This Organization Is Trying to End Transgender Homelessness in Rural Appalachia

"No homeless person exists in a vacuum, there's always a reason we're there."

When Lyra Lambert was 17 years old, she returned home from school just outside of mountainous Asheville, North Carolina, to find all of her belongings piled in the front yard soaked in kerosine and her brother cleaning a shotgun nearby. She was told in no uncertain terms by her family of origin that she was an abomination—and that if she didn’t leave she would be killed.

After her brother fired a warning shot near her feet, Lambert left her family behind and turned to face a new life—one that’s been framed by cycles of homelessness and incarceration for the past 17 years.

For transgender people like Lambert, homelessness is an epidemic. According to The National Center for Transgender Equality, one in five transgender individuals have experienced homelessness in their lives. Some reports estimate that up to 40% of homeless youth across America identify as LGBTQ; and when LGBTQ people, who already face disproportionate barriers to employment and legal protections, experience homelessness, the challenges involved in finding their way back to stable living situations can prove insurmountable.

Tranzmission is an organization dedicated to fighting this epidemic in areas along the Appalachian mountains. Focused mainly on the needs of transgender and gender non-conforming (GNC) individuals living in Western North Carolina, Tranzmission has proven themselves to be a lifesaving resource for the trans community living in the oftentimes overwhelmingly rural areas of Appalachia. While the organization deals with a wide variety of needs that touch LGBTQ experiences—such as name-change clinics, community education training, and various support programs—they’ve identified a jarring need for work surrounding trans and GNC homeless communities in this part of the country.

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The Appalchian Mountains.

“We’ve had people talk to us over the years about being denied access to food pantries because of how they’ve presented, we’ve had people talk to us over the years about not being allowed access to the free clothing closets that varying resources in the Western North Carolina area have for folks in need,” Tranzmission Executive Director Zeke Christopoulos tells NewNowNext. “And we’ve definitely had a lot of reports about homeless shelters themselves basically either not allowing trans people to use their facilities—or, if they were allowed to use the facilities, they were not allowed to use them in a manner that was safe. Meaning women were being housed with men and men were being housed with women.”

This issue of forced occupancy among a gender of people that one doesn’t identify with is all too common for trans people seeking refuge in homeless shelters—if they are even granted access to the facilities at all. Oftentimes, trans or GNC homeless folks will be denied entry or be forced to detransition in order to gain occupancy.

“The first shelter I went to wouldn’t even accept me since I was taking hormones and the second place, The Salvation Army, wasn’t especially pleasant either,” Melony Smith, a 36-year-old trans woman who has experienced homelessness, tells NewNowNext. “I was allowed to take my hormones, but had to bunk in the men’s area and socially detransition for the six months I was there… I got along with some of the people and even participated in a bit of recreation such as ping pong and basketball with a handful of the other residents, but a lot of that felt predicated on me maintaining a very masculine persona.”

Christopoulos also notes that trans people are often forced to pray when seeking shelter in Western North Carolina, as most of the homeless shelters in the areas are faith-based.

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Asheville, North Carolina.

In wake of these specific hardships that the homeless trans and GNC communities face when attempting to find shelter, particularly in the Bible Belt, Tranzmission decided to begin formalizing a program to address these community needs. The conversation really began when Christopoulos put a call out out on Facebook asking if community members felt an interest in opening their homes to homeless LGBTQ people. The response was overwhelming, he recalls.

“When that post went out we probably got about 30 households that said, ‘Hey, I can house somebody if they need it.’ Which is amazing and wonderful. We’ve got many resources to add to our list where people can stay should they need it. So that’s a pretty big deal that came out of this. I hope that amplifying this and having more attention focused on it will bring more people forward and help with more funds—so much can come out of it.”

Christopoulous adds that within this loosely formalized structure, Tranzmission is also looking into other methods of helping trans and GNC people find safe housing. For example, another community member is attempting to vet AirBnBs to ensure they are LGBTQ friendly, and Tranzmission can potentially rent out those spaces when someone is in need of shelter.

“We’re attempting to get funding so we can have that capacity and have that people power to make these things happen,” he continues. “What we’ve been focusing on right now are looking at making connections with shelters and doing trainings for them. Also bringing to their attention what the criteria is for them to receive federal money so they can’t turn people away and how to help people safely and appropriately.”

For Lambert, who spent many years of her life navigating the homeless communities of Asheville before eventually making her way to the West Coast, these types of programs can be lifesaving and provide the necessary opportunities for trans people to gain sustainable employment—one of the largest barriers to helping trans people break the cycle of homelessness. That begins by people with access to power and capital taking a compassionate interest in understanding the factors that lead to disproportionate homelessness for trans people in the first place—and having empathy enough to want to change the systems that prevent them from achieving more chances in life.

“We need people to actually see us, to talk to us, and to know our stories,” she says. “No homeless person exists in a vacuum, there’s always a reason we’re there. Listen to our stories and live your life in such a manner that nobody that you care about ends up here… these little things that housed people and people with a strong family and community life overlook, the actual components that tie a family and community together [are what] those on the street need most of all.”

James Michael Nichols is a writer, storyteller and the former editor of HuffPost Queer Voices.
@jmn