Legal advocates: ‘Sea change’ is necessary to help low-income LGBT clients

“Love wins!” the headlines – and tweets – cried out victoriously last June. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which guaranteed same-sex marriage as a fundamental right throughout the country, gay rights advocates breathed a sigh of relief. Years of shifting cultural attitudes had finally led to tangible – and long-sought – rights for gay citizens.


But less than a year after the landmark Supreme Court decision, legal advocates remain cognizant of just how much work remains to be done for the LGBT community, despite some high profile gains. Legal Services NYC’s startling new report, “Poverty is an LGBT Issue: An Assessment of the Legal Needs of Low-Income People,” catalogues the habitual discrimination and abuse faced by many LGBT New Yorkers, highlighting an inextricable link between continued oppression, lack of access to essential services and sustained economic disadvantage.


“The public doesn’t usually associate poverty with the LGBT community,” said Cathy Bowman, LGBT and HIV unit director at Legal Services NYC’s Brooklyn office. “Unfortunately, that perception is wrong: Poverty is a huge problem for many LGBT people. Yet there are far too few legal resources to address the challenges and discrimination faced by low-income LGBT individuals.”


The report, which is based on interviews with over 300 low-income LGBT Legal Services clients, portrays a “truly heartbreaking” level of economic hardship, according to Bowman. According to the survey, 62 percent of those interviewed had difficulty paying for a basic need in the past year, including housing and food, forcing many clients to navigate complex and overburdened government agencies.


The report also highlights the astounding level of abuse experienced by low-income LGBT New Yorkers. A full 50 percent of respondents said that they had been victims of some form of violence, including domestic abuse, sexual assault or neglect by a parent or guardian; 39 percent of those interviewed said that they had been verbally harassed in public in just the last year.


For some, it is safer to live on the streets”


Unsurprisingly, these harrowing conditions lead to a litany of legal needs. However, according to the report, those needs are often not met, as low-income LGBT clients are habitually ostracized.


“Like all of the people Legal Services NYC represents, our LGBT clients lack resources and power,” the report states. “But low-income LGBT people are too often also at the margins of efforts to provide help: at the margins of the legal services community because they are LGBT, and at the margins of the mainstream LGBT movement because they are poor.”


In many cases, low-income transgender clients face some of the steepest challenges, including security and safety concerns in many venues that others take for granted, like public bathrooms. According to the survey, “about 53 percent of transgender respondents have been denied access to or treated badly while using a bathroom or locker room that matches their gender identity.”


But one of the least safe places for transgender New Yorkers is the homeless shelter system, which is concerning to advocates due to the frequency that transgender individuals, especially youth, are kicked out of family homes when they express their gender identity. According to the report, Queens participants “reported that shelters are ‘hostile and filthy.’ They also feel that transgender women are not safe in shelters, even when they are placed in women’s shelters. For some, it is safer to live on the streets.”


Even transgender New Yorkers in seemingly stable housing situations reported constant threats to their security. Some respondents described feeling scared to change their name on housing documents. While discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identification is strictly forbidden by the city housing maintenance code, many low-income LGBT clients said that taking any requisite recourse was too difficult without the help of legal experts.


“I hid being transgender so we wouldn’t run into any problems. It wasn’t worth taking a chance,” one client said.


A sea change is absolutely necessary”


Respondents even described substantial discrimination in interactions with city government agencies. This despite recent changes, such as removing gender from government-issued identification cards and considering the deliberate misuse of preferred pronouns by government staff to be discrimination. In fact, 23 percent of participants who had experienced trouble receiving government benefits said LGBT discrimination was the cause.


For example, one client recounted the verbal abuse of a city Human Resources Administration security officer when trying to access government services. “My former partner accompanied me to apply for benefits at the Staten Island HRA office, one of the security guards said something offensive to one of his coworkers about him kissing me goodbye within earshot of us,” the participant said. “When I calmly approached him and told him that certain words are disrespectful and that he should keep his opinions to himself whilst at work he threatened to escort me out for ‘starting trouble.’”


Adam Heintz, director of the Pro Bono Services Department at Legal Services NYC, said that the findings of the report demonstrate that legal services nonprofits and government agencies must rethink the way that they interact with and serve low-income LGBT clients.


“A sea change is absolutely necessary,” Heintz said. “It’s necessary for every entity that touches the lives of LGBT clients, not just the courts, or City Hall, or HRA and welfare agencies, but all of us who are doing legal services work. Historically, LGBT issues have not been viewed as ‘core to the work,’ and not important enough to make all low-income lawyers re-evaluate their intake processes. But this report demonstrates the opposite very powerfully. There’s a myth that LGBT people have money, that these are middle-class issues; that clearly is not the case. If we can create a sea change just amongst legal advocates in New York City, that will lead to a sea change in the government entities that we appear before.”


Heintz praised HRA for its recent commitment to training staff on LGBT issues, and admitted that it will take time for large government agencies to undergo meaningful transformations. But he urged government agencies and nonprofits to continue to push each other to craft policies and programs that will help reach the most vulnerable LGBT New Yorkers.


“It will take leadership from a variety of organizations to rethink policies and see what outreach needs to be done. Cultural competency is essential. If you’re just training your case workers, then the security guard is going to do something problematic. This sort of transformation is not impossible,” Heintz said.


Bowman agreed, adding that legal advocates must go out into communities that are hit hard by the inequities chronicled in the report.


“We need to target the communities where these issues are prevalent, like in the Queens latino community and with HIV-positive clients. It’s up to us to figure out how to get into those communities and make access easier.”


“The onus is on us,” Bowman added. “We’re trying to be on the ground. You shouldn’t have to come to us.”


You never know what’s going to come up”


On a recent Wednesday evening, Daniel Pepitone, an attorney with Manhattan Legal Services, settled into a corner room at Callen-Lorde’s Chelsea clinic for HIV-positive patients. Pepitone was there as part of a unique partnership between the two nonprofits that provides free legal access to Callen-Lorde patients. Many patients qualify for services through HRA’s HIV/AIDS Services, or HASA, program and have limited, or nonexistent, financial and familial support.


“You never know what’s going to come up,” Pepitone said as he prepared for the evening’s clients. “It’s often so surprising to me that people will come in so focused on one goal, like getting their name legally changed, and I’ll start asking other questions and discover a whole series of legal needs that we have to address.”


That evening’s series of clients underscored Pepitone’s point, highlighting the expansive legal needs of the low-income LGBT community.


One client, accompanied by his Callen-Lorde intensive care navigator, sought relief from a fellow resident at his congregate care facility who had been accosting him with a daily barrage of discriminatory slurs.


“It started with shouting at my door. So I’d be woken up at 5 or 6 in the morning with ‘faggot,’ ‘bitch,’” he said, recounting an onslaught of insults and violent threats. “That was just the morning stuff. Then it turned into shouting out the window and through the walls.”


Even though the staff of his facility was aware of the frequency of the slurs, no effort had been made to relocate either party or respond with an alternative solution.


Another client, a Latina transgender woman, came in seeking help with a housing dispute that she suspected had discriminatory undertones. But as Pepitone began asking other questions, she asked for help with a living will, inspired in part by the unsettling experience of a transgender friend.


“I know a transgender girl from back in Mexico … when she died her family was able to get her body. They removed all of her implants and dressed her up like a man at the funeral. They drew in a mustache on her. I want it written down that my family can never do that to me,” she said.


When asked if she had been a victim of violence, one of the qualifying criteria for receiving legal aid, she responded matter-of-factly: “I’m a transgender woman from Mexico. The question is redundant.”

NEXT STORY: Mr. Bharara goes to Albany

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