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
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.”
Trans Housing Coalition
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.”
Trans Housing Atlanta Program
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.”
House of Tulip
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.”
Donate to My Sistah’s House, Trans Housing Coalition, Trans Housing Atlanta Program, and House of Tulip.
Originally Appeared on Vogue