This Grassroots Organization Is Building Tiny Homes for Transgender People of Color

Tiny houses could be one way to provide housing security for trans folks of color who are experiencing homelessness.

black LGBTQ lives matter protest sign

Clay Banks via Unsplash

Tiny homes are often touted as a potential solution to the housing affordability crisis. But in many ways, tiny houses represent more than a little dwelling to be built, owned, and occupied by those who dare to think outside of the box: For many, they represent financial freedom, a saner alternative to the hamster wheel of ballooning mortgages and resource-intensive monster McMansions, and even a sense of community.

But tiny houses can also be a force for social good by providing a sense of belonging and 'home' to marginalized communities—whether that might be for veterans, or those living on a low income, or people currently experiencing or transitioning out of homelessness. In Memphis, Tennessee, My Sistah's House is one organization that is working to provide long-term housing alternatives—including custom-built tiny houses—to non-binary, transgender, and other gender non-conforming (TGNC) folks.

Breaking a vicious cycle

Founded in 2016 by two trans women of color, Kayla Gore and Illyahnna Wattshall, the organization aims to fill in the gap in Memphis and beyond when it comes to emergency housing and services for transgender people. At the time, Memphis only had 71 emergency shelter beds—none of which were designated for LGBTQ+ people.

But it's not just Memphis: this lack of housing security and support services is highlighted by a 2018 report which revealed that Black transgender people face homelessness at a rate five times the national average. There are many factors behind this phenomenon, including illegal housing and employment discrimination from potential landlords and employers, as well as a lack of access to affordable legal services. As Gore told NBC, it's a vicious cycle that can keep trans folks vulnerable to a cycle of marginalization, incarceration, and even violence:

"A big portion of the folks that we serve participate in survival sex or sex work, therefore, they don't have verifiable income. So that's the reason that they can't get housing or they're underemployed, in a sense that they don't necessarily have access to equitable jobs that will provide them an income that is enough to obtain stable housing."

Tiny homes for housing security

The seeds of My Sistah's House were sown when Gore and Wattshall—who were both working for a local LGBTQ community center at the time—noticed that a lot of transgender adults who were coming in were going also through homelessness, and lacked access to an emergency shelter. So the two began to shelter people in their own homes and continued to do so for a couple of years. But they realized there wasn't just a need for stable housing, there was also a need for a variety of trans-specific support services.

Eventually, other organizations heard about their work through the grassroots grapevine and offered some small grants to help with the group's advocacy work, which was then used to help clients with things like paying for name changes, bail, or attorney fees post-incarceration.

Then, in 2020 the pandemic hit, and Gore noticed that the precarious housing situations that a lot of trans folks can find themselves in actually got worse:

"During the pandemic, if you didn’t have your [rent] money, a lot of people were being kicked out of the places they were living in—especially people who were transient, in hotels. We can only house four people at the drop-in center. So, we were full. We were at capacity. [..]
We reached out to the funder, and they allowed us to repurpose those funds to help with hotel costs, rental assistance, and utility assistance for folks. We were like, 'What do we do to be proactive? In this situation, what creates stability? What creates security for trans folks?'
And for us, we thought home ownership."

Gore and Wattshall then began to research tiny homes but realized they couldn't build them to code requirements in Gore's backyard. Things seemed at an impasse until one of their volunteers started a GoFundMe page, which eventually went viral when it was shared by Chicago-based rapper Noname. The group has since raised more than $338,000 to build 20 permanent tiny homes for trans people of color, as well as other forms of transitional community housing. They were able to enlist the pro bono architectural services of Indianapolis-based firm DKGR, and are now actively working to acquire more parcels of land within the same area to build tiny homes for those in need.

Currently, My Sistah's House continues to provide free meals, emergency shelter, advocacy services, and resources to help TGNC people of color—to help the most vulnerable find their footing toward stable housing and income. Gore says:

"That’s our vision. We accept people here, regardless [of the circumstances...]. Since this project has garnered so much media support on a national level, we’ve had people come from Texas, from Florida, from the top of Tennessee in Knoxville, and from St. Louis. We’ve had people come from all over accessing our housing.
It’s a good feeling, and it’s a bad feeling, because people shouldn’t have to cross state lines to access affirming shelter."

To find out more, visit My Sistah's House, Facebook, and their GoFundMe.

View Article Sources
  1. "Dismantling A Culture of Violence." Humans Rights Campaign Foundation.