The Ali Forney Center is a grantee of the Grants for the Benefit of Homeless Individuals (GBHI) program of SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. The GBHI program enables local communities to expand and strengthen treatment services for persons who are homeless and also have substance use disorders, mental disorders, or co-occurring substance use and mental disorders.
“Transgender youth experiencing homelessness need a shower, food, and a bed that you can hopefully provide,” says Jama Shelton. “At the same time, there is a broken system that requires fixing.”
Jama has walked through cracks in this system in her role as a social worker at the Ali Forney Center in New York City. She has worked as a Client Services Manager, Director of Housing, and Director of Client Living. Currently, she serves as Coordinator of Research Evaluation and Training while pursuing her dissertation and teaching.
Jama is passionate about integrating the macro and the micro perspectives into her work. She knows integration can serve youth who are living in the system, as well as providers who are winding their way through complex problems. She is an expansive thinker with her feet firmly planted within her practice.
“I am well positioned to do more macro-level work in policy because I have been working with masses of young people who have needs that are not being met,” she says. “I recently realized that I have come full circle in my life and my career.”
Jama was kicked out of her own home fifteen years ago when she moved home after earning her undergraduate degree. “I came out to my family, and this resulted in immediate discrimination. I was given the keys to a car and told to leave. This is very different from youth who are living in poverty and kicked out as teens,” says Jama. Many transgender youth flee unwelcoming households and are told to leave with no place to go. They quickly find themselves on the streets with only the clothes on their back and no transportation; there, they face discrimination and are forced to develop a new set of survival skills.
Her own experience of exclusion drives Jama’s life’s work, although sometimes the youth she works with are not aware of her personal history. She recounts one unforgettable moment when she had to enforce a rule at the Ali Forney Center that required a young girl to leave the premises. The girl yelled at her, saying that Jama had no idea what it meant to be kicked out. Jama’s traditional training as a social worker taught her not to disclose her own experiences. But internally, she thought, “Yes, I do actually know what that means.” In retrospect, Jama says she would have liked to share her story with the young woman, who left feeling angry and misunderstood.
Jama’s dissertation examines transgender and gender-nonconforming youth. She is focusing on this specific population because she has observed over many years that transgender young people have rarely achieved the highest level of success in the Ali Forney Center program in terms of independence within the transitional living program. Her analysis is that the Center is not meeting their needs, which are different from those of their gay and lesbian counterparts.
“For instance, I observed two young people who came in identifying as young men. Over the course of their stay, they began to identify as females in transition. They were struggling with rules and having a difficult time,” Jama says. “When they fully transitioned, they blossomed. This inspired me to focus on this specific group of young people.”
Programs are often built around milestones, and these tend to be linked to employment and income. This is a greater challenge for transgender youth, says Jama. There is no federal legislation to protect transgender youth from employment discrimination. If a young person’s identification card says they are male, but they look female, then it is very likely that this will be a barrier to employment. Obtaining a new identification card is a time-consuming process.
Many youth—out of fear or lack of self-confidence—will not attempt to seek employment at all. If a young person has already been rejected, mistreated, and harassed, he or she will anticipate the worst. For her research, Jama has conducted twelve interviews with youth who self-identify as transgender or gender non-conforming youth experiencing homelessness. She shares one story that is reflective of the need for significant change in how shelters are structured for accommodating the needs of transgender youth.
One young transgender woman, Amy*, was placed in a shelter with fifteen other people who were not transgender. “If I get up in the morning, and I don’t feel like putting on my wig—but if I don’t put it on and don’t feel like explaining myself, then I have to answer too many questions. If I lived in a room with other transgender people, then no one would ask me any questions. So, I have to get up an hour early to get it together so I don’t have to answer a lot of questions,” she says.
Amy’s story speaks to what it can be like for transgender youth living in a program with limited resources for privacy and a lack of insight about how to support transgender youth in maintaining their identities. What some people take for granted is an entirely different matter for transgender youth. Jama believes it is important to be sensitive to this issue. Some living situations only have one bathroom and a twenty-minute bathroom limit. These types of limitations are unfriendly for transgender youth.
Given these roadblocks, what can providers do to mitigate difficult circumstances? Providers can develop an understanding about what the world is really like for transgender youth. This understanding transcends daily routines and includes awareness about which programs are transgender friendly. Jama says, “It is ultimately about listening to youth and understanding what they have experienced.”
For Jama, it is essential that providers see these young people as human beings moving through the world. It is important to recognize that they are teenagers searching for identity in situations where acceptance, safety, shelter, comfort, and understanding are difficult to find.
When she ends her interviews with youth, Jama always asks how things might be different if they had never left home. One of the most heartbreaking responses she received was, “Oh girl, I would have been dead a long time ago.”
*Not her real name. Her real name has been changed to protect her identity.
Check out the "Related Items" to the right of the screen.