Homelessness, unemployment remain issues for transgender Philadelphians

‘Being unstable in housing makes a lot of things unsustainable,’ one community member said. ‘Like just remaining employable, not knowing where your next meals are coming from, not even knowing if you’re going to have clean clothes for the next day’

By: - November 21, 2021 6:30 am

By Michele Zipkin

PHILADELPHIA — Both homelessness and unemployment were cited as two persistent problems for many Philadelphia trans people, according to panelists at a Nov. 10 forum called Supporting Trans Community.

In the lead-up to Transgender Awareness Week, which ran from Nov. 13-19, Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs, Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services (DBHIDS) and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) collaboratively produced the virtual event.

Celena Morrison, executive director of the Office of LGBT Affairs, moderated the panel of transgender community members including actress and model Mercedes DeMarko; Joniece Greer, community engagement specialist at Mazzoni Center who has been working with the local transgender community for over four years; Tyra Johnson, a Community Advisory Board member at Penn Medicine; Darius McLean, former LGBTQ healthcare worker and current director of William Way’s Arcila-Adams Trans Resource Center; and Tazmere Stephens, a recent graduate of Morris Home in Philly, the country’s only recovery program for transgender and nonbinary people experiencing addiction.

César Mantilla, who works for DBHIDS, emceed the event and PHRC Executive Director Chad Lassiter spoke briefly at its conclusion.

When Morrison asked the panelists what they believe to be the biggest issues facing Philly transgender communities, the group cited homelessness and unemployment as major issues.

Stephens told his fellow panelists that he experienced homelessness for years before he availed himself of the services at Morris Home in Philadelphia.

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“Being unstable in housing makes a lot of things unsustainable,” Stephens said at the event. “Like just remaining employable, not knowing where your next meals are coming from, not even knowing if you’re going to have clean clothes for the next day to be able to get to work in.”

The Philadelphia Gay News reported in 2019 that one out of five transgender Americans experiences housing discrimination and homelessness, and gender identity has been the root cause of evictions for at least one in 10 trans people, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

When it comes to renting an apartment, “there’s always some excuse once people see you’re trans,” Johnson said. “We all need housing, we all need jobs. We’ve been fighting this for a long time.”

Employment discrimination also continues to be another major issue for transgender Philadelphians, the panelists said.

“You can be qualified for a lot of [jobs], but once people see that you’re trans there’s a doubt,” Johnson said at the event.

Beyond setting aside bias when hiring transgender individuals, Greer said that employers need to work on being competent and compassionate toward transgender people when they enter jobs.

“I’ve had experiences where I’ve been in the workforce, and once they did find out about me being trans it didn’t make me feel welcome, it actually made me feel like a freak,” she told the panel. “It plays a big mental part when we do have to go through that.”

Transphobia in healthcare settings still persists for many transgender folks, which makes them reluctant to seek out medical care, some of the panelists said.

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“Usually when you go into hospitals and they find out if you’re trans, you will get nurses who take your vitals and then ask you [if you had] the surgery yet,” Greer said. “And I’m just like, ‘you don’t need to know that.’”

Based on his prior experience working in healthcare, McLean said, “the biggest teaching thing that I would tell the doctors and the frontline staff is, don’t use our patients as your learning experience.”

Stephens spoke briefly about his experience at Morris Home and said that the staff helped him through recovery and through his transition process. “It was a sense of relief, but I also felt a sense of family there too.”

While he largely had a good experience at Morris Home, he noted that most of the staff there are white.

“We need people who are the same color as us, [that can] understand what we’re going through,” Stephens told the group. “I don’t want to talk to [a therapist] I feel like doesn’t have the same views as I do or has been through the same life experiences that I have. How can you try to help me when you have no clue about what it is that I’ve been through?”

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Change needs to come in transgender advocacy settings as well, the panelists said. McLean discussed the need to educate people who support transgender communities and those in the systems and institutions that often exclude them, as well as the need for reproductive education for transgender folks and decriminalizing sex work. Above all else, McLean prioritizes advocacy for Black people and Black transgender people.

“Sometimes they can clock us [and] sometimes they can’t, but the one thing that they are going to know when I walk out the door is — I can’t escape being a Black man and I don’t want to,” he said at the event.

Transgender community members can also benefit from more robust educational programs that center on life skills, the panelists said. Many transgender people need resources that teach them how to live and thrive on their own, including job readiness skills. These skills prove especially vital for people who are released from prison, Johnson pointed out.

“A lot of people come out of jail and they don’t even know how to go about getting a proper ID, or how to go about finding a place to live,” she said at the event.

Finding trans-centric and trans-competent services, whether healthcare or economic support, proves challenging for many trans people. To find safe, useful resources panelists suggested relying on word of mouth, networking, seeking financial help from the Coalition for Black Trans Economic Liberation (CBTEL), utilizing the Office of LGBT Affairs COVID Resource Guide or Mazzoni Center’s Trans Resource Guide, connecting with Facebook groups for transgender people, and participating in community panels like Supporting Trans Community.

But many service organizations still need to up the ante when it comes to providing resources and programs that will help the transgender community in the long term.

“These programs that they have now, we need more than pizza and drinks,” Greer said. “We need something with some substance, and the community is not getting it.”

When asked what transgender resources they would like to see in a better world, DeMarko told the panel that she prioritizes home healthcare for elder transgender people.

“They’re lonely and they don’t have family, friends,” she said. “[We need] professionals that are trained, therapists that are all trained to deal with the community. Healthcare for the disabled senior trans [people], especially when you get to a certain age, you’re going to need that.”

As for how allies can better help transgender communities, “invest in mutual aid, go on those reparations sites and put [your donation] there,” McLean said. He referenced the Trans Resilience Fund that provided funding to nonprofit and grassroots organizations serving the transgender community.

“That was amazing because it gave us the opportunity to give people money unrestricted, and there needs to be more things like that.”

Michele Zipkin is a reporter for the Philadelphia Gay News, where this story first appeared.

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