“The reality is, a lot of transgender people don’t have a lot of places in the world to feel safe,” says Shane Zaldivar, a member of the city’s Transgender Advisory Committee. “We look at San Francisco as a sanctuary. If I was transgender living somewhere else, I would think this is a safe place to be. And if they can find a way to be here, they should be able to survive here.”
San Francisco has long been a refuge for queers; its liberal politics, history of community organizing, free healthcare, and sanctuary city status are held in sharp contrast to conservative strongholds in the rest of the country. Our Pride parade draws tens of thousands of participants and spectators, we have an openly gay state senator, and in 2017, the city became the first in the nation to staff a local government office specifically to address trans issues.
Queer and transgender people migrate to the city from across the country and the world, seeking safety from physical violence and a community. But what they also discover when they get here is a city ravaged by a serious housing crisis. For many people, the money needed to put a deposit down on even a cheap studio is far out of reach. As a result, transgender people are 18 times more likely to experience homelessness than the general public is.
Finding housing solutions for such a vulnerable population isn’t easy, but the staff at the city’s new Office of Transgender Initiatives has rolled up their sleeves and dived in. Clair Farley was hired as the mayor’s senior adviser on transgender initatives, and this spring, she’s bringing forward an ambitious plan and budget ask to better support trans people facing homelessness.
“One of the first things I did upon being hired was look to appoint a Transgender Advisory Committee,” Farley explains. “With that group, we did a series of listening sessions with other community organizations to identify what the top concerns were for the trans community. What came out of that was housing instability, mental health access, and difficulty navigating services — with housing being the most unmet need.”
In response, Farley’s staff and the advisory committee have developed a bold action plan to shift services in a trans-friendly direction. With the city’s latest budget looming on the horizon, they have requested nearly $1 million for Our Trans Home S.F. If the plan is approved, they would win special rental subsidies for queer and trans folk, train shelter staff and organizations to be more trans-aware and inclusive, and begin the process of establishing transgender housing programs, starting with a trans-specific wing in a shelter.
“Transgender community members are facing such astronomical rates of discrimination and poverty, and that’s really affecting peoples’ housing stability,” Maceo Persson, the Office of Transgender Initiative’s civic engagement and operations manager, tells SF Weekly. “San Francisco’s community can be a leader, and it has been a leader in so many ways. If anyone can fix this, it’s us.”
Our Trans Home S.F. starts with the most vulnerable populations: those at risk of losing their housing, and those already on the streets. The easiest method in assisting people facing housing insecurity is simply to help keep them housed, which can be through helping them catch up on overdue rent, or providing them the funds they need to put a deposit on an apartment. San Francisco already spends tens of millions of dollars on eviction-prevention and rental subsidies each year, but none of that is earmarked specifically for trans and gender-nonconforming people, and culturally competent outreach is not done to educate that population about those options.
For those who become homeless, navigating the shelters can be a stressful, triggering affair. IDs may have birth names and gender identities that don’t match with people’s presentations, creating difficulty in accessing services. Untrained staff can easily misgender someone, and even those who are gendered correctly and placed in the ward they most closely identify with aren’t protected from the stigma and rejection of other shelter residents. More training is needed for staff across every level of care — from billing to front-desk workers — and gender-neutral or transgender-specific shelter spaces are urgently needed.
Last week, more than a dozen organizers spent more than eight hours meeting with supervisors at City Hall to lobby for the budget to do this work. And that alone is not an easy task.
“There has to be a certain level of stability to be an advocate,” Farley explains, adding that if getting money “requires the most voice, or the most response, to receive funding, then how do we make sure our community’s at the table, when so many of us are struggling?”
Nevertheless, a large group of people managed to show up. While some from organizations like Lyon-Martin Health Services or TAJA’s Coalition advocated for their clients, others told personal stories about their struggles to make ends meet in San Francisco.
“I was living in Florida, New York, Los Angeles, now here,” a woman from Colombia, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “I chose San Francisco to live because I feel better here. The people are more kind with us. San Francisco is my city, is my home — all of San Francisco, literally. My living room is El/La, my closet is my car, my yard is Golden Gate Park, my bathroom is the beach. I have to move through all the city all the time, because I do not only have one roof over my head.”
Zaldibar also experienced homelessness when they first arrived.
“For me, during my homeless episode, it was trying to decide whether I would go back to Florida where I don’t have a community or access to living an authentic life, or deciding to make it work here, which meant picking bread off of trash cans and doing different types of hustles to survive,” Zaldivar tells SF Weekly. “I’m glad I did, because I’m lucky enough now to have a place.”
The supervisors, everyone said, appear to have been receptive. In a city with an $11 billion budget, a $1 million request to begin work that could improve the health and lives of thousands of people should be a no-brainer. But there’s still a lot of education that has to happen to get Our Trans Home S.F. across the finish line.
“We had one person ask us why,” says JM Jaffe of Lyon-Martin Health Services. “There’s a housing crisis in San Francisco, there’s 14,000 homeless here, why do trans people need it more? Why should we single out your community specifically? I think that the disproportionate experience is what matters. In San Francisco we experience homelessness 18 times more than the normal population, and more than half of our trans San Francisco residents have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. Even though we’re a small community, the ratio is uneven. So even just a small amount of money will go a long way to actually make a difference.”