by Josef Molnar
For the many transgender youth who become runaways, the streets of Montrose may seem to offer a place of freedom and refuge. But the dark side of freedom is usually a harsh life of poverty and homelessness. While homeless shelters such as Covenant House Texas (CTH), on Lovett Blvd. near Westheimer, offer hope to straight runaways, transgender youth have often faced bigotry and harassment at the hands of insensitive staff members, and some end up returning to the streets.
Thanks to a series of recent meetings between the leadership at Covenant House and LGBT advocates, youth from across the LGBT spectrum now have a safe place to go. The result of those meetings is a new Covenant House policy requiring sensitivity training for its staff, as well as recognizing the preferred gender expression of any clients who request it.
“Our goal is for all members of the CTH community—staff, volunteers, and residents—to treat one another with mutual respect, free of any form of harassment,” said Andrea Moore, a member of the Covenant House board of directors and chair of their human resources committee. “I don’t know who can take issue with that.”
For some advocates, trying to get Covenant House to change its policy of identifying its transgender clients according to the gender shown on birth certificates, and to stop ignoring complaints of bullying and discrimination, seemed like a Sisyphean feat. Previous reform efforts inevitably ended with the center reneging on promises to change its policies.
“Throughout the years, I’ve watched one young life after another destroyed because Covenant House refused to work with the homeless transgender youth population,” said transgender advocate Cristan Williams in an email to supporters.
Williams and several community members have lobbied for change for more than ten years, and she believes serious change did not occur until Houston city councilmember Jolanda Jones became involved in the issue.
Covenant House’s reticence to embrace change may be partly because of its religious affiliation. It was founded in New York in the late 1960s by a Franciscan priest as a faith-based program for runaways and the city’s poor; it eventually became a nonprofit organization with many centers throughout the country.
Since the leaders who followed its founder were Catholic nuns, its service has always included a religious component. With little official acceptance of gay people coming from the Catholic Church, Covenant House has not been encouraged to focus on LGBT-specific programs and training.
Houston activist Jack Valenski said the specific issues facing gay and transgender runaways who entered the program had never been addressed before the recent meetings.
“This [situation] had been a thorn in the side of the community for many, many years,” he said. “[Covenant House] came into the community where there’s a big gay presence and they’ve been here for many years, but they did not offer anything to the [LGBT] community. That has changed a bit over the years, but still the holdover was their treatment of transgender kids.”
Since the series of meetings organized over the years by LGBT advocates and their supporters didn’t appear to resolve the issue, the row drew the attention of councilmember Jolanda Jones because Covenant House receives some funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
“One of the hooks on this thing was that [Covenant House claimed] their money came from private donations so they can do what they want, but this is not true,” said Valenski, who works for Jones. “Some of their money has been coming from HUD.”
“Organizations that accept HUD money must agree to avoid discriminating against a variety of groups that includes transgender people, and Jones learned that the nonprofit was violating federal law by being insensitive to the needs of its transgender clients.”
Jones, who chairs the city’s housing committee, attended several meetings, including the pivotal December and February meetings.
Ronda Robinson, the executive director of Covenant House, initially met with a group including Chris Kerr from the Montrose Counseling Center and Josephine Tittsworth, a transgender advocate. Robinson then sent board member Andrea Moore to the final meetings as the Covenant House representative.
“The December meeting was quite intense, to say the least,” Williams said. “I felt that [Moore] was somewhat taken aback with the level of frustration we expressed. While she initially toed 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.”
Moore said in an email that she had researched the issues faced by LGBT people in shelters before meeting with the group.
“While I didn’t feel that CHT should have a GLBT policy per se, the discussions clarified in my mind that CHT should enact a harassment and nondiscrimination policy with a specific code of conduct and a means of enforcing it,” she said. “My impression hasn’t changed. I just recognized that there was more that CHT could do to make GLBT clients feel safe. And, there was also more it could do to teach tolerance and mutual respect.”
At the February meeting, Moore reported that the Covenant House board of directors approved the inclusion of LGBT-specific protections its policy, and provided documentation affirming the change. The policy includes two key phrases: “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 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.”
“I am incredibly happy to be at the end of a decade-long battle with Covenant House,” Williams said. “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.”
A followup meeting is scheduled for June 1, in which the policy and its changes will be reviewed and discussed with the group. The Transgender Center and MCC will receive feedback from LGBT youth, and will help them file complaints if necessary.
Williams said the changes have opened the doors to a better relationship between Covenant House and the LGBT community.
“While it took more than a decade, Covenant House should be congratulated for doing the right thing,” Williams said, adding that she will be reworking her Covenant House watchdog website, covhou.com, to be a resource for LGBT youth at the center.
“As Covenant House continues forward as a safe place for our homeless youth to seek shelter,” Williams added, “I intend on becoming a huge Covenant House supporter.”