The year 2020 will be remembered for the COVID-19 pandemic and the long overdue racial reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd. Ironically, the pandemic that will always be associated with the number of lives lost and the debate over masks, lockdowns and vaccine requirements, along with Floyd’s murder — which sparked an international movement against racism — were also the two catalysts that helped LGBTQ communities address the needs of its most marginalized members.
Yes, a deadly pandemic and yet another murder of an unarmed Black man by a law enforcement officer combined to create some of the most promising solutions in transgender homelessness.
It’s been well-reported that the shuttering of businesses left many Americans unable to pay rent and exacerbated homelessness in many cities. Tent cities like the ones in Charlotte popped up in large cities throughout the country. Visits to Charlotte’s uptown tent encampment revealed what many LGBTQ advocates already knew — a number of Black trans women lived on the streets.
The National Center for Transgender Equality reports that nearly one in five transgender people has experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. Family rejection, discrimination and violence have contributed to a large number of transgender and other LGBQ-identified youth who are homeless in the United States. Social services and homeless shelters often deny them shelter based on their gender identity, according to the report.
The murders of Jaida Peterson and Remy Fennel in Charlotte hotels this spring brought mainstream attention to the crisis. Yet, it was nothing new for LGBTQ advocates. According to tracking by the Human Rights Campaign, at least six Black trans women died by violence in Charlotte since 2016, making it the second deadliest city in the nation for transgender and gender-nonconforming people. And, while the attention regarding the loss of life is important, it also highlights the tendency to only recognize trans individuals in death. The arrest of suspects in both murders has shoved the homelessness among trans people out of the spotlight locally. Instead, in Charlotte, local LGBTQ organizations turned their attention to the non-discrimination ordinance.
However, Black trans women are still homeless here and face the threat of violence daily. Housing initiatives in other Southern cities could offer solutions, but it’s going to take collaboration, coordination and trust. Advocates in Memphis, Atlanta and New Orleans have been in the national spotlight for their efforts to tackle homelessness among trans women.
Jesse Pratt Lopez, founder of the Trans Housing Coalition in Atlanta, can attest to the importance of collaboration. She started the organization with a friend to find long-term housing solutions for Black and brown trans women in the Atlanta area.
The Coalition has helped trans women get long-term housing by acquiring two properties in recent years to house Black and brown trans women. They not only provide housing, but also connect the women with caseworkers and counselors to address everything from addiction to mental health issues. The coalition is also working with other organizations to challenge elected officials to prioritize the safety of trans women and end over-policing in Black and trans queer communities.
“It didn’t start with the intention of becoming an organization; it really started out of a need. It was a need that has existed in the trans community forever,” said Lopez, 24.
It was a need that Lopez and many other founders of housing initiatives knew personally, having experienced homelessness themselves. Providing housing isn’t cheap. Each organization that is carving a new path to housing stability found a different way to get seed money.
Lopez used her talent as a photographer to launch a GoFundMe campaign. She became close to a group of trans women in Atlanta and began documenting their everyday lives. The photo project became the basis of the fund. It raised $10,000 in late 2019. She secured temporary housing through the winter holidays and helped the women get necessities, but then the pandemic hit. By April 2020, they ran out of money while the need grew even larger.
This is the part where George Floyd’s death comes in.
The uprisings surrounding Floyd’s murder sparked an outpouring of charitable giving to non-traditional organizations fighting for Black people or against racism. Progressive and racial justice groups experienced a windfall of donations, according to a June 2020 New York Times article. According to the article, ActBlue, the go-to site that collects online donations for Democratic causes and campaigns, had its busiest period since its founding in 2004. It even surpassed the highest peaks of the 2020 presidential primary season. ActBlue confirmed to The Times that racial justice causes and bail funds led the way.
Lopez’s organization benefited from the generosity. That $10,000 that she initially raised and spent is ancient history. Last June, Lopez’s fund raised $2 million. This June, it hit the $3 million mark.
Lopez said the lesson learned in her journey is that the trans community cannot wait for others to help them.
“We’ve always created our own resources,” she said, “We’ve been taking care of each other. We take care of each other.”
Kayla Gore, co-founder of My Sistah’s House in Memphis, also relied on personal talent to help raise money for her organization, which initially started as a resource for temporary emergency housing for trans and gender-nonconforming people. That was back in 2016, when the organization was basically a shelter, meaning Gore and co-founder Illyahnna Wattshall let people stay in their homes. They also provided advocacy, legal assistance, bail funds, job placement assistance and permanent housing.
Then the pandemic happened, and Gore said they started seeing clients who had never experienced homelessness before. People who had been couch surfing or staying with family members had no place to go. The eviction moratorium didn’t help them, Gore said.
Gore also had a GoFundMe donation page to raise money for their efforts. After Floyd’s murder she said celebrities and others started inviting her to takeover their Instagram pages to raise awareness about their efforts. Donations started pouring in, and as of June they raised about $600,000. As a result, they started a trust and acquired land to build tiny houses or renovate or rebuild existing homes. So far, Gore said they’ve built one tiny house, and have two duplexes under construction. They can house four people in their emergency shelter, which is a four-bedroom house with two bathrooms.
“We never had a strategic plan,” she said, “We were basically putting Band-Aids on situations.”
Gore’s digital organizing background has been critical. She’s not only been able to secure funding, but also in-kind services such as the architect who designs the homes. She says she has been able to acquire land at a reasonable rate and skirt zoning skirmishes because she builds in underserved communities. These are forgotten Black communities, as she calls them, including her childhood neighborhood, Orange Mound, the first African American neighborhood to be built by and for African Americans.
“It’s full circle,” Gore said, “It wasn’t intentional. The neighborhood is recycling itself.”
My Sistah’s House is the model that activist Ash Williams, who recently moved to Asheville, would like to see happen in Charlotte. Williams recognizes the city’s dynamics make that vision a long-term goal, however, saying that there definitely isn’t alignment here.
Williams, 28, and other local advocates say they are just trying to handle each crisis as it occurs. There hasn’t been a windfall of cash to kick-start a housing program like what’s happening in Memphis or Atlanta. The murders this spring garnered a lot of press attention and goals to raise $10,000 to provide direct services to Black trans women in Charlotte.
“Folks don’t need to see us holding tens of thousands of dollars,” Williams said, “There’s immediate needs.”
Rev. Debra Hopkins, who was also once homeless, runs There’s Still Hope in Charlotte. She self-funded the transitional housing program for homeless transgender and gender non-binary adults. Hopkins’ program also provides money for basic necessities, but it is also strict. Drugs and sex work are prohibited. Other organizations like My Sistah’s House advise against drugs and sex and explicitly prohibit the activities on their properties, but the women are free to do as they like off-site.
Hopkins has a zero-tolerance policy. Her tough love approach is meant to help set women up to be successful and comes with counseling support to help them over the hurdles. She also requires clients to find full-time employment within 90 days of beginning the program.
These rules can be a turn off for young trans people, Williams said.
“The goal is to try to get them from the place that we find them in life, and we try to help them become respected sustaining individuals,” she said, “If we’re going to help them to get to be self-sustaining, then there’s rules that they have to play by.”
Program participants stay in extended-stay hotels rather than a single house. Hopkins said she tried housing participants together, but many of the women have experienced so much trauma from living on the streets that interactions in the house often became combative. Hopkins was homeless for two and a half years, so she understands their struggle.
“When you put them under the same roof with the complexity of each individual, it becomes violent,” said Hopkins, 65.
Jermaine Nakia Lee, founder of the nonprofit, Poor No More, would like to see something like New York-based Housing Works here. It’s an HIV/AIDS organization that provides quality housing, advocacy and healthcare services for individuals living with HIV/AIDS or at risk of infection. Their financial model includes grants and donations along with profits from its thrift stores. Nakia-Lee is on his way with his nonprofit, which hosts pop-ups and provides free resources to help homeless and low-income people in Charlotte.
There isn’t a lot of alignment among LGBTQ organizations in Charlotte, which is what makes the success of programs elsewhere all the more exciting. Founders have consistently said that they didn’t have a plan, but they had a desire to address a need. There is no shortage of individuals doing their own thing to help the homeless trans community here. And models elsewhere show that the collaboration will come once a visionary lays the foundation. It’s only a matter of time before determination, coincidence and a dash of magic will help their efforts coalesce into something groundbreaking. Hopefully, a pandemic and the murder of another Black man at the hands of police won’t be the catalyst.
Research assistance provided by Pallavi Patil.
For those who are members of marginalized communities (Black, brown, LGBTQ, differently-abled and others) poverty can often be, or can seem like, a continuous cycle with no end in sight.