Last month I blogged about the issue of poverty in the LGBT Community, and disproportionate rates of LGBT homelessness, as well as the negative health outcomes associated with homelessness. This week, I am going to discuss how homelessness is highly associated with incarceration. Between 25% to 50% of homeless people have a history of incarceration, and incarcerated individuals are 3x more likely to have a history of homelessness that the general US adult population. This link between homelessness and incarceration is clearly (what public health nerds call) a syndemic, or concurrent epidemics that fuel each other.
It is well established that incarceration leads to lifelong health consequences from stigma related stress, difficulty in personal relationships and career and links between incarceration, housing instability and HIV. Racism then plays a role as well, as racial minorities ultimately fare worse than their white counterparts as the result of incarceration. LGBT people, especially LGBT people of color, face additional challenges within prison; LGB people face higher rates of sexual abuse in prison, and transwomen housed in men’s prisons have reported rape 13x higher than other groups of people.
Why are LGBT people in prisons? We all know, and entire books have been written about the ways that LGBT peoples are criminalized. As recently as a few years ago in New York City, a relatively gay-friendly city compared to others, gay men were targeted by the police. Over-policing of transwomen, on the assumption that they are sex workers, has recently made national news again, with the case of Monica Jones in Arizona who was arrested for “walking while Trans.”
I am glad to report that there are efforts underway to work against these trends. The Prison Rape Elimination Act to protect vulnerable peoples will, hopefully, have a positive impact on LGBT peoples in prison. And there are a variety of organizations and data on new ways to house, employ and prevent the recently released from returning to prison. But these are not enough! Right now, the burden of caring about this population is mainly falling on churches, nonprofits and community centers. But this does not correct the causes of increased incarceration and worse prison outcomes for LGBT people. We have to press for three things simultaneously: we need prison reform, we need strong protections for LGBT people who are within the prison system, and we need to stop the over-policing of LGBT peoples on human rights grounds. For those to be released from prison, we need to require culturally competent and comprehensive release and community reintegration programs.
This is no short order, but it will take movement in all of these arenas to make a difference in the lives of LGBT people. If you would like to do more, these websites will show you how you can help.