Gin Calloway was running out of options. She’d grown up with an aunt in the county, dancing jazz, ballet, and tap and performing at The Muny. “I used to run around in my auntie’s heels and stockings,” she recalls. Then, in her teens, Calloway moved in with her mother, who didn’t support her daughter’s identity. “I had to act like somebody I wasn’t,” says Calloway (pictured above).
She was told that she had gender identity disorder—then the official diagnosis for transgender individuals—and changed her male birth name. Years later, she found herself in and out of a suicide ward. She couldn’t get work or afford medication. With no stable income and two recent evictions, she faced homelessness.
That’s when she discovered the Trans Queer Flat: Affirming, Affordable Housing for Trans & Queer Folks.
It had started with Sayer Johnson’s decision to rent his property more deliberately. Then it became a mission.
Last spring, outside his work as executive director of Metro Trans Umbrella Group, the only local organization dedicated to transgender people, he wiped out his savings to purchase a tall brick town home on a narrow street in South City. Then, Johnson recognized a need that couldn’t be fulfilled by MTUG. After some rehab work, he began renting it out to transgender folks.
Stories like Calloway’s came pouring in: prospective tenants with abusive family lives, unstable income, no support network. Soon, the flat was at capacity. In the span of just a few months, 11 people had moved in and out. Today, the flat has a long waiting list that includes people from St. Louis and beyond.
“A lot of folks come with all their belongings in two garbage bags,” Johnson says. He began asking for simple donations: towels, clothes, bedding, toiletries, pots and pans, suitcases—“so nobody has to leave that house with two garbage bags full of stuff. They could at least have the dignity of leaving with their things in a suitcase.”
But beyond those basic items, there are larger issues, such as employment, healthcare, and safety. According to GLAAD, a media monitoring organization founded by LGBT people, at least 27 transgender people were murdered in the U.S. in 2016. Most of them were African-American transgender women like Calloway. “This is life and death for folks,” says Johnson.
While transgender people make up a tiny portion of the United States’ homeless population, an uncommonly large portion of transgender people experience homelessness, even compared to other at-risk groups such as veterans.
According to the 2015 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 30 percent of the survey’s 28,000 transgender respondents say they’ve experienced homelessness and 12 percent say they were homeless in the past year. Of those homeless transgender adults, 26 percent said they avoided staying in homeless shelters; 6 percent were denied access to a shelter; and 70 percent of those who stayed in a shelter reported some form of mistreatment because of their gender identity.
Here in St. Louis, statistics aren’t readily available to quantify the extent of the issue. The closest measure is a survey conducted by Promoting Equality for All Missourians (PROMO), in which 12 percent of LGBT people indicated that they had experienced housing discrimination, and 1 percent said they were currently experiencing it. PROMO spokesperson Katie Stuckenschneider says the study likely doesn’t capture the whole scope of the issue. While the survey is the largest of its kind in the state, with a sample size of 3,375, she says many Missourians, especially those from rural areas, did not participate in the survey.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Development, discriminatory actions against transgender tenants are technically only illegal under the Fair Housing Act if based on “non-conformity with gender stereotypes,” because the FHA does not protect individuals from sexual orientation– or gender identity–based discrimination. That said, courts have interpreted the law to protect transgender people.
As for homeless shelters, HUD passed new regulations last September “to ensure equal access to housing and services regardless of gender identity” at all federally funded shelters. The new rules, which include requiring affiliate shelters to house homeless transgender people by their lived gender rather than their legal gender, were developed to combat “unlawful discrimination.” The individual must also suit a program’s other admittance criteria, which can be based on gender, family status, marital status, age, and more.
SLM contacted a dozen local homeless support organizations (some of which operate multiple shelters) about their policies regarding trans people. None said they were opposed to accepting transgender people into their facilities. However, two shelters with trans-friendly policies responded that they had never accommodated a transgender person. Four other shelters responded that they didn’t think the policies were relevant to their clientele.
One shelter said they “have to” accept transgender people and house them according to gender identification. Another said that it had never had a transgender client and has no policy against housing trans people, but added, “We don’t want it in the article that our facility would serve transgender clients.” Several had gender-specific criteria, such as pregnancy, but were unaware of the possibility of or policies on serving transgender people who fit those criteria. (One organization, for example, responded, “This is just a home for men,” but didn’t know if it could accommodate transgender men.) Several were also unaware of or did not offer staff any diversity training related to serving transgender people.
Four organizations responded that they had trans-friendly policies and have housed transgender people; all of those shelters had a total of fewer than 15 beds for each age group, children and adults. (Johnson knows of only two beds in homeless shelters that are specifically reserved for transgender people.)
Tom Burnham ran a shelter for 25 years before becoming community relations officer for St. Louis’ Peter and Paul Community Services (PPCS). In several decades, he knows of three transgender people, all women, who used his organization’s facility. (PPCS is a men’s facility, and all three used it before laws were passed that would have legally granted them access to women’s facilities.) Since HUD’s recent protections were passed, he says he hasn’t heard a St. Louis shelter say, “We will not abide by this.”
But that doesn’t mean that the shelters necessarily house trans people according to HUD guidelines. And if they’re not federally funded, they don’t have to. Greg Fister works with Karen House, a local Catholic worker house that welcomes transgender people. He says, “I’ve heard from guests who stayed here that [at some other shelters] trans women are being discriminated against or facing harassment or violence” because they were housed as the wrong gender.
Travis Frost knows the hazards of homelessness. Before he moved to St. Louis, he lived in Columbia, Missouri. During a long winter, he would often turn his car on, wait until it got as hot as it could, and then turn it off to save gas. He would fall asleep, waking up when the chill started biting the air again.
During the day, he would wander around big-box stores to stay warm. “I was exhausted,” he says. “A lot of people might think you’re on something, but you can appear to be on drugs or drinking when really you’re just so tired from fighting every day.”
Frost eventually moved to St. Louis after taking a glassblowing class at Third Degree Glass Factory. “I had been working in a factory for about five years, and I figured there’s gotta be more to life than this,” he says. In October 2015, he settled in the city, where he could make paperweights and practice his beadwork.
He had a series of Craigslist roommate nightmares—like the guy who decided to renovate the shared bathroom, leaving no wall between Frost’s bedroom and the toilet. At the same time, Frost began to realize that he was transgender but didn’t know how to talk to roommates about his identity. When an aggressive roommate scared him out of the apartment, Frost asked MTUG about a temporary space in the flat. When he returned home, he found his belongings had been thrown onto the street. And so, he returned to the Trans Flat.
Without the flat, says Frost, “I’d probably be living in my car.”
At the time, Frost had just started transitioning. He didn’t feel safe living with the men at a homeless shelter, but he also didn’t want to misgender himself or upset anyone by living with the women. In the Trans Flat, he’s had the space to live his life and explore his identity. “Since moving here, I’ve been able to grow as a person,” he says. “I just came up for this passion of mine [glassblowing], and then I found so much more about myself just from the community.”
He says he’d like to help the community, somehow, but he doesn’t expect to ever have enough money to open his own shelter. “We know that there’s a problem,” he says, “but we don’t know how to fix it.”
One dilemma for homeless transgender people—as with the homeless population in St. Louis at large—is the general paucity of homeless services.
“The city shelters are very sparse,” says Fister. “They’re swamped.”
Finding a bed at a shelter is one thing; finding housing where transgender people feel safe is another. “There’s a difference between finding space and finding affirming space,” says Michelle Gorman, who organizes the youth programs at one of the St. Louis shelters, Youth in Need, which often accommodates transgender homeless children. “Finding a space where there’s a comfortable or safe place to sleep is not that difficult.” But it’s harder to find a place where “they’re not being asked to be somebody they’re not or hide.”
Gorman says that while many shelters may have trans-friendly policies, they may not have the knowledge or resources to act on them effectively. “There’s always that ‘this is what we’re going to do,’ and then the first youth who’s transgender comes and it’s like, ‘Oh, what do we do?’”
Transgender people sometimes need accommodations that aren’t easily available in local shelters. At Youth In Need, for example, homeless trans youth are sheltered based on their own identifications and comfort levels. If they’re uncomfortable living in group housing with either gender, they have a single room for one person. If that room is not available, a roommate situation—with both roommates mutually agreeing—could be worked out.
Policies at shelters have slowly been changing over the past decade, requiring more acceptance and better treatment, though that doesn’t mean every shelter has followed suit. (Nationally, religious shelters have resisted HUD’s regulations regarding transgender people.) While a shelter might commit to respecting transgender people’s gender identities, staff members (and other shelter members) might not share those convictions. Or shelters might not house trans people according to HUD guidelines.
Language is constantly changing, as are accommodations. While local shelters receive some diversity training, offered through St. Louis’ Continuum of Care plan or other organizations (such as Youth in Need), staff members might not have additional knowledge about transgender people.
“We can’t just assume, ‘I’ve got a handle on this—let’s move on,’” says Burnham. The work continues.
While Calloway and Frost have both spent several months at the flat, people come and go. When a space opens up, a flurry of community support gathers on social media.
“We have a new temporary human,” reads one Facebook post. A trans woman of color needs clothing, a suitcase, bus passes, and food. The flat won’t have a space for her for two weeks, so Johnson’s trying to find short-term housing. “If you can help, message us,” the post says. Three days later, the community has rallied: Bus passes, suitcases, clothing, and a bed are mostly secured. “Thank you. Thank you,” says the Facebook post, with a cheery trail of heart emojis, the same purple shade of one stripe in the transgender pride flag.
Yet few local resources are devoted to helping transgender people get back on their feet. “There’s no real solid, structural support for homeless transgender adults in the metro area,” says Johnson. “When people come to the house, then what?” There’s no caseworker. LGBT organizations provide social and emotional support, legislative work, and community. “Then there’s everything else people need that’s not being met by any entity. It’s piecemeal—it’s not systematic.”
So Johnson’s working with others to create those systems. “As queer folks, we just gotta take care of our own,” he says, “’cause no one’s going to take care of us.”
It’s a sentiment that hits home for Calloway, who’s looking for a stable job but hopes to one day open a similar flat to help other transgender women. “I’d like to get my own flat, with at least eight girls, all races,” she says, “and when something goes down, they’re not afraid of anything. Period.”
An abridged version of this story appears in St. Louis Magazine’s June 2017 issue.