The program, located in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, is a first-of- its-kind trans shelter. (Michelle Wiley/KQED)
Among the dozens of Victorian homes in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district sits the only long-term transitional living program in the state specifically designed for transgender youth.
The program, which is run by Larkin Street Youth Services, opened quietly back in February.
"We did that fairly intentionally to slowly move the young people in," said program director Matthew Verscheure. "We're learning from them, because this hasn't been done anywhere else in the country that we're aware of. So we're learning with them as to what support in that community should look like."
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, one in five transgender individuals has experienced homelessness in their lifetime. It also found that "social services and homeless shelters that work with this population often fail to culturally and appropriately serve transgender homeless people," denying shelter based on gender identity, housing them in a gendered space they do not identify with or failing to address issues they're facing.
A recently proposed policy from the Department of Housing and Urban Development would allow federally funded shelters to more easily discriminate against transgender people.
Verscheure said the organization identified a need for the shelter after speaking with transgender youth about situations they face.
"For example, the restrooms may not be gender-neutral. So they're forced to choose. And oftentimes, if they're identifying as trans female, they may be forced to use the men's restroom," explained Verscheure. "So, in this environment, it creates a gender-neutral space with peers like themselves who are going through the same exploration that they are."
The shelter currently houses five transgender youth, ages 18-24, and officials are working on bringing in a sixth, which would put it at capacity. The program requires them to have 30 hours of productivity during the week.
"We don't want them languishing in their rooms. We want them doing work, school, maybe both. And if there are barriers to work or school, we want them to volunteer or participate in some form of productivity so they're out of the house," said Christopher Rodriguez, who's the director at the house.
If they do have income, the program reserves 30 percent of it — mirroring rental costs — and places it into a savings account.
"Our program is a two-year program," explained Rodriguez. "So hopefully, over two years, they save up enough money to get a [rental] deposit for their successful independent living."
'What If I'm Trans?'
Bobby, who's been living at the shelter since it opened, said she's pretty fearless, social and never had trouble fitting in.
"And then one day I remember thinking, 'What if I'm trans?' My chest felt so heavy."
Growing up in a family of 12, Bobby said her parents were mostly absent, and when they were around they were under the influence.
"There was so much shit going on in my household," said Bobby. "Who I was sleeping with was everyone's last concern."
Bobby was a troubled kid. She dropped out of high school, started selling drugs and eventually ended up in jail. That's where she came out publicly for the first time.
"I remember getting beaten up for it. And then, after that, it was like, 'Well... I just dealt with this in jail. Who cares now?' " said Bobby. "I feel like there's no harsher experience for coming out."
After getting out, Bobby eventually moved to San Francisco. And then, after a night out with friends, Bobby got into a fight and ended up back in jail.
During intake, she told the guards she was trans. But this time something different happened. She was put into a pod with other trans women.
"I was thinking, 'I'm here. I'm with them, and this is my family.'"
From NZ to CA
For Jesse, her issues with housing began in part after getting evicted while attending college in New Zealand. She was about to graduate, meaning her student loan funding was about to end, so she bought a plane ticket to Los Angeles.
"It was really lonely and really expensive and I really didn't like it," said Jesse, so she caught a bus to San Francisco. "I was sleeping on the streets for a while, sleeping in hostels, staying at a couple of shelters."
She got into organizing and started trying to find a more permanent living situation in the Bay Area
"I was experiencing a lot of transphobia and anti-Semitism," said Jesse. "So I was like, 'This fucking sucks. I don't know what to do.' Then I heard about a trans housing opportunity that was opening."
While Jesse is critical of some of the organizational and structural operations of the Larkin Street shelter — including the relatively low pay for caseworkers — she said she's happy to be there.
"It's nice being surrounded by other queer people that aren't involved in taking advantage of your identity," explained Jesse. "And it's nice to be hanging out with people that are similar in some way. I think it's a good experience, and I think it's really heartwarming."
That's the idea of the shelter. To give transgender youth a place where they can relax, create community and start building a new life for themselves.