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Palm Springs looks to give trans residents monthly cash payments

The proposal would seek to help low-income transgender and nonbinary people in the popular California desert resort town

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)
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At the beginning of last Thursday’s Palm Springs, Calif., City Council meeting, Jacob Rostovsky was unsure if the measure he was supporting would pass. The executive director and founder of Queer Works, a local nonprofit that provides support to transgender, nonbinary and intersex residents in the city, Rostovsky thought the meeting would go by quickly, and had prepared a pot of spaghetti to tuck into as soon as the remote session was over.

The item he had attended for was the last one of the night, but one that would be a huge first step for the city: a proposal to develop a guaranteed income pilot program for low-income transgender and nonbinary residents.

The council considered the measure for an hour and a half. As the clock ticked to 9 p.m. — close to his bedtime — Rostovsky grew increasingly unsure of how the vote would go. “I was like, ‘My pasta is getting cold,’ ” he joked.

When the vote — which was unanimous — came in, Rostovsky said he “almost passed out.”

The council voted to allocate $200,000 to Queer Works and DAP Health, another nonprofit, to develop a pilot program that will be pitched to state lawmakers and private donors for funding. The proposal comes as statehouses across the country have passed bills curbing the rights of gay and trans people: Last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a bill that limits the discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation for younger students; in Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey (R) signed two bills that would restrict gender-affirming care for transgender youths and prohibit them from playing girls’ sports.

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The Palm Springs proposal could be the first guaranteed basic income program specifically for low-income transgender and nonbinary people to be implemented in the country.

Christy Holstege, a Palm Springs City Council member who helped conceive the proposal, highlighted the Southern California city’s history in advancing LGBTQ rights.

“We are a beacon in the country and in the world, a place where LGBTQ people have fled for decades to seek sanctuary and safety and their own community,” she said. “And so I think it’s really important for Palm Springs to be on the front lines of supporting the trans community … especially when they’re under attack throughout the country.”

Palm Springs has long been known for its LGTBQ inclusivity. According to Holstege, it was early to mandate gender-neutral bathrooms and require that employment benefits be offered equally to workers regardless of their gender identity. The city, whose mayor is a transgender woman, has also funded queer and trans organizations within the community.

But, as with many other U.S. cities, it has also been the site of worsening income inequality. Seen by many outsiders as a playground for the rich — spas, golf courses and the Coachella music festival are just some of its attractions — there is an “undercurrent of poverty” in the area, Holstege said. That includes seniors living on fixed income, minimum-wage workers in the tourism and hospitality industry, and those experiencing homelessness, she added.

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While concerns have been mounting about how to address housing instability in the city, the cost of a home has surged in recent years. The median cost of a typical Palm Springs home is now $657,171, a 34.6 percent increase over the previous year, according to the real estate website Zillow.

In general, transgender and nonbinary people are overrepresented among the housing insecure: One 2020 UCLA study found that 8 percent of transgender adults experienced homelessness in the previous year, compared with 3 percent of gay, bisexual and genderqueer adults, and 1 percent of straight cisgender adults.

Rostovsky said he’s seen a similar pattern in Palm Springs in the past five years. The Coachella Valley in particular has attracted more transgender and nonbinary people from surrounding areas, like Los Angeles, who are houseless — many are drawn to the city’s services and relative safety, he said.

For people with low incomes, regular, unrestricted cash payments are a “huge benefit,” Rostovsky added, giving them the power to eliminate difficult financial choices and focus on other parts of their life. This is especially true for transgender and nonbinary people, he said.

“Most of my community is trying to decide if they should eat that night, have somewhere safe to sleep, be able to afford their hormone care of therapy,” said Rostovsky, who is trans. “They’re making decisions constantly, daily, that many cisgender individuals don’t even think about, and that includes homeless or housing unstable cisgender individuals.”

As more cities grapple with mounting economic inequality, elected officials and policymakers have increasingly turned to guaranteed basic income programs, which provide cash assistance to targeted populations, as a potential solution. (A universal basic income, on the other hand, would apply to everyone in a given municipality, state or country.) The money, which is unrestricted and given to people on a regular basis, is meant to help cover the basic cost of living and allow recipients to establish a greater sense of financial security.

While proponents of guaranteed basic income (GBI) programs argue that it’s the best way to end poverty, critics of such programs say they could discourage people from working, hobbling the economy in turn.

But one 2021 study focused on a universal basic income experiment in Stockton, Calif., found that full-time employment rose among residents who were part of the program, boosting not just their financial health but their physical and emotional health as well.

Palm Springs Mayor Lisa Middleton, despite backing the proposal, expressed reservations about a potential GBI program. While trans and nonbinary people are “very deserving of assistance,” she said she is concerned that the program, which will support only a very small group of people, “will struggle to be perceived as fair by those who are not included.”

“In general, these are programs that are going to struggle to scale up to the level of the issues that are before us,” she said. “There are a significant number of disadvantaged people of color in Palm Springs that I would also like to provide help for.”

Council member Holstege said she was drawn to experimenting with a GBI program during her tenure as mayor last year (Palm Springs rotates its mayorship yearly among its city council members), joining the national coalition Mayors for a Guaranteed Income. While she was doing outreach to various community organizations, DAP Health, an LGBTQ-led nonprofit organization that provides comprehensive health-care services, flagged that it was seeing higher rates of negative health outcomes among trans and nonbinary residents, and that they could benefit from a cash assistance program, she said.

Palm Springs’s GBI proposal is first and foremost an anti-poverty policy, according to Holstege, but one that focuses on transgender and nonbinary people because of the higher rates of homelessness and discrimination they face.

Queer Works and DAP Health will develop the program proposal — ensuring that it will “be built by and for trans and nonbinary folks,” Holstege said. Rostovsky said they haven’t landed on exact numbers yet, but he noted that other GBI pilot programs have ranged between $600 and $900 in direct funding per month for about 20 individuals, for a period of 18 months.

Last year, California earmarked $35 million to go toward GBI programs in the state for pregnant people and young adults who recently left foster care. Queer Works and DAP Health are hoping to tap into that fund, as well as attracting private donors, Rostovsky said. If all goes well, he hopes applications for program participants could be open by the fall.

As with other GBI programs, the pilot will also collect data to measure how the funding affects people’s lives — recipients will be compared with a control group who are already receiving the same social services as program participants, but without the cash payments, Rostovsky said. “There is a lot of power in having numbers, not just anecdotes,” he said.

As an activist who has been advocating for trans communities for 18 years, Rostovsky said it was an “incredible” and “validating” moment to see the proposal pass the city council.

For a very long time, he said, small trans-led organizations have been doing this work: “No one has given us much thought. No one has given us much credence, particularly when it comes to proposals aimed at protecting and bolstering their communities.”

He sees Palm Springs the same way — a little city that no one gives much thought to now “doing something huge” in simply acknowledging the needs of transgender and nonbinary communities, and striving to do something about it, he said.

As a little celebration after the council’s decision, Rostovsky helped himself to that spaghetti — and watched “90 Day Fiancé.” The next day, he was at work with a DAP consultant on the proposal, he said: “We’re not wasting any time.”

“I hope that whatever happens, if this pilot gets picked up — whatever happens — there’s a trans person somewhere that reads this and says, ‘Okay, at least there’s a city that’s trying,’ ” Rostovsky said. “I can exist somewhere that is safe for me.”

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