Angelica Butler was tired of having to out herself as a transgender woman every time she applied for a job or tried to rent an apartment. Prospective landlords and employers rejected applications when her identity documents didn't match her gender, ultimately throwing her in-and-out of homelessness for seven years.
"I was at a place in my life where for me to have a home of my own is a big deal because I didn't want to be out on the streets," Butler said.
Now, Butler, 35, hopes to become the owner of a 400-square-feet tiny home with its own bedroom and kitchen in Memphis, Tennessee, as part of a landmark project started by grassroots organization My Sistah's House to help solve transgender homelessness. The effort broke ground in January and hopes to build 20 tiny homes in total, five of which will be completed this year.
Across the nation, homeownership rates are dismal among transgender Americans— and even worse for Black transgender Americans. To overcome centuries of discriminatory housing policies, including denying gender diverse people access to government-funded shelters, grassroots activists in the South, home to one in three LGBTQ people, are working to build housing for their community.
In New Orleans, a group of transgender activists are working to open a shelter for homeless transgender and gender nonbinary people known as House of Tulip. A similar project took root in Charlotte, North Carolina. A Dallas couple moved to Arkansas to build 32 tiny houses for LGBT people.
For the transgender community, especially those of color, preexisting barriers and ongoing discrimination have compounded challenges in the middle of a raging pandemic and economic crisis. Approximately 19% of transgender people and 26% of transgender people of color became unemployed because of COVID-19, compared to 12% of the general U.S. population.
Transgender Americans are twice as likely to live in poverty compared to the overall national poverty rate of 14%. This rate is significantly higher for Black transgender Americans, 38% of whom reported living in poverty.
The tiny homes project is the brainchild of Memphis native, Kayla Gore, 35, co-founder of My Sistah's House, who said her mission is to solve housing insecurity for people who are at the intersection of two historically marginalized communities shut out from homeownership.
Memphis sits on the Mississippi River and is known both for its influential blues music and the sorrowful place where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. In spite of this complicated legacy, transgender women have come from Arkansas, Mississippi, Florida and Texas to seek refuge at My Sistah's House.
"Transitional housing is a bandaid, emergency housing is a bandaid, but homeownership is a permanent solution," said Gore, who turned her own home into a shelter that has housed over 60 transgender women in the last three years.
Over 40% of Black transgender women reported having experienced homelessness in their lifetimes, compared to one-third of the overall transgender population in the U.S., according to a 2017 report by the National Center for Trans Equality.
Less than 25% of transgender people reported owning their own homes—and rates could even be lower. Experts said information is limited because of a scarcity of population-based data that assesses both homeownership, sexual orientation and gender identity.
When it comes to Black homeownership, the rate has not changed since 1968 when the Fair Housing Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. While the National Association of Realtors found homeownership continued to climb for white Americans to 71%, homeownership has not risen above 41% for Black Americans. This report did not take gender identity into account.
Gore, who is a trained public health counselor and was homeless in her 20s during a seven-month stint in Phoenix where she slept inside a park bathroom, said owning a home is personal for her. It's something everyone should have.
Alexis Jackson, a 33-year-old cosmetologist who is also the associate director of programs at My Sistah's House, said living in the Bible Belt can be twice as difficult for transgender women of color.
"I deal with all the battles," said Jackson, who waited to come out as a transgender woman until she was 25 because of the anti-transgender culture in her hometown of Memphis. "We are not looked at as human here."
Economic crisis comes as Trump administration cracked down on transgender rights
The COVID-10 pandemic and increased financial vulnerabilities from transgender people comes after the Trump administration introduced over 65 changes to limit transgender protections. The measures included scrubbing all mentions of LGBTQ people on government websites, a ban on serving in the military and rolling back health care protections in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But advocates said one of the biggest assaults was a move announced by former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson repealing trans-inclusive guidelines that barred shelters from denying beds based on gender identity. In a document the agency submitted to Congress, the rule eliminated self-identification from its definition of gender identity, limiting the definition to “actual or perceived gender-related characteristics.”
Carson said at the time that the measure sought to empower local officials who wanted to protect survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking. LGBTQ advocates denounced the measure, saying it would endanger an already vulnerable population.
Of the estimated 1.6 million homeless American youth, between 20 and 40% are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. One in two transgender individuals are sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lives, according to the Department of Justice's Office for Victims of Crime.
"There is this focus on eroding the rights of trans and gender non-conforming people," said Dylan Waguespack, public policy director for True Colors United, an organization focused on ending youth homelessness particularly among LGBT youth based in Washington D.C. He said such practices drive transgender people to live on the street.
Survey data from the Center for American Progress found 83% of respondents who are people of color and identify as transgender, nonbinary, agender, genderqueer, or gender non-confirming said it would be difficult to find a place to sleep if they were turned away at a shelter because of gender discrimination.
Gore said she was often the middle person between transgender women experiencing homelessness and shelters that turned down clients.
"They would ask really invasive questions about genitalia, about where this person was going to sleep," Gore said.
This was the case for Butler, who is originally from Chicago and has been living in a room at My Sistah's House with Gore for over six months. She said the process of asking for help can often be a more traumatic experience than the help she would have received.
"It was better to be on the street," Butler said.
As part of his first order of business at the White House, President Joe Biden signed an executive order directing all federal agencies to implement the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Bostock v. Clayton County Georgia. The 2020 ruling affirmed that discrimination in employment based on gender and sexual orientation is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Biden’s executive order directs federal agencies to apply the ruling more broadly to include protections in housing, public accommodations and sports.
A legacy of anti-Black and anti-transgender policies
Christopher Carpenter, an economics professor and director of Vanderbilt University's LGBT Policy Lab in Nashville, said Tennessee is often the testing ground for receding protections established at the federal level.
"We have a state government that is widely seen as the innovator, when people want to pass anti-queer stuff, they look to Tennessee," Carpenter said.
He added: "We are doing the best at it and that is not a marker that we should be particularly proud of."
"Every time there is some progress on the federal level, that's the question on the ground from lawmakers is how can we undo this? How can we make this less effective?" said Waguespack, of True Colors United.
Tennessee is the only state in the country that specifically prohibits amending sex on a birth certificate. In 2019, Gore, along with three other transgender women, presented a lawsuit challenging the Tennessee statute.
"This affects everything, people's ability to get a job, to get housing, to apply for any publicly-funded programs," said Gore about the ongoing case in Tennessee.
The Tennessee Human Rights Commission, the independent state agency responsible for enforcing fair housing practices, did not return USA TODAY's multiple requests for comment.
USA TODAY requested the total number of housing discrimination complaints the office had received by non-binary people in Memphis. The agency's latest 2020 report makes no mention of LGBT residents in Tennessee whatsoever.
Homeownership seen as solution to growing crisis
Being a transgender person of color has become increasingly fatal amid record levels of transphobic violence, police brutality and trans homelessness in the pandemic era.
At least 44 transgender people were killed in 2020 — the highest number to date—according to a report by Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group based in Washington D.C.
More than 75% of the victims were trans women of color. One of the latest killings of a 25-year-old Black transgender woman took place in Memphis.
"It's well known within the transgender community that if you get beyond 35 or 40 years old, you've beat these statistics," said Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign.
He said housing insecurity plays an outsized role in making transgender people a target of violence.
For Roshun Austin, executive director at The Works, a nonprofit community development corporation that worked with Gore to secure her first home loan and has supported My Sistah's House, the mission is about stabilizing communities that have been historically unable to access credit.
"Transgender people of color feel some things and experience trauma that I will never experience," said Austin, who has been working to counsel My Sistah's House about building a community land trust that would allow the organization to retain ownership of the land.
"They are more vulnerable than me as a Black woman in the South," said Austin.
Meanwhile, Butler eagerly awaits construction to be complete.
A tiny home is a big dream.
"I'm going to paint it pink on the outside and gray on the inside or maybe gray on the outside and pink on the inside," Butler said.
"The first thing I'm going to do is get curtains, one of those comforter sets and make spaghetti and fried chicken."
Follow Romina Ruiz-Goiriena on Twitter: @RominaAdi
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Transgender activists in the South battle homelessness crisis