By Orlando Gonzales, SAVE; Ebonni N. Chrispin, AIDS Healthcare Foundation

There exists a prevalent, urgent and under-reported crisis in systematically oppressed communities across South Florida including the LGBTQ community which needs to be addressed.

LGBTQ people are disproportionately facing housing discrimination and LGBTQ youth alone comprise 20% - 40% of homeless youth. Statistics like these are alarming and without visibility on these issues, crimes against humanity will continue to negatively impact our entire community. While it may not affect you directly, ignoring the issue will have lasting damage to our economy as a whole and the communities where we live, work and play.

Housing is arguably the most critical facet of life. It provides stability and dignity for those fortunate to have one, and an insurmountable obstacle for those in our community without.  The issue is unfortunately exacerbated even further among transgender people. As many as one in five transgender people have faced discrimination when looking for housing and the same percentage have also experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, according to data from the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Thankfully, important steps are being taken. Under a new executive order the Biden Administration is expanding protections for LGBTQ individuals by requiring federal agencies to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. People who believe they have experienced discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity within the past year can also file new claims with the Florida Commission on Human Relations.

Another demographic that is likely to experience homelessness is people living with HIV. Since 1988, Florida has had the highest rates of HIV infections and a system that has fallen short in treatment and care. Up to 50% of people living with HIV in the United States are at high risk of becoming homeless. To make matters worse, thirty-six states, including Florida, have HIV-specific criminal laws, forcing those living with HIV into the shadows. The stigma, discrimination and resulting isolation surrounding HIV+ status is only serving to perpetuate the epidemic and prevent fundamental needs being met for this targeted demographic.

Without stable housing, most are likely to lack access to medical treatment. By creating low-income housing, we can address two key social determinants; economic stability and health care, which will increase treatment adherence for people living with HIV and allow for increased access to prevention, diagnosis, and treatment for high-risk populations.

Florida’s access to low-income housing is already abysmal considering the increased barriers for transgender people and those living with HIV. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, 20% of renter households are extremely low income with 79% of those households experiencing severe cost burdens (30%+ of income) on rent. That is, if an extremely low-income household can even find a place to rent; for every 100 extremely low-income households there are only 28 rentals available.

South Florida desperately needs to build more low-income housing to address this critical issue for the LGBTQ community and the general population. However, more often than not these construction projects are met with hostility from local communities out of fear and lack of information. We also do not provide adequate incentives for real estate developers to incorporate affordable housing in market rate properties.

SAVE will begin to address this urgent issue through a multifaceted canvassing plan. Healthy Housing Foundation, a subsidiary of AHF has a plan to develop low income housing in South Florida, however it will take a coalition of partners to address the problem. The focus is the general population’s understanding that an unaffordable South Florida is not a long term, sustainable plan for the future of our communities. Together, SAVE and AHF plans to reduce stigma against people living with HIV and to uncover and combat negative attitudes towards low-income housing and homelessness. Our goal is to shift public opinion to be supportive of low-income housing and prevent public opposition of such proposed projects.

The initial phase of the creation of the deep canvass will begin by gathering information about community members’ attitudes towards people living with HIV and low-income housing by going door-to-door and having bi-directional conversations with community members about their disposition. Once SAVE has a data driven understanding of the barriers for community support of low-income housing, we will begin to develop a conversation model to persuade community members to be more supportive, focusing on their real lived experiences with economic insecurity and healthcare, storytelling to help them become more empathic, and education to reduce misinformation and prejudice.

This op-ed was featured in the Sun Sentinel on October 29th. You can read the published article here.