A new houselessness policy paper reveals gaps in services and support for Multnomah County’s housing-insecure LGBTQ+ residents.

Portland has few resources for transgender, nonbinary, and other queer people facing homelessness, despite it being a city many people flee to from states with transphobic and homophobic policies. 

A paper commissioned by the Joint Office of Homeless Services and released Monday examined how homelessness impacts the county’s LGBTQ+ residents. The report finds queer people are more likely to experience homelessness than cisgender and straight residents. Despite that data, the county isn’t set up to adequately serve trans and nonbinary people in need of shelter or transitional housing.

The paper says data on homelessness among the region’s queer population is “incomplete and inadequate.”

The paper was authored by Jonathan Frochtzwajg, public policy and grants manager for Cascade AIDS Project. It was developed by the LGBTQAI2S+ Housing Collaborative, which includes organizations like Basic Rights Oregon, the Equi Institute, Pride Northwest, PDX Trans Housing Coalition, Q Center, and others who serve or advocate for LGBTQ+ people. 

Multnomah County’s annual point-in-time homeless count collects data on gender identity, but not sexual orientation. Of those counted in 2022, 1.4 percent were transgender, and 1.7 percent were nonbinary. In Los Angeles, a study published in 2020 by UCLA’s Williams Institute reported nearly 17 percent of “sexual minority adults” had been homeless at some point in their lives. That’s more than twice the rate of homelessness reported by another study that surveyed the general population. Among queer youth, 35 to 39 percent of trans and nonbinary young people have experienced houselessness or housing instability compared with 23 percent of cisgender youth surveyed, according to 2021 data from the Trevor Project.

'The system is not built for us'

With Oregon being among the US states that require health insurance providers to cover gender-affirming care, the author notes Oregon has become a place of refuge for people seeking access to health care and freedom from discriminatory laws.

“As of June 2023, 19 states had enacted laws making it more difficult for transgender, non-binary, and other LGBTQ+ people to access healthcare, learn in school, and simply exist in public,” Frochtzwajg states. With high housing costs and a lack of culturally-specific shelters, particularly outside of Portland, the state isn’t suited to support residents who may face financial barriers or lack other support systems.

“Despite Oregon and Portland’s Pride Flag–waving reputation, our community is not well prepared to welcome these newcomers,” Frochtzwajg notes in the report.

The report touches on the experience of Faera, a pseudonym used for a Black, transgender woman who moved to Portland from Los Angeles.

“After being verbally assaulted for being trans on public transit in L.A., she visited Portland in the hopes that it would be more affirming–and it was,” the report states. “‘I wore make-up for the first time,’ she recalls. ‘I bought dresses. I said, I can be myself here.’”

Despite finding a more welcoming culture in Portland, the report notes Faera struggled with housing instability and found “few resources that felt safe.”

She was eventually able to find long-term shelter, thanks to the help of several community members.

“A lot of people are coming here because they want freedom,” Faera says, “but the system is not built for us.”

Nonbinary residents also face fewer options within Portland’s shelter system, which often caters to men or women. One nonbinary resident told the report’s author about being misdirected to a men’s shelter, finding no LGBTQ+ shelter options with availability. 

Portland’s Queer Affinity Village offers culturally-specific services to unhoused Portlanders who live in one of 35 pods on Naito Parkway, but the site has capacity restraints and a waitlist. Permanent housing geared toward trans and nonbinary residents is offered by Transition Projects Inc, but the report notes “capacity is extremely limited.”

Katie Cox is executive director at the Equi Institute, which provides health and support services to trans, queer, intersex and gender diverse communities.

Cox says there are myriad reasons why LGBTQ+ people are more likely to face housing instability.

“LGBTQIA+ folks and especially trans folks are overrepresented in the data,” Cox notes. “LGBTQIA+ folks are more likely to get kicked out of and leave unaffirming homes. We face discrimination that makes it harder for us to find safe and consistent employment.”

Cox said the region’s queer support and housing support organizations have created a “patchwork system” of services, but the county lacks a comprehensive, coordinated approach to helping those who are often most vulnerable.

“As LGBTQ+ Portlanders, we really want to be proud of our local government, and our businesses shouldn’t be benefiting from this reputation if we can’t invest in making sure our LGBTQ residents have access to services.”

Despite a current shortage of culturally-specific services, the LGBTQAI2S+ Housing Collaborative says solutions aimed at expanding shelter capacity, and increasing access to long-term housing and non-traditional housing arrangements could go a long way.

Among the reports recommendations:

  • The Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS) share a public list of organizations funded, and note whether each is culturally specific “to improve accountability around equity in contracting.”
  • JOHS should continue its efforts to revise its Vulnerability Index - Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT), to account for LGBTQAI2S+ identity as a risk factor
  • Government agencies that contract with non-LGBTQ+ organizations serving communities of color and LGBTQ+ communities should “demonstrate their ability to deliver programs … in a culturally responsive manner.”
  • Increase the number of temporary shelters that are non-binary (don’t exclusively serve men or women)
  • Increase the amount of transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, and recovery housing geared toward LGBTQ+ residents
  • Government agencies like JOHS should provide more funding to culturally specific organizations offering eviction prevention, acquiring recovery housing or housing for people transitioning from incarceration, and regional long-term rent assistance and case management for LGBTQ+ people finding housing in the private market
  • Portland Housing Bureau should “proactively pair at least one queer culturally specific organization with an affordable-housing developer to apply for the Oregon Supportive Housing Institute, with the goal of developing LGBTQAI2S+ culturally specific permanent supportive housing units.”
  • Explore ways for queer residents to pursue cooperative forms of homeownership, including co-ops and community land trusts.