LARGO — Mingling with other homeless women in the female pod at Pinellas Safe Harbor, Tracy Abel was settling in for the night when trouble began.
It was the 31-year-old's first visit to the shelter, and she was startled when two guards stood over her telling her there had been a mistake.
A check had shown that the petite brunet's Social Security number originally was issued to a man. Questioning by shelter staff revealed that Abel, unable to afford a $19,000 sex-reassignment surgery, still had male genitalia.
That raised a difficult question: In a communal setting, where sleep and shower facilities are shared, where do you house someone who presents as one gender, but has genitalia of the other?
Abel would file an internal affairs complaint after the shelter staff banished her for the night to a corner of the cold, windy courtyard — an area typically reserved for residents who misbehave — because they feared someone might figure out she was born a man and harm her.
But deputies also referred to Abel as "he," ignoring her objections and the "female" designation on her driver's license.
That behavior, Abel said, was disrespectful and, ironically, only drew more attention.
Abel wasn't the first to complain about such incidents at shelters in Pinellas County, but officials hope she is the last.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, which runs Safe Harbor, and the Pinellas Homeless Leadership Board have crafted separate policies aimed at making transgendered people feel more welcome in homeless shelters.
Under the new guidelines, Safe Harbor and other shelters that receive federal funding through the HLB are required to ensure safety and privacy for transgendered people by providing, among other things, separate shower and sleep facilities away from the general population and addressing them by whichever gender pronoun they prefer.
The HLB also wants groups outside its largesse to comply. The board will offer sensitivity training to groups it funds.
"What it amounts to is how people present themselves, that's how they are to be treated — even if they haven't had the surgery, even if they haven't changed all their documents yet," said HLB executive director Sarah Snyder. "The policy says that as much as possible, shelters are to make accommodations so individuals can be served."
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HLB and the Sheriff's Office are among the first entities in the area to seek protections for transgendered people, says Michael Keeffe, executive director of TransAction Florida, a statewide advocacy group that consulted HLB on its policy.
An estimated 3,500 transgendered people live in the Tampa Bay region, according to data compiled by TransAction and area gender therapists.
A 2011 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found 16 percent of Florida respondents had been homeless at some point because of their gender identity. Nationally, 19 percent had experienced homelessness; of those, 55 percent who tried to access a shelter were harassed by either staff or residents and 29 percent were turned away altogether.
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Those statistics jibe with local social service agencies' observations that coming out — whether as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning — is an increasing factor in the number of youth as young as 10 living in shelters or on the streets.
"Either their families have kicked them out or they've left the family or their previous living situation," Snyder said.
Several area groups said they've long made accommodations on the rare occasion — often less than once a year — that a transsexual requested services. But officials say that's much harder in communal-style shelters that segregate residents by gender, like Safe Harbor or the Salvation Army.
"It puts transgender women especially in danger when they're housed with biological men," Keeffe said. "As a result, a lot of times it's relayed that you might be better off somewhere else for your own safety. But a person who's seeking shelter should not have to be responsible for other people's behavior."
Nor, he added, should they face the stigma shared by rape victims: that they somehow brought harm on themselves.
"One important thing to get out to people is this isn't a choice and it isn't a lifestyle," Keeffe said. "We're just trying to live our lives like everyone else."
Since Keeffe joined TransAction in 2009, he said, the group has logged at least a dozen complaints about ill treatment of transgendered people at Tampa Bay homeless shelters. However, he said fear of retaliation means there are likely dozens more cases that go unreported.
Keeffe declined to list specifics, but said some Pinellas shelters he has contacted over the years were oblivious that they were currently housing transgendered people. He found some employed a "don't ask-don't tell" policy, turning away the transgendered who were discovered.
"That's why it's important to have a policy in place — so everyone knows what's going on rather than have people bring in their personal beliefs," Keeffe said.
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Abel, a New Jersey native who began transitioning to female at age 24, moved to Clearwater in 2009. But by March 2012, the unemployed Abel was sleeping in her car or on friends' couches while a homeless aid group processed her housing application.
An outreach police officer referred her to Safe Harbor.
Nearly a year after Abel's complaint, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri admits his staff handled the situation poorly.
Transgendered residents are a rarity, he said, and officials hadn't anticipated such issues when designing the shelter.
Staff's initial reaction was to refer to Abel by the gender revealed during the Social Security number check.
Abel says the women at Safe Harbor were fine with her presence, but Gualtieri said staff feared they would be uncomfortable. However, Abel's outward female appearance would have put her at risk of physical or sexual harm in the male pod.
"Our staff was kind of at a loss as to what to do," Gualtieri said, adding that no supervisors were present when Abel arrived. "The staff on duty didn't handle it in the best way, with the best sensitivity and recognition of who she is, and felt they didn't have any options. … It should've been handled better."
However, Gualtieri stresses that as soon as he learned what happened, he drafted an official policy to prevent a repeat.
The sheriff met personally with Abel, who told the Times she's "happy" with the new rules. "My only concern is what happens if people don't follow them," Abel said. "If there's no penalty, no one really cares."
Gualtieri said Safe Harbor staff members have received sensitivity training, as will future employees in that division.
Staffers who do not "strictly adhere" to the policy are subject to an internal affairs investigation and discipline.
"Once the policy was in place, I demand that it be followed," he said.