by Douglas Hamilton -
Special to the SGN
Lonness Valenna is the former Vice-Chair of G.A.S.S, the Gender Alliance of the South Sound. As a self-styled Fairy Godmother, Lonness can be seen on the sidewalk wearing fairy wings and roller skates, lending her time to homeless people she meets there. She knows firsthand what it is to be Transgender and homelessness, and has researched possible solutions to this huge problem ever since she started out homeless in Seattle and Tacoma.
'That would be four years,' she says during our phone interview. She has dedicated herself to rescuing as many Transgender people from the street as she personally can. 'In the short term, I've actually made mini co-ops, which are the Trans houses. There was Amy's Outhouse, and the Candy House, which I'm currently running now. But for the long run, I have an idea.'
She has searched and researched affordable shelters for homeless Transpeople as an advocate. 'I've done this mainly because I've been homeless for a good part of my life, four to five years, seven if you really count it. And I was seeing a lot of that in the Transgender community mainly, but especially with the female identified. I just figured there has to be some other way than being homeless. I just didn't want anybody going through the same trials and tribulations as I did.' One-in-five Transgender people report having been homeless at least once in their lifetime, and often the gender binary system set up by our homeless services fail to adequately address Trans people's needs for safety and cultural sensitivity.
What is Lonness's solution? 'Mobile Transgender shelters made from refurbished city transit buses that are actually coming up for auction,' says Lonness. 'I've tried to look at the options and possibilities of getting an actual physical home and shelter built, but the financial constraints that are within our community don't really allow that. And with people here, there and everywhere, we need something that can be moved. And I just figure the Mobile Emergency Shelters are going to be our best option.'
Homelessness is such a multi-faceted challenge when one truly considers all the aspects of its causes, and effects on the homeless and the community. I once naively believed homelessness could be 'solved' by single simple solutions, only to realize what might be a solution only addressed one piece of the puzzle of homelessness. Even if our society were to afford shelter beds for each and every homeless person who arrived on our streets, we still would not have solved the 'problem of homelessness.' The problem is larger - people still do not have homes. And it doesn't address how they came to be homeless in the first place. But isn't getting these people off the street for the night ONE VERY IMPORTANT aspect of addressing homelessness?
'So this is only step one in a multi-step process.' Lonness adds. 'We can bring them to the parking lots of different churches or organizations that are there to help out. In the night, they can stay at these, and in the day we close up the mobile emergency shelter and move it back to its storage space. During the day, they could use the facilities at Elizabeth Gregory House or PSKS (Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets) for services to help get them out of homelessness. This is only a temporary solution, or a quick solution. The long term solution is ultimately we need a full physical shelter for what we are trying to accomplish,' Lonness explains.
A small non-profit organization such as G.A.S.S faces huge obstacles in implementing this solution. 'In our community it is very hard to get jobs, hard to get any financial structure just for how we are. Just because of the bigotry that we go through, and discrimination. And that's not just the Trans community, it is with most of the communities of diversity I've seen. So, once we get past that barrier, then there is the barrier of where to put something, with the community here in this city undergoing this horrible gentrification. It is really limiting the options.'
Even if a non-profit were to have the funds to purchase a bus, and volunteers to drive it, there is still the matter of insurance. A bus can only be insured as a bus, which means that if it has bedding, it is technically an RV, and RV's have maximum occupancy limits, beyond which they cannot be insured.
'We thought, if we're going to get buses, let's insure them as buses. Unfortunately, if people are staying in them, if you build beds inside of them, it is no longer considered a bus, and thus cannot be insured. And then you have to go through all the liability, fire safety, and you have to have everything else in it, and you are paying almost as much insurance as a home.'
'So what we have to do, at least with the model that I'm going with, is that you can transport it, but nobody can stay in it while it is being transported. So there's no other passengers. And the bedding and everything would have to be transported separately, like in a trailer.' This seems an awful lot of effort just to jump over some red tape. Obviously, there should be an exemption expressly for the purpose of this type of vehicle which the State Legislature should pass as soon as possible, or perhaps an insurance company could write a custom policy?
I'll just pretend you silently nodded your noggin' in agreement. Seven years into the 10-year-plan-to-end-homelessness, there is still time to bring the One Night Count down to zero, which the solution proposed by Lonness does economically, and securely. A solution to ending camping on the sidewalk that even NIMBY's and Republicans would love. Can you imagine what this plan could look like if it were fully ramped up and didn't have to worry about this ridiculous insurance rule? Are you ready for a blue print? Here it is. It is actually over 170 years old.
MOBILE EMERGENCY SHELTERS
MES (pronounced mees, so we can have mini-me's later on) are buses outfitted as mass transit by day, sleeping cars by night.
According to Wikipedia, 'The sleeping car or sleeper is a railway passenger car that can accommodate all its passengers in beds of one kind or another, primarily for the purpose of making nighttime travel more restful. The first such cars saw sporadic use on American railroads in the 1830s; they could be configured for coach seating during the day.'
Notice how seating for 3 or 4 flips up to become triple bunk-beds? Now, imagine for a moment that Sound Transit and Metro's buses were outfitted to these interior specifications. An added feature could be a security mesh privacy curtain for each bunk.
'B-b-b-but no!' I can imagine the naysayers nay saying. That would be too expensive. Bawhahaha. Would it now? Let's rough out a few budget estimates on how much it would cost to specify this seating configuration for Metro.
Budget item: The cost of this type of interior for a bus - minus the cost of regular seating. Let's say it will cost $50,000 per bus (which seems high) to make it a sleeping car and that each bus will sleep 20 at maximum capacity. If our goal is to provide safe places to sleep for 4,000 people (rounding up from what it was during our last one-night count, during which the after-interviews identified 21% of the homeless respondents identified as LGBTQI), then King County would need to either order or retrofit 200 buses to be sleeping cars. The cost of 200 buses made into sleeping cars would be a one-time investment of $10 million.
'But wait, what about the cost of the bus driver?' It is true that the plan entails adding 4 hours to a route, so it can run 24 hours a day. So let's do some more math, and say that will cost an additional $50,000 per year per bus for staffing if we kept them running around the clock. And of course, if you wanted to shave off bus driver fees, you could park the bus in a parking lot near port-a-potties and a few security guards. Call it the field of dreams.
So an additional $10 million per year for all 200 routes in labor costs. Where would this money come from? Let's consider the proposed $18 billion levy for Sound Transit transportation. What percent of $18 billion is $10 million? Answer is .055%. That's right, just over one-half of one percent of Sound Transit's proposed new transportation budget. Mayor Murray just dedicated $2 million of the City of Seattle's budget to addressing shelter for homeless. That's almost a quarter of the funding right there. The fact is the City of Seattle alone spends $40 million per year on emergency shelter and homeless services. (Thank you, Seattle!)
Zoe Omega first met Lonness at a meeting of the Gender Justice League to plan Seattle's Trans Pride 2013. 'I think her idea is feasible. It is a quicker solution than a lot of other bureaucratic solutions and it is something we need,' Zoe commented when asked about the idea for MES. Zoe is one of the founding members of ECHO (Equality Coalition for Housing and Opportunity), which is organizing an event at Seattle City Hall on July 15 entitled 'Trans Homeless: Stories and Statistics.' (See details below.) Lonness will be one of the featured speakers at this free event open to the public. 'We determined that homelessness is one of the leading issues in the LGBTQI community, and especially Trans homelessness. That's - which is why we chose to focus specifically on Trans homelessness,' Zoe said.
So there you have it. The proposed solution, from our Fairy Godmother, to getting sleeping people off our sidewalks. Will the pumpkin turn into a coach? Somewhere in the rules and regulations, there's room for a starter fleet of these types of buses. Meanwhile, the concept is already a reality in Delhi where buses have been converted to shelters. And in Sacramento, California, bus route 22, known as 'Hotel 22' runs 24 hours and has become an unofficial shelter each night. So this approach is being shown to be feasible in other communities. Hopefully, word will get out to our elected officials and the idea will catch on here in King County and beyond.
'Trans Homeless: Stories and Statistics' - July 15, 6:30 p.m., at Seattle City Hall (5th Ave. & Cherry St.)
For a person transitioning between genders, life can be challenging enough. Can you imagine what it is like to be in transition and homeless at the same time? One-in-five Transgender individuals have reported being homeless at least once in their life. We hope you will be with us for this first of-its-kind event at Seattle City Hall where you will hear personal stories from diverse Seattle and South Sound homelessness or formerly homeless Transgender individuals.
Help us spread the word about this free event emceed by Yani with special guest speakers: Seattle LGBT Commissioner, Mitch Hunter; LGBTQ Allyship Director, Debbie Carlsen; Ingersoll Gender Center Director, Marsha Botzer; Gender Justice League Director, Danni Askini; Lonness Valenna; Seattle Office for Civil Rights Director, Patricia Lally; a representative for Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell.
Thank you for your support. Learn what LGBTQ advocates have learned while working on this issue, and find out more about a Trans Community leader's proposed solution of emergency shelter designed for universal access.
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