Forced to flee her home in Umlazi, KwaZulu-Natal, after her uncle, her only living relative, attempted to murder her, Siya Hlongwa found herself on the streets of Johannesburg.
“He used to chase me around with knives,” says the 32-year-old transgender woman. “He didn’t want me alive.”
Relying mostly on the kindness of strangers for a roof over her head, she would “sometimes sleep in churches and even taxis — always hiding my gender, of course”, she says. But one day “a stranger, a friend of a friend, offered me a place to sleep. But he ended up taking advantage … he raped me.”
After being placed in a shelter for abused women and children, she was told to leave when her gender identity was discovered. “I wasn’t even given a chance to state my case.”
When her situation came to the attention of the trans and intersex rights organisation, Iranti.org, she was placed in temporary accommodation and encouraged to enrol at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she is completing a master’s degree in development planning.
“I’m one of the top students in my class,” she says with pride.
Despite her academic performance, she is still homeless. Night after night, Hlongwa walks to her campus locker, removes her blanket and pillow and makes a bed for herself somewhere in the university library or one of the lecture halls. “I use the sports facilities to shower and stuff,” she says.
Hlongwa is one of many homeless transgender people. It is a “huge issue”, says Iranti.org’s Joshua Sehoole. There are “a multitude of reasons” transgender people are particularly vulnerable to becoming homeless. For many, the stigma and discrimination from their families who do not understand, or refuse to accept, their gender identity is “compounded by cultural and traditional factors, such as trans women being expected to go to initiation schools”.
“Faced with the prospect of having to go to the mountain [for circumcision rites], where they face the real threat of physical or sexual violence, many would simply run away from home,” says Sehoole.
But they then have no support systems and the threat of violence continues to follow them. “With the proliferation of violence against gender-nonconforming people, there is a real increased threat of violence against homeless trans people — even during the day, never mind at night,” Sheele says.
The lack of transgender-friendly homeless shelters exacerbates the situation. “A lot of shelters are single-gendered; very few are mixed,” says Sehoole. “A lot are also run by churches or religious institutions and are therefore generally not very inclusive.”
At state-run shelters “there is also a lack of understanding, support and information, which affects the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community in general, but particularly transgender people. I can’t say I know of any shelters that are inclusive in terms of policy or their practice. In our experience, trans people are only granted access when they can hide their gender identity.”
Triangle Project’s Sharon Cox says: “If a transgender person finds themselves homeless and turns to a shelter, several issues come into play. The person will, in all likelihood, be allocated a bed in a dormitory that corresponds to their sex assigned at birth, according to their ID book. A transgender woman will, for example, be placed in a male dormitory. This serves as a reminder to the transgender person that society continues to reject who they are.”
We Fight More Than We Sleep is a 2013 report by Gender Dynamix, which examines the difficulties transgender people face when trying to stay in shelters.
“Perhaps the most paramount concern in terms of shelter access by transgender people is the issue of safety and privacy,” the report notes. “Transgender women … shared that when accessing shelters they were forced to sleep, shower and share toilets with men, which was not only psychologically traumatising but physically as well. Some recounted instances of physical and sexual abuse, others spoke of instances of rape … All participants agreed that while the word ‘shelter’ is equated with a safe space, in reality it is often the opposite.”
Racism at shelters was also highlighted. “Participants [cited] the fact that some shelters have predominantly white residents and people of colour are treated differently, for example, through paternalistic and demeaning questions such as ‘Did you shower today?’ or ‘Have you found a job yet?’, which their white counterparts were not subjected to in front of everyone else.
“This harassment also involved treating them as a ‘Cinderella’, as one participant stated, whereby she was forced to do the majority of the household chores. This is particularly troubling, as transgender people of colour are the ones who bear the brunt of discrimination in our society and are the most at risk for both homelessness and violence.”
Tebogo Nokoana, of Transgender and Intersex Africa, says discrimination is rife. “We have had many people come to us for assistance. But if the person was transgender, all the shelters we would approach — all of them — would not assist us. The explanation would either be lack of capacity or they would simply say something like, ‘there are a lot of people in the shelter, so you might scare them’ or ‘you might be harmed’.”
Nokoana adds: “Even if people sympathise with us, they never assist. They’re rejecting us, but in a polite way.”
While in Cape Town Nokoana managed to place a transgender person in a place of safety — the Ithemba Lam safe house in Thambo Village township. Established in 2005, the two-bedroom home serves as a safe house for homeless queer people. It can only accommodate four people at a time, says manager Bulelwa Panda, adding that “if we have more beds in here, we would then have to register as a shelter”.
The department of social development did not respond to requests for comment.
According to Panda, discrimination against transgender people, particularly those who are homeless, also comes from a source much closer to home. “Even within queer spaces, there is very little understanding of what it means to be transgender. People tend to think you are either gay or lesbian, so transgender people are often not included.”
According to the Gender Dynamix report: “Many of the participants agreed that they chose to stay on the streets or other transitory locations because of the rampant discrimination within the shelter system.”
With another night of sleeping in a cold lecture room or on a library floor ahead of her, Hlongwa sighs as she says: “You know, every person … black, white, straight, trans, whatever … if they need care or shelter, they should be given it. What all this is saying is that some should be cared for and others not; that some deserve rights and other not. It’s unconstitutional, you know… and it’s just very, very unfair.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian