Biden Administration Walks Back Regulation Protecting Single-Sex Homeless Shelters

A religious homeless shelter in Gallup, N.M. / Getty Images
April 23, 2021

The Biden administration is cracking down on single-sex homeless shelters in a move that critics say will harm religious shelters and present a threat to women's safety.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development said Thursday that it will roll back a Trump administration policy that it said "would have allowed for HUD-sanctioned, federally funded discrimination against transgender people." The policy change requires shelters to accommodate individuals regardless of sex or gender orientation. Any shelter that receives grant money from the department's Office of Community Planning and Development is required to comply with the policy.

"Transgender and gender non-conforming people report more instances of housing instability and homelessness than cis-gender people," Secretary Marcia Fudge said. "Today, we are taking a critical step in affirming HUD's commitment that no person be denied access to housing or other critical services because of their gender identity."

The policy rollback is part of the Biden administration's larger effort to walk back protections for religious freedom instituted under the Trump administration.

Religious homeless shelters, many of which operate based on the sex of the homeless individuals, could see their access to the funding cut off if they do not recognize the department's decision to prioritize gender identity over biological sex. Religious liberty groups accused the Biden administration of using federal power to punish religious organizations.

"The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under the Biden administration has abandoned women and girls under the guise of being 'inclusive,'" said Kate Anderson, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom.

The department told reporters that it will revert to a 2016 Obama administration rule that requires shelters to accommodate individuals based on their gender identity. In 2020, the Trump administration issued guidance that allowed shelters to accommodate individuals based on biological sex. If an individual could not be accommodated, the shelter was required to provide transfer recommendations to other homeless shelters.

Anderson said the policy change could cause religious homeless shelters to come under financial pressure, as their access to federal funding is threatened if they do not conform. The Alliance Defending Freedom pointed to a case involving a women's homeless shelter that sent an intoxicated man to the hospital instead of letting him stay there.

"Some of the faith-based organizations we've represented in court have faced hostility—and even the threat of closure—by government officials who disagree with their religious beliefs," Anderson said. "Unfortunately, HUD's policy reversal promises to multiply those threats and pit the federal government against the shelters and ministries—across the nation—that are effectively and compassionately meeting the needs of our nation's most vulnerable populations."

Transgender-rights activist groups praised the decision. "The Biden administration is living up to its commitment to protect transgender people from discrimination," said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, deputy executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. "This is a decision that will save lives and help transgender people experiencing homelessness receive the assistance they need."