Atlanta effort provides ‘safety net’ for trans people

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In 2014, a group of transgender activists held a series of town hall meetings at the Philip Rush Center to determine how the community should respond to the housing needs of trans and gender nonconforming individuals.

The result of those meetings is the nonprofit Trans Housing Atlanta Program, a volunteer-led organization that has helped about 50 individuals with direct housing, utility payments or transportation assistance. Its next meeting, open to the public, is Tuesday.

“Atlanta has one of the highest concentrations of LGBT people in the nation with people coming here from Ohio, Oklahoma, Leavenworth — and they are looking for a place to live that is affordable,” said Jamie Roberts, a co-founder of THAP along with trans activists Tracee McDaniel and the late Cheryl Courtney-Evans.

Many of the LGBT people moving to Atlanta are escaping volatile situations at home and are seeking a safe space to be who they are, Roberts said. THAP was set up to specifically help transgender and gender nonconforming people who often face even more discrimination from society when they come out as their true selves.

“Being trans is hard,” Roberts said. “People are discriminated against in housing, employment … and sometimes they need a hand up. We want to be a safety net. We want to help keep them afloat.”

Georgia has the fourth-largest percentage of transgender residents, according to a study released earlier this year from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. And trans people face an increasingly hostile political climate in the state.

One in five transgender people in the U.S. has been discriminated when seeking a home, and more than one in 10 have been evicted from their homes because of their gender identity, according to a study by the National Center for Transgender Equality. In Atlanta, more than 2 percent of all trans or gender nonconforming individuals are homeless, according to THAP.

THAP currently spends about $1,000 a month assisting those in need and is also in the midst of a $50,000 capital campaign to either purchase or rent its own brick-and-mortar home to be run by residents in a housing cooperative model, Roberts said. An active Facebook group also regularly helps people find couches and rooms to rent.

Tavianna Rouse, the Trans Outreach Specialist with Someone Cares, one of the largest transgender service organization in the Southeast and based in Marietta, said THAP became a true safety net last year when she was forced to find a new place to live.

“I was looking for somewhere to go and they got me a hotel room for a week,” she said. “This organization is really needed because a lot of LGBT people don’t know where to turn and they need to know where help is available. [THAP] is the help this population needs. They are helping a person through the hardest times.”

Roberts said THAP regularly assists individuals with utility payments, for example, to ensure people are able to stay in their homes and not become homeless in the first place. When necessary, THAP will cover hotel costs for emergency shelter.

THAP can also cover costs for people staying in a homeless shelter for up to 30 days and also pay for a hotel stay for people in shelter seeking to get into different programs — for substance abuse or mental health services — to provide a “bridge” between the programs, said Roberts (photo center, along with THAP members Katrice Baker and Mona Whitley).

Currently, the Salvation Army is the only shelter in Atlanta that has specifically set aside space — four beds — for transgender and gender nonconforming individuals, Roberts said.

“Of all the shelters in Atlanta, the Salvation Army is the only one that has shown interest in providing trans-friendly beds. It’s not perfect. Ideally trans woman should housed with women, and trans men with men, but it helps,” she said.

Federal guidelines prohibit shelters that receive federal funds to discriminate against transgender people, but in practice shelters are able to find loopholes to not accept trans people, Roberts said.

“The shelters are not supposed to inquire about genital status, but they still do and say they have the leeway to do so because they say it is an issue of safety,” she said. “Too much discretion is still given to the individual shelters.”

Roberts acknowledged President-elect Donald Trump’s pick of former surgeon Ben Carson to head the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development is concerning, but said she believes housing policies won’t be able to be changed quickly. THAP’s mission, besides finding safe housing for people, includes educating people on their rights under state and federal law and, when necessary, advocating for policies.

“Of course we’re concerned about the new administration’s choice of leadership for HUD,” she said. “I believe that the current guidance on trans folk’s access to shelters will remain the official policy for some time because the process for changing policies for executive branch agencies is intensive and time-consuming.”

“We look forward to monitoring the effects of the current policy on folks’ access to shelters, advocating for changes to the policy where needed, and exploring opportunities to expand our capacity under the current system,” Roberts said.

The Trans Housing Atlanta Program hosts its monthly meeting on Nov. 29 at 6:30 p.m. at the Philip Rush Center. Learn more about the organization on its website or Facebook page.

[photo courtesy Jamie Roberts]


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