We believe that one of the most important ways to uplift the Tenderloin community is through listening well. City Hope recently began sharing our space with Trans Thrive, an organization that aims to create safe spaces, events and services for the entire Trans/Gender Non-Conforming community. In honor of Pride Month, Jacey Massetto, our Program Manager, interviewed two employees of Trans Thrive to learn more about the challenges that our Transgender neighbors face in the Tenderloin:
Please tell us a little about yourself and the work you do at Trans Thrive.
Erica: My name is Erica. I’m a case manager and I work in Trans services at the San Francisco Community Health Center. I was born and raised here in San Francisco in the Richmond district. I got into the work I do now because I was a peer leader at the agency for many years and always looked up to all the girls that worked in Trans services. In my younger years while transitioning, the girls I looked up to were the ones making the most money on the corner. Now though, it has really evolved and we have so many positive role models in the community that younger generations can look up to. It’s really great for me to be able to experience that coming from working in the sex industry and having the experiences I’ve had. I’ve lived an eventful life, but realized in my later years that I didn’t have anything to show for it. Once I learned that my life experiences are valid for this type of work, I started moving in this direction. It’s been really cool to see my life come full circle. I grew up here and transitioned in the Tenderloin and now I’m able to help other girls.
Niko: I’m Niko. I use he/him pronouns. I'm currently the Associate Director of Health Equity at the San Francisco Community Health Center. Basically, I oversee two main components. One is all of the Trans services programs that are not related to medical care. Then I oversee three LGBT health equity programs around tobacco use and mental health. However, I've been at the agency for thirteen years in December. I grew up in Ohio and moved to SF when I graduated from college. I started working at a gay club in the Castro that’s known as being really Trans friendly. Some of the owners are trans men and I worked with them on programming around how to build community for Trans men within the gay community, which wasn’t something that was being talked about a lot. That allowed me to meet this person named Luke, who was the program supervisor of Trans Thrive many years ago. Then, when a position opened at Trans Thrive I already had a connection there and was really excited to start working with this community. I started as a program assistant and have been within the Trans Services Department ever since.
What are some of the biggest challenges the Trans community faces in the Tenderloin?
Erika: One of the main things is the lack of housing. There have been a lot of ideas and solutions in the past that seemed good, but haven’t worked. I still see way too many girls that aren’t actually placed anywhere. They’re just staying in hotels. It’s hard when you see money being given to help these people, but it’s unclear why there is no plan that’s working.
Niko: I think housing is definitely our number one need at this point. I always think that there's room for improvement about everything in general, but there are a lot of medical resources that are Trans competent in San Francisco. There are plenty of places that people can go and get a hot meal, but there isn’t a good place that I can send Trans people where I can assure that they're going to be safe in their housing. Even some of the shelters and recovery programs that we know to be friendly actually depend on who you're with in terms of staff and other clients. One powerful model that can help this shift is “it’s for us by us” where the majority of staff are Trans, which is a model we follow at Trans Thrive. It’s really nice to be able to walk into a space and see people that you know are part of your community. And while our stories are very different in our experiences, we can both feel compassion for each other around what it's like to be Trans. We all have common experiences like what it was like to transition. Many of us have family issues, and there’s something powerful about having these universal connecting points. I think it would be amazing to eventually have a clinic that is only run by Trans people. I do think that allies and cis people have a place in the movement, but it’s so important for communities that are marginalized to have a sacred safe space with people of their community. This is also a challenging neighborhood to be in if you’re in recovery. There are a lot of resources you can access in the TL (Tenderloin), but if you’re Trans and in recovery, it can be really triggering. What do you do if your main source of support as a Trans person is in the TL, but going there might cause you to relapse? Also, the lack of safety is a challenge. People still get harassed on the streets by other community members. Part of why our Trans Thrive drop-in center is so important is because, for the three hours we’re open, people are respected and supported in the identity they choose to be.
Erika: I feel like the safety issue has gotten worse for girls on the streets. It can be incredibly dangerous. Back in my day, I felt like it was less dangerous or we had a better understanding of how to keep ourselves safe. For me, being here actually helps me stay sober. When I see what other people are doing, I always try to remind myself that it could be me if I was still on that path. Now, I have the opportunity to help girls like me and even girls I used to party with in the past. It was because of one girl that I decided to go to Walden House and get sober when I turned 50. I wouldn’t be where I am today without her. These girls still on the streets are my family, and I want to be able to help them. It’s hard though because no one is going to make a change and stay sober until they want to. It won’t stick until they really want to make it stick.
At City Hope we are always trying to create community for our neighbors. This is something you all at Tran Thrive are doing so well through your drop-in centers. What does it look like to create a strong and safe community for our Trans neighbors?
Niko: The number one thing is to listen to the community. I think a lot of times people, and this is not just related to the trans community, will come into a certain community that they don’t identify with and present a certain idea or solution. But often, they haven’t talked to the community or asked the community what they want. I think it's really important if you want to get buy-in from the Trans community, you need to have Trans people involved in whatever you're putting together. I don't think that everybody in an operation needs to be trans. However, if you want Trans people to come and feel safe, then walking into a space and seeing some Trans volunteers or seeing photos on the wall of people in the community can be really impactful.
Erika: Yeah I completely agree. If you can have a diversity of people from different communities, it’s really impactful. If people can see themselves represented and relate to what you’re doing, they’ll want to come and join.
Niko: If you have Trans people in your community already or in your program, ask them if you can work with them. If you don’t go to organizations like Trans Thrive to help you develop something. Honestly, it goes such a long way when someone reaches out to us and asks how they can best support the community. It also can be better to ask us, as professionals in this work, than to ask someone you don’t know in the community, especially if you’re in a position of power. It is never a marginalized person’s job to answer your questions. But I do consider it part of our job, as professionals in the Trans services, to be more vulnerable and help answer questions that people might have.
Erika: Yeah it’s always good to ask us questions first if you can. If you ask a community a sensitive question, they might not want to come back. We’d much rather talk to you about those things first.
Niko: Trans people, understandably, have a lot of distrust of medical providers and particular service providers, and I think that it's really on other people to do that work to step up and support our community. There's many of us that are here that are willing to help support people that are genuine in wanting to do that work. The more resources that are Transgender or Trans friendly or Trans inclusive, the better in my mind. Not every resource in the world out there is for everybody, so the more different points of access for Trans people in the community, the better.
Thanks so much Erica and Niko for taking the time to share your thoughts and experiences with our community.
*To learn more about Trans Thrive, please visit: https://sfcommunityhealth.org/program/trans-thrive/