 2011
By the February meeting, Andrea Moore reported that on January 25, 2011 an inclusive policy had been approved by the Covenant House Board of Directors:
Covenant House Texas values the complexity and diversity of the world in which we live and seeks to be a community that recognizes the dignity and inherent worth of every person. Covenant House Texas is committed to the principles of fairness and respect for all and believes that a policy embodying these principles fosters a community that favors the free and open exchange of ideas and provides its residents and staff with the best environment for study, work and fellowship. Accordingly, no employee, volunteer or individual sheltered at Covenant House Texas shall willfully harass, discriminate against, or interfere with the activities or legitimate rights of any person in a way that deprives that person of due consideration as an individual.
In compliance with Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal, state and local equal opportunity laws, and in accordance with our values, Covenant House Texas will not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, disability, age, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or gender expression in any phase of its admissions, programs or activities.
The Director of Human Resources for Covenant House Texas will be the Coordinator for compliance issues pertaining to this policy. Questions or concerns regarding compliance issues should be directed to Director of Human Resources, 1111 Lovett Blvd., Houston, Texas 77006; 713-523-2231. The Federal Government resource on such issues is the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C., 20202.
1. Discrimination is an act or communication that interferes with an individual’s or a group’s ability to participate fully in Covenant House Texas’ services and programs on the basis of race, gender, disability, age, national origin, religion, sexual orientation or gender expression.
2. Harassment is conduct and/or verbal action which, because of its severity and/or persistence, interferes significantly with an individual’s or a group’s work or education, or adversely affects living conditions.
Harassment includes but is not limited to incitement to or threat of violence; epithets referring to race, gender, disability, age, national origin, religion, sexual orientation or gender expression; and/or physical conduct that is unwelcome, hostile or intimidating.
Covenant House Texas recognizes as harassment conduct and/or verbal communication that is derogatory, hostile, intimidating, threatening, “bullying,” humiliating or violent, although not necessarily illegal.
– A portion of the New Covenant House Policy
– The Houston Covenant House is now acting as a pilot program for the rest of the nation. If the new policy and programming changes go well in Houston, they will be exported to other Covenant Houses throughout the nation.
– Staff training will take place. Additionally, all staff and volunteers will receive ongoing training on GLBT issues.
– Signage had been placed in the Covenant Houses intake area welcoming transgender youth.
– A SAFE Zone will be implemented. A Safe Zone orientation training has been scheduled.
– Old Covenant House policy that banned crossdressing was repealed.
– It’s now policy that all trans youth will be referred to using proper pronouns and names (she & her for MTFs and he & him for FTMs).
– It’s now policy that all trans youth will be referred to using the name they commonly use instead of going by the name on their ID.
– It is now policy that trans youth will receive housing based upon their gender expression and not their birth sex.
– Restroom and shower facility issues were addressed in a way that we are very supportive of.
– Explicit procedure was developed for how to deal with bullying.
– Queer youth will now be able to attend off campus support groups.
There are a number of other improvements/plans that are in the works that will help ensure that queer youth feel welcomed, supported and affirmed at Covenant House. However, since they are in the development phase, I can’t yet go into them.
Another meeting is scheduled for June 1st 2011. During this meeting, we will reassess how effective the recent changes have been. Additionally, the TG Center and MCC will monitor the feedback from GLBT youth and we will assist them in filing complaints if they feel they encountered discrimination at Covenant House. During the upcoming meeting, all complaints will be reviewed and changes to the current Covenant Houses non-discrimination policy (to further protect GLBT youth) will be considered.
I am exceedingly grateful to my “partner in crime” Josephine Tittsworth. I firmly believe that without her partnership, we would have never moved forward. I am also grateful to Andrea Moore with Covenant House. When she found that there really was a need for change at Covenant House, she was willing to make it happen. Additionally, I am grateful – almost to the point of tears – to Council Member Jolanda Jones. I’ve never before encountered a political figure who went to bat for the community the way she did!
While it took more than a decade, Covenant House should be congratulated for doing the right thing. In the coming weeks, I will be reworking my Covenant House watchdog site (covhou.com) into a virtual Safe Zone for queer youth who are staying at Covenant House. As Covenant House continues forward as a safe place for our homeless youth to seek shelter, I intend on becoming a huge Covenant House supporter!
I am incredibly happy to be at the end of a decade-long battle with Covenant House. It still feels wonderfully strange to think that homeless trans youth have a place to be. I can’t express how sweet this victory is for me or how meaningful it is to our homeless youth!