Stories from Shelter Organizing: Jamie Langsbury

In the fall of 2018, SRLP launched our Shelter Organizing Campaign to support the safety of trans and gender non-conforming (TGNC) people in the New York City shelter system. For decades, our communities have faced issues accessing supportive housing services at DHS and face overall barriers to affordable and safe housing. Sylvia Rivera believed deeply in fighting for our rights for safe and affirming housing. Her legacy and our struggle continues!

The urgency is clear: DHS can not keep TGNCI people—or anyone—in their care safe and healthy, and the spread of COVID-19 has only exacerbated these conditions.

Recently, in our meetings with the DSS Office of Disability Affairs Director Liz Iannone, DHS Office of Program Development and Implementation Kevin Thrun, and Director of Disabilities Access and Functional Needs Claudette Jordan, our members have laid out the failures of DHS to provide adequate safety, accessibility, and accommodations. 

We encourage you to read below the story of Jamie Langsbury, a Shelter Organizing Team member, who illuminates the inadequacy of the shelter system to house our community members living as TGNC people with disabilities, as well as interviews with Ace and Allilsa.

Jamie was interviewed in May 2020; they are now in housing outside of the shelter system.

Adelaide, Director of Grassroots Fundraising & Communications: Jamie, would you want to start off by introducing yourself and sharing how you came to be involved with SRLP and the Shelter Organizing Team? 

Jamie Langsbury, Shelter Organizing Team member: I am Jamie. I use they/them pronouns. I’m gender-queer. I’m 27 years old. I came to be involved with SRLP and the Shelter Organizing Team because I am currently homeless and I was trying to avoid going into the DHS shelter. I reached out to some mutual aid organizations trying to find a room or a couch. I had just left a domestic violence situation, and I was doing everything that I could to have a safe place. Because of my wonderful queerness, I did not want to go into the women’s shelter because I was assigned female at birth, and honestly I look pretty femme right now. I made contact with someone on the Shelter Organizing Team, and they were absolutely amazing and were able to connect me to people, and we were able to get me a hotel for awhile. We were still trying to find shelter, and trying to find shelter, and I ended up in the hospital because all of the stress got to my body. On top of all of this, I’m a wheelchair user. I have multiple chronic illnesses. I have a brain injury from a car accident earlier this year. It’s been a really rough road for me. So, I’m in the hospital, and now even though I could live in the community, I’m having to go into a nursing home because I don’t have a home to go to. This is ridiculous. It’s in the middle of COVID, and I’m going to a nursing home which has 3 COVID floors, which I don’t have a problem with—to be honest—because this place actually has really good containment practices, but I could die if I were to get COVID. Every nursing home has COVID patients in the city of New York. There is not a single nursing home that does not have COVID patients. I could die if I get COVID. I am scared. They have given me no choice. That’s where I am right now. 

Adelaide: Would you want to share specifically about any of the advocacy you have been doing and what the response from DHS was as you tried to advocate for yourself for shelter?

Jamie: Because I just escaped from a domestic violence situation, I’ve been working with Safe Horizon, which is New York CIty’s domestic violence clearinghouse, pretty much, for shelter. I’ve been denied for shelter 4 times by 4 separate shelters. Safe Horizon is like the clearinghouse, I called them every day, every hour to see if there were any beds available. If there’s a bed available, they call the shelter, the shelter calls me. And once I get to the part where I’m like, “Oh, I’m in a wheelchair,” the shelter is like “Oh, the unit is on the 6th floor… of a walk-up. Sorry!” This has happened to me four times. Or even when I call and I’m like “I need an elevator,” they’re like, “oh yeah, we have an elevator, but it breaks down two times a week, so we’re not comfortable having you because we can’t guarantee that your unit’s accessible.” There’s one DV shelter in New York City that is completely wheelchair-accessible. They denied me. They said I wasn’t in immediate danger.

DHS, when they responded and they said that I wasn’t appropriate for shelter because I “cannot complete all of my activities of daily living completely independently,” I proposed to them multiple accommodations that should have been accepted. They were not accepted. DHS’s response was “she can go in a nursing home and wait for one of these subsidies.” That was their response. I’m 27 years old. I’m going in a nursing home because they don’t know what to do with me—when I can live in the community and I can have a regular life. They are putting me in a nursing home. This is not okay.

I’m currently working with the Shelter Organizing Team. I’m going to be sitting down with the Medical Director of DHS in the near future to help advocate for those people with disabilities and those people who are LGBT with disabilities, so that they can get shelter because shelter is a human right. People should not be scared to go into the shelter system because they are disabled or because they are LGBT or because they are both. They deserve shelter. They deserve food. It is a human right. 

Adelaide: I think, Jamie, everything you’re pointing to shows that shelters incorporate all of the transphobia, the racism, the ableism that our communities experience in the world and tries to apply that everyone can live in the same ways, instead of offering people the care and the accommodations that they need to keep people safe, and that’s so obviously been a huge part of the Campaign for Safe Shelter. These demands that TGNCI people are making would also improve conditions for everyone living in shelter: around safety, around access, around long-term housing, around access to healthcare. Around the demands that you’ve been part of organizing around and in preparing for that meeting with the Medical Director, what would you want the SRLP community who might read your interview to know? 

Victoria Bell, Finance & Fundraising Team intern: What can we support you with? What DHS is doing to you at this moment is wrong, but they don’t care pretty much.

Jamie: The biggest thing is recognizing that shelter is not one size fits all. One of the biggest things in terms of long-term goals that we were discussing at the last Shelter Organizing meeting is opening a shelter that is specifically for TGNC people or LGBTQI people, those people who don’t fit squarely in those two boxes that they currently have shelter for. Because, me, they’re trying to ship me off to the women’s shelter. If I had a choice, I would not be comfortable going into a women’s shelter. Because, yes, I look feminine right now, because that’s the mode that my abuser had me in, but I’m more masculine in my head. I would much rather be in a men’s shelter, but all of the clothes that I have packed with me right now are femme. And they wanted to ship me off to the women’s shelter.

Would I feel safe in a men’s shelter right now? No. Would I feel safe in a women’s shelter? No. What would they do with me? There’s nothing. I don’t fit into one of their little square boxes right now.

Make a space that is safe for everyone. This is what we need to be fighting for. There needs to be a space so that everyone feels safe, and this is what we need to be advocating for: supportive housing, long-term housing, housing for those of us who have been… cause I have been homeless now for nine and a half years. I have not lived in one spot for more than four or five months for my entire adult life. I do not know what it’s like to have stability. I need housing that can teach me what its like to have stability because I don’t know what that is. No one ever taught me. In the process of screening for some of these DV shelters, they have to know my entire address history for the past five years. Three nights ago, I spent four hours tracking down the addresses for the last three years that I have lived at. I should not have to do that. I should be able to say, “I’m chronically homeless,” and I should be placed somewhere that knows how to deal with people like me. That knows how to deal with people who have no idea what its like to pay rent. That deals with people who have no idea what its like to sign a lease. They’re telling me, “oh, you can get this subsidy, you can get this thing, and you can get a lease,” and I’m like, “I’m going to be locked into a place for a year?” And this scares the shit out of me, but it’s also so exciting in the same vein because I’m going to get my own place. But they are making these promises and then in the same sentence, “these are the hoops you have to jump through. These are the qualifications you have to meet. And, oh, this is the waiting list.” And it’s ridiculous. The waiting list to get into some of these programs…

Adelaide: Definitely. SRLP hears again and again about people who move through DHS to housing or through these systems to long-term housing, these people are fighting fiercely for themselves. That advocacy requires all of this knowledge about how the system works, and if we don’t have people there to support each other in moving through that, it’s impossible. 

Jamie: Prior to coming into the hospital, I had resigned myself that I was going to have to go through an intake assessment at Franklin Women’s Shelter, and I had called in advance to ask for an accommodation. I live with a brain injury, and this means that I’m prone to sudden mood changes. I get upset very easily. I can get agitated very easily. I wanted to have a friend, my long-term partner, on the phone with me. Just quiet. She didn’t need to say anything, just quiet, on the phone, but on speaker and in my lap while I was doing the interview, just so I knew that she was there for comfort, and so that she could tell me to shut the fuck up if I started getting agitated. That’s what she does. I’ve been with her for quite some time and she knows me.

They laughed at me. Whoever it was on the other side of the phone. I don’t know who it was. I don’t know what role they were in. I don’t know who they were. I don’t know their name. Whoever it was on the other side of the phone laughed at me. They said, “we don’t do that kind of shit here. If you need that, then you need to be in the hospital.” They laughed again and hung up the phone. All I did was politely say: “I’m going to be coming in for a shelter assessment tomorrow. I have a brain injury. I need an accommodation of having a support person on the phone with me while I do it.”

I wasn’t agitated. I was calm. And the person laughed at me. From that point forward, I resigned myself to the fact that I was about to go into a facility that I had been in before and that had treated me like shit, but I had resigned myself to the fact that I was about to go somewhere that was making fun of me for having a disability. Who would want to live somewhere that treated them like that? 

Victoria: Wow. I’m so sorry you had to experience that. No one should have to go through that just because they have a disability. I have a disability myself, so for someone to make fun of someone who has a disability is totally wrong. And then, you feel like you still have to be there. That was illegal, too, and that could have been called discrimination. That could have been a lawsuit on their part, you know? Because no one should have to go through that.

Adelaide: Obviously, right now, like always, DHS is receiving funds from New Yorkers to fund the system and now they’re receiving federal funds as well to house people during COVID-19. What would you say, if we were in control–like we were talking about visioning the other day, if we had housing that kept TGNC people and disabled people safe in shelter and moved with the kind of care that you’re talking about and that your story illuminates that DHS fails to provide–what would that housing be like? How would you imagine that?

Jamie: Permanent supportive housing. That’s the big one. Permanent supportive housing, where there are people to help people learn how to live on their own, and then when they’re ready, the support that they need if they want–they don’t have to–but if they want to move out of supportive housing. And the means to get them out of shelter quickly and into that supportive housing. That’s where the funds need to be. Specifically for us, but for everyone. Right now, there are all these funds going to putting people in hotel rooms, which is great, but there is so much more that those funds could be going towards. They’re putting them in hotel rooms that are $80, $90, $100 a night. TThat could fund 2 studio apartments right there. And they’re putting them in hotel rooms. That’s 2 studio apartments!

It’s ridiculous. Supportive housing prepares people for their next steps. It keeps them coming back to shelter, it’s a never-ending system. Like I said, I’ve been homeless since I was eighteen-and-a-half when I aged out of foster care. It’s this cycle because nobody has ever taught me how to get somewhere safe. If someone had broken the cycle and had done Housing First–I’m a huge believer in the Housing First model–if someone had done that for me, I would have housing, but no one ever did that for me. And I want to do it for other people. 

Victoria: How do you feel that they are putting you into this nursing home?

Jamie: I am so scared. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid how they are caring for the patients, but not how good the social workers are. So, I’m going into a place where my needs will be taken care of, but when I’m quote unquote “better,” how do I know I’m going to end up somewhere in a situation where my needs will be met? I can’t make myself so anxious about that right now.

Victoria: So, how is your mental state right now at this moment of time?

Jamie: Very anxiety-ridden. But I’m depressed than I was. I was pretty hopeless yesterday when it seemed like nothing was working out. At least now there’s a plan in place, whereas yesterday there wasn’t a plan, we didn’t know what was happening. It’s not the plan I wanted, but it’s something.

Adelaide: If there’s a note you’d like to end on, please feel free to share, but you’ve shared a lot, and your story is so powerful in pointing to what we need to fight for.

Jamie: I would finish off with my message to everybody: keep on keeping on. My personal mantra: I’m stronger than I give myself credit for. I think everybody should say that to themselves everyday. We don’t say that to ourselves nearly enough. 

Adelaide: Thank you, Jamie.

Originally published by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project: Source