NO SHELTER is a monthly series from MLK50 housing reporter Jacob Steimer, interviewing Memphians who have no access to housing. Although the numbers are difficult to track, the Community Alliance for the Homeless estimates that on a given night in 2021, about 200 people were unsheltered in Memphis/Shelby County. The monthly Q&As will introduce readers to neighbors they may not talk to otherwise and, perhaps, create a path to improving the way the city cares for these vulnerable people. It is written with the belief that all people are created equal — whether or not they’re treated that way. The conversations are edited for brevity and clarity.
Marvina Grantham is experiencing homelessness for so many reasons.
She’s been pushed away by family. She’s been pushed away by nonprofits. She’s fallen into a spiral with drugs. She’s fallen into a spiral with sex work.
And tangled up in all of those struggles is her identity as a transgender woman. Trans people are far more likely than others to face rejection from family, cope with trauma by abusing substances, participate in sex work, and experience homelessness.
“People who are trans, when they experience the same obstacles to housing stability that their peers who are not trans experience … that is doubled by all these other factors,” said Molly Quinn, executive director of OUTMemphis: The LGBTQ Center for the Mid-South, which recently opened a shelter for LGBTQ young adults.
Grantham, 35, lived in stable housing for the majority of her life. But in 2019, she lost her job as a server and reached a point in her gender transition where living with family became quite uncomfortable.
Once homeless, Grantham faced discrimination, a growing drug addiction, and a path to escorting that’s “extraordinarily common” for transgender people experiencing homelessness, Quinn said.
Transgender people turn to this illegal, dangerous industry so often because full-time work is “a profoundly difficult environment” for them, Quinn said. At past jobs, Grantham said she’d been discriminated against because of her gender identity, an experience that 90% of transgender people have faced, according to a 2011 report by the Center for American Progress.
While some nonprofits have lovingly provided help to Grantham, she said others have mistreated her or refused to let her in. Quinn said local shelters usually divide people by sex, which sometimes leads to transgender women staying in men’s shelters or not having a place to stay. On top of this, Quinn said transgender people frequently face assault, sexual violence or verbal harassment from other shelter inhabitants.
“So many [Memphis-area social services] are not trans-friendly. In fact, a lot of them are very hostile to trans people,” Quinn said. “A lot of the people who come to OUTMemphis who are experiencing homelessness have been through the other shelters and have been treated so poorly and been so traumatized by the way they were treated.”
Because of poor treatment, many trans people would rather sleep outside or do whatever it takes to earn money to pay hotels, Quinn said.
MLK50: Where did you grow up?
I was born in Memphis and lived at my grandmother’s house. My mom was in and out.
What was your grandmother like?
She was really, really into the church and very religious. I wasn’t feeling that when I was young. Now that I’m older — even though I don’t believe exactly what she believed — it’s been a good system to go by, so I’m thankful to her for that.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I love listening to music. I’m very artistic. I do like hair and makeup. I like reading. I’ve started watching a lot of TED Talks videos.
How did you lose stable housing?
I was living in Olive Branch, Mississippi, with my parents.
I was transitioning, so it was more comfortable to do it out of my parents’ house than inside of my parents’ house, because they were more religious and weren’t knowledgeable or supporting of that part of my life.
I decided to go to the streets in Memphis because I didn’t have any supportive family members.
When you moved up to Memphis, where did you go?
Room in the Inn (which places people with 50 partner churches) was the most supportive one. They respected my pronouns. They’re very supportive. Unfortunately, [their shelter program] is just a winter program.
I also learned about My Sistah’s House (which provides housing specifically for trans people). I lived there for a while, but at the time, I was still struggling with addiction and you have to adhere to a lot of rules there.
Since then, I’ve been back and forth between shelters and hotels.
Did your addictions start after you lost your job?
Way before. I always knew I was different, and in my mind, it was something wrong with me. Because when I was little, that was what I was told. I had a confliction of who I was, which kind of led me to be curious about drugs.
If you don’t have anything you connect to, you connect to a drug so you can forget about whatever you’re going through.
I started smoking weed at around 19 or 20. Then it progressed into ecstasy. And ecstacy led to cocaine, cocaine to crack, and then crack to crystal meth.
How have you paid for hotels?
Escorting. On your phone nowadays, there are lots of sites you can post your ads on. That’s basically how I’ve survived for a long time. Escorting is just fast money so you can keep your head above water.
How has it been with your addictions recently?
I went to rehab on Knight Arnold. I was transferred to a halfway house — the Peabody House. It’s a great program; it was very beneficial. I had every intention of completing the program, but I didn’t adhere to one of the rules that [I misunderstood]. They didn’t let me come back in. I was instantly back homeless again.
What are you hoping to do over the next couple of weeks?
I have to get a COVID shot. To get in any mission or rescue program you have to be tested or have a COVID shot. Hopefully, I’ll get one today.
Has it been hard to find work?
When you’re homeless and you’re transgender, it’s a struggle to find a job. A lot of people don’t accept you as you come or how you identify yourself. And they will intentionally say things to remind you how they see you. You have to deal with that and you have to be patient.
And, escorting can be addictive. You can get used to it and stuck in that situation. And it can be very profitable.
When I was in the halfway house, I did get a job at a warehouse. I’ve been working for about three weeks. I’m getting a check on Friday. With that, I plan on getting housing for the next two weeks.
So, I don’t have to fully get back into escorting. I might have to do a little to make ends meet.
So, you said not every homelessness nonprofit you’ve encountered has been particularly helpful. Can you explain that?
A lot of them don’t give you any leniency on how you identify. Memphis Union Mission (which serves men) would not accept me, and a lot of women’s places won’t accept me. My Sistah’s House is the only program for trans girls and it’s limited and small. Constance Abbey is all-inclusive; they do what they can. And, you just hope for little trinkets of gold along the way.
If the city decided to spend more money to help people experiencing homelessness, what would you want them to do?
There’s a lot of vacant buildings around here that aren’t being occupied that could be shelters.
We need more all-inclusive shelters.
Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com
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