When La’Myah Mason was trying to get out of a years-long abusive relationship in early 2020, she had no idea how she would find another place to live, much less shelter and a way to pay her bills. But someone who was practically a stranger at the time was there for her. Kayla Gore, the Executive Director of My Sistah’s House (MSH) in Memphis, Tennessee, offered Mason housing and employment to help her get off her feet. She also guided Mason, a Black trans woman, through the process of getting trans-affirming health care, doctor’s appointments, and hormones.
"I was getting black market hormones off the street just to survive and Kayla is the one who helped me," Mason told Refinery29. "When I met her, she started out with basically giving me the proper direction to find the right doctor for me and get me hormones. And she also assisted me with my gender marker change."
In 2017, Gore, a trans woman herself, started My Sistah’s House to address the crisis of trans people experiencing homelessness in the community. At the time, Gore says that Memphis had only 71 emergency shelter beds, none of which were designated for LGBTQ+ people. MSH sought to change that by creating an organization that would provide direct services to transgender people who needed anything from name changes to housing.
"Initially, we didn't have a concrete plan. We would just allow people to live in own private homes, linking them to resources to help elevate their current circumstances. My Sistah’s House has evolved into a resource center for Trans and gender non-conforming folks," Gore told Refinery29. "Toward the end of 2019, we started getting grant funding to implement our programming, and finally in 2020, we were able to hire our first contracted employee due to a sudden increase in funding."
The lack of safe housing and shelters that accept trans people in America is a steadily rising epidemic, especially for Black trans people. In 2018, the Human Rights Campaign reported that 41 percent of Black transgender people who responded to a survey had experienced homelessness at some point in their lives — a rate five time higher than the general U.S. population.
While MSH focuses on providing other resources for trans people, the organization’s most recent project has helped to raise over $280,000 to buy a plot of land and build 20 tiny homes for Black trans women and non-binary people. This is significant, considering that in America, one in five transgender people have faced discrimination when trying to find housing, and 11% have been evicted from their homes because they’re transgender, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.
“In the south, Black TGNC folks experience discrimination on a larger level, especially with recent protections for TGNC folks accessing shelters. The majority of shelters in Memphis are faith-based or provided by religious groups,” explains Gore.
When coronavirus hit, the trans people she's been serving for years came up against even more housing issues. Many members of MSH who have never experienced homelessness were faced with job loss and difficulty accessing unemployment benefits. Prior to the Trump Administration’s discriminatory shelter executive order that targets trans women, even federal protections, a rule passed by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2019 allows federally funded shelters to deny transgender people entry on the basis of religious beliefs.
"Not only during a global pandemic are we not safer at home, but 365 days a year trans people can't be home or even in a safe space due to proposed amendments to the HUD guidelines around gender," says Gore.
By providing stable housing, Gore and her trans-led team, sought to help give back to the community by going to the root of many of the issues her community faces, including drug abuse and forced sex work to survive. But it made all the difference in Memphis. “Kayla has experienced the things that transgender people experience so she understands where it’s coming from and knows firsthand what resources need to be focused on, and she gives those things back to the community,” Mason said.
But MSH's services expand beyond just shelter: Their street team is rooted in the community, consistently providing navigation for people living with HIV/AIDS, referrals to Substance Misuse facilities and support through that process, and more. Gore's team offers a phone line for people who are incarcerated to connect with family and friends to coordinate defense and bail, financial assistance for people seeking to change their gender marker and name change legally, a clothes and food pantry, and survival kits for sex workers.
Now, as MSH works to build a small neighborhood of 20 tiny homes that are all mortgage-free, even more trans people will be able to find stability by 2021 when the project is set to be finished. They're currently in the process of buying land and hiring contractors to build the houses, so that the community can come to life by early next year. Beyond that, Gore plans to eventually turn the area into a totally self-reliant, trans-led retreat space complete with a farmer’s market and job opportunities.
According to Gore, "as of now we are putting the retreat space on hold due to not being able to build on the original parcel of land. But living in the South for many trans people means not having access to economic justice. So having a trans-led retreat space will give us an opportunity to train and support our community during these times and beyond."
After the land acquisition stage, Gore and her team will begin working with architects to make the dream a reality. Gore is especially excited about the project because she wants to ensure safety and security for her community, given the high rates of murder that Black trans people experience, where violence towards trans people has become worse during the pandemic, she said.
"Homeownership in the Black and brown trans community isn't a reality and it's the same for anyone experiencing homelessness. This project will also provide financial literacy classes, home maintenance classes, and social support services — and its success will show that we should trust Black trans leaders, and housing access is a right that should be afforded to all. "