Across the South, a Trans Housing Movement Grows

·11 min read

In Sasha Wortzel’s 2020 short film, This Is an Address, late transgender legend Sylvia Rivera’s recalcitrant voice pierces through a collection of ’90s video footage of the unforgiving Hudson River and construction in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Rivera recalls the unresolved demise of her friend Marsha P. Johnson and their lifelong journey to find and build housing for themselves and their community members.

“It hurts to see that people are not being helped,” she says. “I may spend the winter out here for the simple fact that if I can’t see them off the street, why should I get shelter for myself? I have to prove a point as a Stonewall veteran.”

Rivera spent a significant part of her life illuminating how the larger society—including the local government and more privileged gay people within the LGBTQ+ movement—neglected the issue of homelessness. In fact, in the year after the 1969 Stonewall riots, Rivera and Johnson developed an activist organization called Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR. This first-of-its-kind effort set out to provide housing and other support for people experiencing homelessness within their communities, prioritizing people of color, drag queens, youth, and sex workers. Eventually, they would purchase a building to house community members, but resources and support for their efforts diminished shortly after.

Some 50 years later, homelessness continues to plague trans people, particularly of color, almost as deeply as it did during the Stonewall era. In fact, the National Center for Transgender Equality reports that nearly one in five transgender people has experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.

Of course, it doesn’t help that trans people experiencing homelessness are often at the whim of whichever executive is in the White House. Last July, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced that it would allow federally funded homeless shelters to require transgender people to use facilities according to their sex assigned at birth. But then the department provided reductive guidelines on how to identify a trans person according to physical characteristics like height and facial hair. All of this happened just a year after it was reported that then HUD Secretary Ben Carson had made it a habit of mocking and dismissing trans people’s sheltering needs.

In April, the Biden administration withdrew the proposed rule, reaffirming the preexisting Equal Access Rule requiring the housing of trans people according to their gender identity. But trans organizers weren’t waiting around for a well-meaning executive in the Oval Office. As a result, a throughline has emerged between our transcestors’ organizing work and an expanding constellation of transgender housing initiatives in the southern United States over the last few years.

Organizations like House of Tulip in New Orleans; My Sistah’s House in Memphis; and Atlanta’s Trans Housing Coalition and Trans Housing Program are carrying a multigenerational banner to provide long-term housing solutions to trans people in their cities.

My Sistah’s House
Memphis

Influenced by her own experiences of homelessness, Kayla Gore, alongside Illyahnna Wattshall, began serving the Memphis transgender community nearly five years ago. They started out simply opening up their homes as emergency shelters, and the initiative quickly grew into an expansive organizational effort. Today, My Sistah’s House has become a pillar in its community, focusing on an array of services, including housing access, identification-document changes, bail support, and career coaching. Its latest project, fueled by in-kind donations, focuses on land ownership and building tiny homes as temporary solutions for trans people, particularly Black women, who are in need.

“Trans-led initiatives have always been in existence in some form. It’s just that now with the global pandemic and the uprising, there’s more attention on vulnerable communities, especially within the Black community, prioritizing trans folks,” Gore says. “I hope that we make a significant impact in housing and increase people’s ability to live healthier lives and not just feel like they have to be strong and brave and all those other beautiful words that they attached to being a Black woman.”

The first finished tiny house, built by My Sistah’s House for single occupancy
The first finished tiny house, built by My Sistah’s House for single occupancy
Photographed by Lucy Garrett
Kayla Gore, cofounder and executive director of My Sistah’s House, at the group’s shared home
Kayla Gore, cofounder and executive director of My Sistah’s House, at the group’s shared home
Photographed by Lucy Garrett
A vegetable garden in the backyard of the MSH shared home
A vegetable garden in the backyard of the MSH shared home
Photographed by Lucy Garrett
Gore serving food in downtown Memphis. My Sistah’s House, with the help of volunteers, offers weekly hot meals to people experiencing homelessness on Hot Meal Thursdays. Ylonda Hymon, at right, cooks all of the meals from scratch. This week it was pulled-pork BBQ nachos with hand-chopped fruit cups. “My mom, we had a big family, and she was always cooking for big groups, for 20 people or more, so I just know how to cook like that,” Hymon says.
Gore serving food in downtown Memphis. My Sistah’s House, with the help of volunteers, offers weekly hot meals to people experiencing homelessness on Hot Meal Thursdays. Ylonda Hymon, at right, cooks all of the meals from scratch. This week it was pulled-pork BBQ nachos with hand-chopped fruit cups. “My mom, we had a big family, and she was always cooking for big groups, for 20 people or more, so I just know how to cook like that,” Hymon says.
Photographed by Lucy Garrett
A memorial painting in remembrance of Dominique Rem’mie Fells and Riah Milton, two Black trans women whose lives were taken within 24 hours of each other in June 2020. According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 44 trans or gender-nonconforming people were violently killed last year. A lack of access to stable housing contributes to a greater risk of violence.
A memorial painting in remembrance of Dominique Rem’mie Fells and Riah Milton, two Black trans women whose lives were taken within 24 hours of each other in June 2020. According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 44 trans or gender-nonconforming people were violently killed last year. A lack of access to stable housing contributes to a greater risk of violence.
Photographed by Lucy Garrett
Angelica Butler in the living room at MSH’s shared home. Butler had been volunteering with the group before she moved in around a year ago—the space allowed her to recover after being in the hospital. “Kayla inspires me to keep going, to keep striving,” she says. “She didn’t have to do this for all of us, but she did. She’s my role model.” Butler will be moving into one of the duplex apartments currently being built. “I want to put an A [for Angelica] above my door. I want something that represents me.”
Angelica Butler in the living room at MSH’s shared home. Butler had been volunteering with the group before she moved in around a year ago—the space allowed her to recover after being in the hospital. “Kayla inspires me to keep going, to keep striving,” she says. “She didn’t have to do this for all of us, but she did. She’s my role model.” Butler will be moving into one of the duplex apartments currently being built. “I want to put an A [for Angelica] above my door. I want something that represents me.”
Photographed by Lucy Garrett
Steps lead to where a house used to be. The land is now owned by My Sistah’s House and will provide space for several new tiny homes.
Steps lead to where a house used to be. The land is now owned by My Sistah’s House and will provide space for several new tiny homes.
Photographed by Lucy Garrett
Gore in the structure that is being developed into a duplex for the next My Sistah’s House tiny house.
Gore in the structure that is being developed into a duplex for the next My Sistah’s House tiny house.
Photographed by Lucy Garrett
The duplex under construction. It will soon become two homes for trans women in Memphis.
The duplex under construction. It will soon become two homes for trans women in Memphis.
Photographed by Lucy Garrett
Gore grew up on the same street where the My Sistah’s House duplex is currently under construction.
Gore grew up on the same street where the My Sistah’s House duplex is currently under construction.
Photographed by Lucy Garrett

Trans Housing Coalition
Atlanta

Mundane. Ugly. Beautiful. This is how photographer Jesse Pratt López described the stories she began capturing of trans women of color who were surviving sex work, addiction, and homelessness and living with HIV on Atlanta’s streets. Then in late 2019, López began crowdfunding to support the photographic subjects she met through her community daughter, ReVon Michaels López. As the COVID-19 pandemic tightened its grip on the community, López’s crowdfunding ballooned to millions of dollars. She leaned on local organizations and leaders to develop Trans Housing Coalition with a mission of creating long-term solutions for Black trans women in the area. Over the last year, THC has steadily moved trans women of color into long-term housing, held elected officials accountable to the community, and continued to engage in building with other Atlanta-based groups.

“It’s very important to remember our history, that Black and brown trans women have been sustaining our communities since forever,” López says. “Trans people have historically experienced homelessness because we’ve also not always had safe families and access to safe homes. We hope that people continue the momentum when trans people aren’t the latest trend in media and that they continue supporting.”

THC founder and director Jesse Pratt López and Feroza Syed, THC board chair and realtor with Atlanta Fine Homes Sotheby’s International, sit outside of THC’s transitional house, Muffin’s Place. Muffin’s Place is named after Muffin Bankz, a trans woman who was shot to death in Atlanta in January.
THC founder and director Jesse Pratt López and Feroza Syed, THC board chair and realtor with Atlanta Fine Homes Sotheby’s International, sit outside of THC’s transitional house, Muffin’s Place. Muffin’s Place is named after Muffin Bankz, a trans woman who was shot to death in Atlanta in January.
Photographed by Jesse Pratt López
ReVon Michaels López (left) and Jadea hug in López’s first apartment, provided through THC.
ReVon Michaels López (left) and Jadea hug in López’s first apartment, provided through THC.
Photographed by Jesse Pratt López
Toni-Michelle Williams, cofounder and executive director of Solutions Not Punishments Collaborative, stands in front of members from the newly formed Atlanta Trans Leaders Coalition. Williams announced the coalition’s list of policy recommendations regarding the trans community in Atlanta, directed at mayoral candidates running in the fall.
Toni-Michelle Williams, cofounder and executive director of Solutions Not Punishments Collaborative, stands in front of members from the newly formed Atlanta Trans Leaders Coalition. Williams announced the coalition’s list of policy recommendations regarding the trans community in Atlanta, directed at mayoral candidates running in the fall.
Photographed by Jesse Pratt López
Jayme Steger, far right, is a part-time case manager for THC and serves as a mother figure for Zakiyah, center. In turn, Zakiyah is a mother figure for Rikka, far left, providing mentorship and support.
Jayme Steger, far right, is a part-time case manager for THC and serves as a mother figure for Zakiyah, center. In turn, Zakiyah is a mother figure for Rikka, far left, providing mentorship and support.
Jesse Pratt López
Jayme comforts Zakiyah in her living room.
Jayme comforts Zakiyah in her living room.
Photographed by Jesse Pratt López
Jayme brushes Zakiyah’s hair in her living room.
Jayme brushes Zakiyah’s hair in her living room.
Photographed by Jesse Pratt López
Zakiyah hugs Rikka outside their apartment in Atlanta.
Zakiyah hugs Rikka outside their apartment in Atlanta.
Photographed by Jesse Pratt López

Trans Housing Atlanta Program
Atlanta

In 2014, trans advocates (Cheryl Courtney-Evans, Chanel Haley, Tracee McDaniels, Jamie Roberts, and others) came together for a series of town halls focused on discrimination in Atlanta’s public-shelter system. These conversations laid the foundation for the Trans Housing Atlanta Program, a largely volunteer-run effort to support trans and gender-nonconforming people in their journeys toward long-term housing. Three years later, Justine Ingram joined the initiative as a case manager, eventually shifting into a more central role in leadership as program manager, and has been instrumental in building out the organization’s capacity. THAP has grown to provide emergency housing, case management, and peer-specialist services, as well as advocate for clients in dispute with local housing institutions and support clients in entering drug-rehabilitation programs. Last year, THAP partnered with A Vision 4 Hope to open a transitional house, the Trans Hope House, for trans women living with HIV in the area.

“Housing is a human and fundamental right, so no matter who you are, how you identify, your HIV status, your addiction, your criminal record, you deserve housing,” Ingram says. “Even if it’s only just a little bit, THAP can be that resource for you. Every piece of money we get from our donors and volunteers we allocate directly to the community. So whether I’m getting a paycheck for a month or spending my whole paycheck to get somebody into a hotel room, I will do it because I just want them to know that we’re there in their corner and that we’ll always be there to support them.”

Pearl Styles (left), house mother, and Justine Ingram, program manager, for the Trans Hope House, a transitional-housing program established in collaboration with Trans Housing Atlanta Program and A Vision for Hope.
Pearl Styles (left), house mother, and Justine Ingram, program manager, for the Trans Hope House, a transitional-housing program established in collaboration with Trans Housing Atlanta Program and A Vision for Hope.
Photographed by Jesse Pratt López
Tia, a member of the Trans Hope House, in front of a hair-washing station
Tia, a member of the Trans Hope House, in front of a hair-washing station
Photographed by Jesse Pratt López
Ingram watches Styles adjust the hair on a mannequin in the Glam Studio, a hair and makeup salon space in the Trans Hope House.
Ingram watches Styles adjust the hair on a mannequin in the Glam Studio, a hair and makeup salon space in the Trans Hope House.
Photographed by Jesse Pratt López
Pearl in a community room of the Trans Hope House
Pearl in a community room of the Trans Hope House
Photographed by Jesse Pratt López

House of Tulip
New Orleans

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck New Orleans, Mariah Moore and an ensemble of community leaders (including Spirit McIntyre, Milan Nicole Sherry, and Dylan Waguespack) created a relief fund to redistribute aid into their community. The priority that came to the fore was alleviating homelessness for transgender and gender-nonconforming New Orleanians, giving birth to House of Tulip. This organization is laying the foundation for a permanent housing campus and community center that will make housing, economic empowerment, and safety accessible. Though the effort has had tremendous communal support, Moore admits that this first year has been an enlightening experience, particularly around property ownership.

“As a Black trans woman, I never knew the racism that existed in zoning laws. There are all these hurdles put in place that prevent folks from being able to provide the support that marginalized folks need and deserve,” she says. “We’re still trying to build out a road to homeownership through an infrastructure that helps our community members become self-sustainable.”

Mariah Moore at House of Tulip’s one-year anniversary celebration in New Orleans on June 26.
Mariah Moore at House of Tulip’s one-year anniversary celebration in New Orleans on June 26.
Photographed by Annie Flanagan
The party was dubbed a HOT Summer Celebration, with live performances, food, and raffle items.
The party was dubbed a HOT Summer Celebration, with live performances, food, and raffle items.
Photographed by Annie Flanagan
<cite class="credit">Photographed by Annie Flanagan</cite>
Photographed by Annie Flanagan
<cite class="credit">Photographed by Annie Flanagan</cite>
Photographed by Annie Flanagan
From left: Staff members Meloney Washington, Ben Collongues, Milan Sherry, and Mariah Moore at the House of Tulip.
From left: Staff members Meloney Washington, Ben Collongues, Milan Sherry, and Mariah Moore at the House of Tulip.
Photographed by Annie Flanagan

Donate to My Sistah’s House, Trans Housing Coalition, Trans Housing Atlanta Program, and House of Tulip.

Originally Appeared on Vogue