When the Chicago House TransLife Center ( TLC ) opened in July 2013, it was so much more than a modest, multi-story home in the quiet North Side Chicago neighborhood of Edgewater. For the nine transgender and gender nonconforming individuals who lived there at any one time, it was a singular lifeline out of an endless cycle of societal and judicial abuse and homelessness.
It’s community of residents and staff served as a guidepost offering a new direction from a life of survival centered around getting through the next 24 hours under the omnipresent shadow of prison, violence and death to a once unimaginable future that would take work but was at least attainable rather than hidden behind the firmly locked door of public rejection.
In January 2016, the TransLife Center became the TransLife Care Program. It is now so much more than the nine-bedroom home—which has since been sold.
It is an exponentially growing network of services. TransHousing has 15 apartments across the city, from Rogers Park to Chicago’s South Shore, offering participants independent living.
TransWorks is a comprehensive employment program that includes workshops, career-coaching, mentorship and job development. On June 7, TransWorks was awarded a $100,000 grant by Impact 100 Chicago Women Empowering Change. The award was the successful conclusion of an extremely competitive process and, according to a Chicago House press release “will allow the program to expand to serve more trans individuals with high-quality employment services, as well as train more employers on inclusive workplace policies, procedures and everyday interactions.”
TransLegal offers pro bono help in everything from navigating through Cook County’s complex maze of bureaucracies when making a name and gender marker change ( through an invaluable partnership with the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois ) to misdemeanor defense and civil aid for those who experience discrimination.
TransHealth dissolves barriers to healthcare faced by the transgender and gender-nonconforming population with drop-in access to affirming medical providers and services. There is long-term care available that ranges from check-ups to HIV prevention and treatment.
As of July 1, the TransSafe drop-in will move from the Center on Halsted to the fifth floor of the Heartland Health Outreach clinic at 4750 N. Sheridan in Uptown.
It is the epicenter of each of TransLife Care’s programs.
Those who show up every Monday at 2-5 p.m. will not only find a safe escape from isolation but connection to employment, shelter, housing, legal and health all served up with refreshments.
The TransLife Care Program has transitioned from bricks and mortar to a living entity that is continuously expanding in both reach and the numbers of people it serves.
According to Chicago House, there were 314 people who visited TransSafe in 2015. Last year those numbers tripled to 1,305.
TransHealth services saw the same significant growth from 35 visits to the program’s services in 2015 to 175 in 2016.
Meanwhile, more than 200 people participated in TransWorks last year. Ninety-six percent of them found employment.
The beating heart of the TransLife Care Program is powered by its staff members and volunteers.
When Windy City Times met five TransLife staff members at Chicago House’s North Side headquarters, their love for their clients, work and each other was immediately apparent.
Much as they do with their clients, TransLife Care Program Director Josie Lynne Paul, TransLife Project Manager Channyn Lynne Parker, TransSafe Coordinator Reyna Ortiz, TransShelter Coordinator Jasmine Alexander and TransHousing Manager Kevin Pleasant encourage each other never to sell themselves short. If any one of them showed even a hint of modesty about their work, one of their colleagues would speak up on their behalf.
When former TLC client Alexander described herself as “the problem child” of the group, Parker wouldn’t have it.
“When I met Jasmine, she said ‘help me to help my community’,” Parker said. “She has made good on that a hundred-fold. She worked with individuals on the South Side way before she was getting paid for it. There isn’t enough I can say about Jasmine’s work. It speaks for itself.”
While TransLegal Director and Staff Attorney Maria Pahl, TransWorks Coordinator Kate Harrington-Rosen and other team members could not be present, their work was mentioned with similar esteem.
“What you see is organic advocacy,” Parker said. “We all worked with our community in ways that are real and authentic way before we had a formal platform.”
Today, their contributions are as invaluable and unique as the program and the myriad of clients it serves.
“We are still the first and, as far as I know, the only program that provides this breadth of services in a one-stop-shop setting in this country,” Paul said.
She noted that the decision to sell the Edgewater home was partly due to a challenge in finding the appropriate funds for it to reach its fullest potential.
“Actual funding for programs was going to be at least two years down the road,” she said. “So, we had this huge gap where there wasn’t any HUD [Housing and Urban Development] money or any other foundation that could provide for it.”
Misfortune turned out to be providence as Paul, Parker and Pleasant see the new scattered-site housing program as a leaps and bounds improvement.
“It made more sense to actually make it independent living,” Parker said. “We’ve seen a lot better results for our client base. Historically, our clients have come from multiple systems—DCFS [Department of Children and Family Services], incarceration and so on. Going from a space where they had to share living space to the same shared situation was a problem.”
“We’re talking about folks who have experienced a great deal of trauma in life,” Paul explained. “Putting them in a setting where they were all together was a ‘like it or not’ situation. Group living can provide a high level of trauma triggers. It should really be a transitional model rather than permanent housing. Who wants to spend the rest of their days living with eight other people?”
“People need a starting point,” Pleasant added. “They need a place to come out of living in survival mode and to learn a different set of skills such as paying bills, going grocery shopping and living in a community that is diverse in regards to economics, identity, race, ethnicity. People get a say in where they live. They aren’t just stuck somewhere.”
“We’ve gone from nine units in the house to 15 scattered site units,” Paul said. “We’ve not only provided the kind of housing that the community was looking for but more of those units.”
“At the end of the day, what we’re really invested in is our clients and community’s autonomy; getting them back to a sense of self responsibility and advocacy,” Parker asserted. “We are seeing progress.”
A significant part of the progress is observable at the TransSafe drop-in—a program which, in September 2016, was one of only two in the country to receive a grant from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention ( CDC ) for the purpose of evaluating home-grown intervention for transgender individuals at risk from HIV.
“TransSafe connects the trans community to what they need and want in that moment, what’s going to be most helpful to them” Paul said. “We get to evaluate the positive impacts on their lives through that model. It’s the central component. The beauty of the new site at Heartland Health Outreach, is that we can walk folks to a lab, mental health services. There are more rapid connections to medical providers.”
She noted that the decision to move TransSafe from the Center on Halsted was based on the requirements of the grant.
As the program’s coordinator, Ortiz has a tremendous responsibility but it is one she shoulders with the experience of a woman who has made outreach and advocacy a life passion. The results she has achieved, particularly with women on the West Side through organizations like Taskforce, and the example she offers of holding one’s ground whenever society tries to pull it from underneath you have raised the profile of TransSafe and the trust participants have in it to a whole new level.
“I was able to connect youth on the West Side to attorneys, housing and all the resources that TransSafe offers,” she said. “If a girl comes up to me and says ‘I got arrested and I need an attorney,’ I can refer them right away and connect them to Maria.”
Ortiz set about garnering a thorough education about each of the city’s bureaucracies and systems by putting herself through them.
“I wanted to make the process as simplistic as possible for a trans person,” she said. “So, they wouldn’t have to go through all the craziness. I have multiple ways to get a trans person connected to whatever resource they need.”
Whether it’s a court date, a visit to the Secretary of State’s office for a new driver’s license or a doctor’s appointment, Ortiz also makes sure she goes with them.
“Those systems are really intimidating for our community because there’s a lot of blatant disrespect and discrimination,” she said. “My schedule allows me to be more hands-on because one little thing can derail a trans person for months. So, I make sure they’re ready, go there and get it done without any complications.”
If anyone, be they doctor or Secretary of State clerk, gives a transgender individual a hard time, Ortiz makes it clear, ether silently or verbally, she won’t stand for it. She is formidable opponent and an example to the client who is with her.
“It gives them the confidence to do that in other areas now that they have seen it’s possible,” Paul said.
“It’s holding these workers accountable without resorting to violence or lashing out,” Ortiz added. “I wait for the moment for someone to try it with my girls because I know the paperwork is good and they need to do their jobs.”
Her work with the undocumented transgender community has been similarly groundbreaking.
Parker’s breadth of knowledge of the transgender experience in Chicago’s judicial system and on the streets which serve as conduits to it has made her a go-to resource even for those outside of TransCare program seeking a shrewd and uncompromising education. Her calm demeanor conceals a passion for change that rages underneath it. She’s seen too much to ever permit the status quo to stand.
“Survival is something that we’re all, more or less, doing regardless of what stage in life we’re at,” Parker said. “We’ve all had our struggles. We all know what it’s like. When you walk into our space, you are not going to be judged. We understand that the journey from point A to point B is not always seamless. But we’re going to be there with you every step of the way. That’s what resonates with community in a way that is so truthful.”
Parker still makes regular visits to counsel transgender inmates at the Cook County Jail. It was during one of those visits that she met Alexander.
Alexander lived life on the streets and in the judicial system for years before she took on her role with TransCare. Now, through a partnership with the shelter for at-risk women Sarah’s Circle, Alexander makes sure homeless trans women get a roof over their heads.
“I’ve been there,” she said. “I’ve been a prostitute, dope dealer, convict. I was kidnapped, raped and left for dead in an alley. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to survive. I was in jail and met Channyn and, when I got out, she offered to help me. Step-by-step, I’ve built myself up from that life. I find a lot of girls at men’s shelters because they can’t go in as themselves and I take them from there. I work with them to get them a bed and then IDs, mental health; whatever they need me to do, Mother Goose is there.”
For the women battling through life on the South Side, Alexander is rare indeed: she is someone they can trust.
“I know these babies,” Alexander said. “I took them in for years. Most of them slept on my floor. I fed them. I’ll go out on the strip and kick their butts, get them to school, to the doctors. They look at me and they know who I used to be. They see that, if I can change, it opens-up possibilities for anybody. It’s a still a journey but I love it.”
Similarly, Pleasant sees his role as supportive, even if that means some tough love.
“They’re trying to rebuild their lives,” he said. “Supporting them is not always warm and fuzzy. If you continue to live like you’re in survival mode, you’re probably going to wind up back in survival mode. You’ve got to change behaviors. It doesn’t mean you change them all at once because you didn’t learn them all at once. We’ve got to figure out what it takes for you to keep a roof over your head and what type of support you need to assist you in understanding that you don’t have to worry about having a place to lay your head at night.”
Pleasant stressed that transgender individuals do not have to be HIV-positive to receive services. But it was as a gay man who grew up during the height of the HIV epidemic which led to his role at TransCare.
“The support we had was from our trans sisters who housed us, sat at our hospital beds,” he said. “They were there when no one else was. This is what I do to give back. We’ve had women who’ve sabotaged themselves because they get scared. They’re not afraid of failure because they know that so well. They’re afraid of their own success.”
Pleasant views success as reaching whatever one aspires to even if it is day-by-day.
“Success is today my girl didn’t get high,” he said. “Success is she still has a roof over her head. Success is today she did not have to turn a date for some food because she was able to go shopping. Success is ‘I’m thinking about going to a G.E.D. program.’ Success is one of our clients getting ready to graduate from Harold Washington College. Success is one of my girls who got arrested and was going to court every month for over a year who is now a model citizen in the building where she lives.
She was a hellraiser but she’s doing great. Success is people respect you and you start respecting yourself. For a trans woman of color to be able to walk into a place and have somebody refer to you in your preferred pronouns is success. My goal is to support that success.”
Pleasant wasn’t simply speaking about his own job description but the entire mission of the TransLife Care program—one that marches on no matter what the political climate or funding challenges it may face.
“We don’t give up,” Paul said. “I sometimes refer to myself as the Queen of Many Chances. I don’t believe in limiting them. We never stop. We’re not done until it’s just not possible to do any more.”
For more information about the TransLife Care Program, visit ChicagoHouse.org/causes/translife-center.