Shelter Homes for Trans People
By Piyusha Verma
Names marked with * have been changed to protect the identity of respondents.
Like many other trans people, Mariam* decided to leave her family in her teens. “There was a lot of abuse from family and society, and no one understood me. At the time I left home, I hardly knew about the outside world. I only knew that I was different from the other children around me. Over the years, I have realised that I am not gay but trans. I also learnt that many people like me often become a part of the hijra community. But I dreamt of becoming self-reliant, with a place of my own. So, I came to Garima Greh the moment I heard about it. The guidance here helped me get the right education to become a counsellor. I never gave up on my education, regardless of the circumstances. But I am aware that for many in our community, finding a means for survival often takes over education. This is why Garima Grehs are important.”
Mariam’s story gives a glimpse into the life sequences of a trans individual. People discriminate against them due to their gender and sexual identity at almost every crucial step of their lives, such as education, jobs, and housing, making survival even more difficult for trans people. The Transgender Act of 2019, acknowledging this widespread societal discrimination, includes a provision to rescue, protect, and empower trans people. Since then, 12 Garima Grehs have been set up across 10 cities in India under the SMILE scheme, aided by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. These shelter homes offer free food, accommodation, and skill-based training for a year for up to 25 residents.
In July 2022, we visited three Garima Grehs in Delhi, Mumbai, and Vadodara for our research on the trans community’s access to social protection. These shelter homes were our primary points of access to respondents, and nearly 40% of our respondents were living in shelter homes.
This article looks at life in shelter homes, their significance for the trans community, and their relationships with other government departments.
02/ The Need for a Shelter Home for Trans People
Estimates suggest only 2% of trans people live with their biological families. A lack of social acceptance by those closest to them drives them to leave their homes, often at a young age. Many of them head towards bigger towns and cities with no plan or contacts, which can be an intimidating experience. Nearly half of them never attend school and even those who have completed higher levels of education have difficulty finding and holding jobs. As per a 2018 study by the National Human Rights Commission of India, 96% face discrimination in finding work as per their qualifications. Begging and sex work have been some of the few options open to trans people faced with barriers to enter the job market. Those who join the hijra communities may also start earning by giving badhaai (blessing families) on special occasions to sustain themselves.
Moving to a new city without familial support means housing is often a challenge. They often get discriminated against at shelter homes (rain baseras) for women, men, or homeless people just like in other places. And such shelters do not meet all their needs. Kali leads a double life to maintain access to her rented home. She dresses up as a man in her vicinity because she’s afraid she might be asked to leave if her landlord learns about her identity. The provisions of the Transgender Rights Act 2019 prohibiting discrimination on housing grounds do not offer her any reassurance. For those new to the city and unsure of their identity, this problem is more pronounced. Mariam says, “I slept on the footpaths of Surat until a trans person took me to their home. But how long can one keep staying at someone else’s home?” Even today, after living for years in Vadodara, she was only able to find a safe landlord through the contacts she has built over the years.
Mariam shares that moving in with a trans person gave her the space to explore her identity. For a long time, she thought she was gay. The stigma around the trans community and lack of acceptance of gender fluidity means many struggle to identify themselves as a hijra, transwoman, or transman, among other identities. Meeting people who openly expressed their trans identities helped Mariam accept and grow into her own identity as a transwoman. For transmen, this process becomes more difficult. Patriarchal restrictions on women suppress any exploration of their sexual and gender identities, keeping them from asserting any deviance from the norm. This is one of the reasons why trans men are less visible in our society.
Thus, an option to spend a year at Garima Grehs can structure the lives of trans individuals in important ways. They upskill their residents unlike the rain baseras and ensure that individuals have the required social security documents. The community is close-knit and regular counselling helps them discover their identities. Their primary motive is to prepare trans people to live in mainstream society, even if they find the world outside unchanged upon leaving the shelter.
03/ Workings of a Shelter Home
Most respondents we met at the Vadodara Garima Greh had learnt about it from their friends or a community-based organisation. There are also cases when trans people have been found at railway stations and bus stands, not knowing where to go. But now, more than a year after these shelter homes first started, they have become much more widely known. Individuals who need a place to stay also reach out directly via social media.
The admission process is simple. Jyoti ji*, endearingly called Jyoti Mummy, manager of Vadodara Garima Greh, shares, “I meet them in person or over a Zoom call. They narrate their stories to me and then we decide whether to admit the individual. We would like to allow all trans people, but as of now, the guidelines allow only those between the ages of 18 and 60. Currently, we also have 2-3 non-trans members from the LGBTQ community. We try to prioritise the unemployed. Usually, an official ID or a self-declaration stating they are a trans person suffices. Then they sign an affidavit. As per the guidelines, the stay is for a year, although in some cases we extend it. In that case, they sign the affidavit again.”
Ramya*, a staff member in Vadodara who looks at skilling opportunities, shares, “We make sure no one sits idle. Staying occupied also helps them cope with mood swings that are common with Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). Hum aapko ek saal de rahe hain, sab facilities free mein provide kar rahe hain — khaane ki, peene ki, skill building, job mein help, counselling, sab — taaki aap decide kar sako ki kya karna hai aage aur baahar ke liye ready ho jao. (We are giving you one year, with all free facilities such as food, water, skill building, job assistance, counselling, etc. to help you plan for your future and be prepared for life outside.)”. More than half of the 15 residents had been employed after coming to live at the shelter home. “A Shell petrol pump manager has been very supportive, so a few of our residents work there. We look out for such trans-friendly places of work and visit their offices/training institutes to see if they can hold a workshop or hire anyone. We also track residents’ interests, discuss them, and look out for relevant opportunities.”
Sessions to develop their skill sets are also conducted frequently. They take up courses in computer coding, make-up, mehendi, tailoring, etc. Personality development classes are also conducted to improve their language and presentation skills. Residents give up to 5-6 hours of their time every day to upskill themselves. But that is not the sole focus. The staff members try to ensure the day’s schedule also includes activities such as yoga for mental and physical well-being. They partner with local colleges to participate in fashion shows, celebrate festivals and birthdays, and cook meals together on Sundays. A doctor visits them regularly and helps them track their medication.
Another key area of support is documentation. Only 37% of the respondents owned a TG ID card. Moreover, the very few identity documents that they possessed reflected the sex assigned to them at birth. The first step usually involves connecting residents with psychiatrists at a government or private hospital for them to undergo counselling. This helps them procure a Gender Identity Disorder (GID) certificate, which helps them procure Aadhaar cards, voter IDs, TG IDs and certificates in their preferred gender. A GID certificate is required to proceed with other gender-affirming medical procedures. The shelter homes also conduct camps for vaccination!
Kittu, a transwoman, shared, “Undergoing counselling helped me decide that I want to undergo male-to-female transition medically. Being able to find work through the shelter home’s help means I can save money as all major expenses are taken care of here. I hope to get all essential documents and skills with their help, undergo surgery, and then start life afresh.”
Some residents choose to continue working for the community; at least a couple of former residents now work with a local NGO. There were 2-3 people who extended their stay at the shelter because they felt they needed more time. Discrimination from society continues even when these residents resume living on their own. There are challenges in finding accommodation, their issues with their families do not always get resolved, and circumstances might cause them to lose their livelihood as well. However, it connects them with the right resources and allies they can reach out to in times of need instead of taking up any unpreferred work.
04/ Challenges to the Safety of Garima Grehs
Garima Grehs are supposed to be safe spaces for members of the trans community. Spaces that offer a secure and protected environment from the discrimination and harassment trans people face from their families, society, and other public and private institutions. Cooperation from other government bodies is essential to ensure the smooth functioning of Garima Grehs. However, often, this support can be missing.
Our field visit to the Delhi Garima Greh this July coincided with the forceful removal of a transman from the Garima Greh in the middle of the night by the police. The police said they took the transman away based on a ‘missing person’ complaint filed by the family. Reporting their 18+ LGBTQIA family members, who try to leave an abusive home, as missing, is a common tactic used by families. Other shelter residents who attempted to intervene with the police about the circumstances of his removal were beaten at the police station. The police statement further insinuated that the altercation was partly triggered because the residents “removed their clothes,” reinforcing a stereotype associated with trans people. Finding legal assistance can also be challenging in times of need such as this.
Rudrani Chhetri, who runs the shelter home, says, “Police have come to the shelter home in the past. If such things keep happening at a shelter home, then instead of focusing on themselves, the residents will spend their time fighting and in fear.” She adds that the root of the problem is a lack of understanding about the trans community, perpetuated due to stigma and discrimination surrounding them. “People think each of us is a beggar, sex worker, or criminal. They don’t even understand the circumstances that lead some of us to such modes of income. We even faced challenges in finding a building for this shelter home. This is why sensitivity training for all actors involved — the police, trans people, parents, and society — is essential.”
Mariam, a counsellor, shares, “We try to talk with at least one police station every month. This helps us have their support in times of need. For instance, they helped us fight off a nashedi (drug addicts) gang which demanded hafta (protection money) from some of the trans sex workers.” Trans people are also counselled about possible conflict situations and how to respond to them. The Delhi shelter home takes initiatives to reach out to parents in the wider community to educate them on gender and sexual diversity within the trans community. Sometimes, they also invite parents to see their children at the shelter home. When they see their child is happier and doing well, it helps them cope (and understand their child) better. In other cases, it can take years for families to reconcile with their children.
05/ Challenges Faced by Shelter Homes
The provision of a safe space with free food, accommodation, strong community ties, and skill training can go a very long way in helping trans people shape their future. However, the functioning of Garima Grehs still has room for improvement. Below, we list some challenges and suggestions that can be considered while instituting upcoming shelter homes.
- The trans population in India per the 2011 census is 4,88,000. Against these numbers, the current capacity of Garima Grehs to accommodate up to 25 residents is quite limited. The 12 homes set up as part of the pilot project can accommodate only up to 300 individuals. Moreover, shelter homes in different states across the country will make them more accessible.
- The recurring annual budget of INR 31,66,000 allocated for building rent, food, and staff salaries often runs short. A staff member at the shelter home in Vadodara told us they often rely on donors to meet their expenses. The shelter home in Delhi started a fundraiser because they fell short of money to pay the building’s rent or even the salary of the staff.
- Shelter homes will no longer be safe spaces if police and legal assistance in times of trouble come from a place of discrimination toward the trans community. Sensitising them about trans identities and the community’s needs and addressing the police’s false beliefs about the community are required. The cooperation of the police is required to re-instil a shelter home’s role as a safe space.
- Lastly, more attention must be paid to the trans population aged below 18 and above 60. This section is often ignored but their struggles are equally challenging. Shelter home facilities at a younger age can reduce the community’s reliance on begging, badhaai, or sex work. So far, Bengaluru is the only city with a plan to establish shelter homes for trans children. Focusing on pensions and housing can yield benefits to the trans community even in their old age.