Rev. Stan Slone, CEO of Chicago House, sits in the living room of the TransLife… (Brittany Sowacke/RedEye )
Keisha Allen knows that the challenges of being a homeless transgender woman in Chicago are steep. On top of navigating a burdened homeless-services system to find food and shelter each day, she and many women have also faced prejudice, ignorance and harassment from the people who run the agencies and shelters as well as those who inhabit them.
"My experience at the shelters here in Chicago is almost, I want to use the word dangerous, for a trans woman of color," Allen said.
Earlier this year, Allen was placed in the men's section of one West Side housing facility, in a room with eight men who would "gawk and make disrespectful comments directed at my sexuality," she said. They even stole her shoes. To make matters worse, she said, shelter directors were unsympathetic.
"The staff at this particular shelter, they almost condoned the behavior; they did nothing to prevent it," she said. "It was a nightmare."
Now Allen, who became homeless at 16, hopes a new housing center will help make at least one transition easier for some of Chicago's transgender homeless.
Chicago House, a local social services and housing agency, is set to open the TransLife Center, the Midwest's first full-service housing center for homeless transgender people, later this summer. The center, carved out of a three-story house in Edgewater that once served as a hospice for people with HIV/AIDS, is slated to open with nine bedrooms and a set of offices, classrooms and a medical office, where people living in and out of the center can go for legal counseling, health services, and help finding employment. The center also oversees 30 other housing units around the city.
Stan Sloan, the executive director of Chicago House, said Allen's experience is all too common. Sloan's organization just wrapped up a yearlong study on the area's low-income, transgender community. Because many transgender people's gender identities don't match their government identifications or birth certificates, he said, many must contend with a social services system that doesn't recognize them, and risk assault or harassment from the people around them.
"They told us that basically, because our IDs still show us as male, even though we are female, they move us to the men's side of the shelter, where we could get raped, and it's very dangerous," Sloan said.
The homelessness rate among LGBT-identified people is disproportionately high, according to research from the National Center for Transgender Equality. The advocacy group found that nearly one-fifth of transgender people they surveyed had experienced homelessness because of their gender expression, and 2 percent were homeless when they were surveyed—a rate twice as high as the general population. Many reported being kicked out of their homes over their sexuality or gender identity as teenagers.
Trisha Lee Holloway, a transwoman who was once homeless, had trouble finding a job until she entered Chicago House's internship program at a bakery it runs. Now Holloway, a medical case manager who sits on the TransLife Center's board, said a housing center dedicated to serving gender-variant people specifically could help other transgender people bypass some of the hurdles she faced.
"A lot of transwomen, when going through employment or going through anything, they give up because no one is respecting them, no one is making them feel comfortable," she said. "A lot of times, they may step into other housing programs, and may not succeed or excel because they say, 'I don't relate to what's going on here. These systems have been designed not for me.' "
In contrast, the TransLife Center is fully staffed by people who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming, and all are versed in a social-services model that emphasizes helping patients overcome trauma and make life choices.
The center's director hopes the house on North Kenmore, with its newly furnished sun-filled rooms and backyard garden, will be a healing space.
"People who have experienced tons and tons of pain have had control taken away in their lives," Bonn Wade said. "We know that what we need to do is create a space where people can come and heal, to create an opportunity where they can choose and regain control of their lives."
In addition to offering housing, the center will serve as home base for a spectrum of services for residents and non-residents alike, from counseling to legal advice from Owen Daniel-McCarter, an attorney and co-founder of the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois.
Lex Lawson, the center's housing manager, said the staff would create an environment that honors the residents' gender identities, but also recognize that "being a trans person is not the only part of their identity. There are multiple identities and experiences that people have that can be either strengths or barriers, and affect their ability to access services."