A new home for recently incarcerated transgender people
Cambridge house is first of its kind in New England
THE APARTMENT LOOKS like so many other Cambridge dwellings, occupying one floor of a slightly worn two-family house. It has two bedrooms, one bathroom, a kitchen, living room, and small yard. But the furnishings give some inkling of the space’s unique purpose, as the first home in New England for formerly incarcerated transgender people who need a place to stay after their release from prison.
A living room wall features photos of transgender activists and achievers, and the books on the bookshelf are about topics like freedom, LGBTQ rights, sex work, and anti-racism. One of several mismatched coffee mugs in the kitchen reads “trans people are divine.” Next to the green decorative plants by the doorway is an open box of Narcan nasal spray, ready to treat an opioid overdose, a nod to the prevalence of substance use disorder in this population.
The house is run by Black and Pink Massachusetts, a prison abolition group that focuses on helping LGBTQ people who are incarcerated.
“I really wanted to make a space that was different, to make a space where folks could really come and heal from the trauma of such a dehumanizing process as incarceration,” said house coordinator Erin McLaughlin. “I wanted it to be where you could grow and flourish and experience that warmth and life incarceration has tried to deny them.”
The new house, which opened for applications August 15, has been carefully crafted to fill an unmet need by providing temporary housing to some of those individuals who find it hardest to find housing. It has four beds, with a fifth reserved for short-term emergency stays. McLaughlin, the house’s only full-time employee, said residents could start arriving within weeks. The organization got five applications just in the first couple of days.
“Homelessness is just endemic in the trans community,” said Michael Cox, executive director of Black and Pink Massachusetts. “It really is a crisis.” In a survey of its incarcerated members, Black and Pink Massachusetts found that 52 percent of respondents reported they would be homeless upon release.
The house is called the Alexia Norena House, named for a transgender woman and member of Black and Pink Massachusetts who was chronically homeless and fatally overdosed while living in a tent in Cambridge.
The idea for the home was born out of work Cox has been doing for years, trying to help LGBTQ people who are released from prison reenter society. Cox, who is himself formerly incarcerated, said he would spend time calling sober homes and his organization would offer to pay for housing, but when he said he was trying to place a transgender person, the home’s operator would say no or would say there were no beds available. Sometimes a person would be accepted but denied entry when they arrived, or would be allowed in but treated like a pariah. Sometimes, those people became homeless or relapsed into substance use. Cox has had to threaten lawsuits against homes who tried to turn away a transgender person. “It’s been pretty traumatic,” he said.
In July 2021, Cox took a group to Los Angeles to participate in a training with an organization that runs prison reentry houses for women. He came back and organized a meeting of volunteers to envision what their own house could look like – and struck gold when an activist offered to give them free use of a house in Cambridge that she had recently purchased. (The organization plans to give the landlord some money.) The unit needed painting and the floors needed finishing, so Black and Pink Massachusetts ran a fundraising campaign to fix it up. They solicited donations of furnishings and decorations and sought volunteer labor. Cox is seeking grant funding to pay for operations.
Today, the house is furnished with beds, new linens, a coffeemaker, and full kitchen. It looks like a home not an institution, with plants, posters, board games, and slightly mismatched furniture.
“People have been denied experiences their whole life to see the world, to experience cultural things, and that prevents people from dreaming,” Cox said. “It prevents people from imagining a life beyond, ‘I’m a loser.’ That’s what prison teaches you. That you’re a piece of shit. And I think the culture that Erin’s going to create in this house and taking people out places and hanging out with cool people will hopefully rub off on people and it will motivate people to want to go in that direction.”
McLaughlin, a transgender woman who is trained as a lawyer, spent time in law school doing legal work for people who are incarcerated. She plans to work with the residents to make referrals to whatever services they need – connecting them with transgender-focused health care services and helping them find job training and permanent housing. The organization will use its existing relationships with organizations that help transgender people like Fenway Health and the Massachusetts LGBT Chamber of Commerce.
The housing will be free for the first couple of months, then residents will be asked to pay what they can afford. There is no time limit on how long residents can stay, which Cox said is due to the understanding that different people take different amounts of time to find a job, housing, and whatever they need to reenter the community.
The emergency bed will be available if, for example, someone gets released on a Friday and can’t enter their housing until Monday, or if someone is unexpectedly bailed out or has a court case dismissed but has nowhere to go. It is open to anyone who was incarcerated regardless of offense type. While substance use will be discouraged, someone who uses alcohol or drugs will not be automatically kicked out.
There is one other house in the state that provides emergency shelter to transgender people, run by the Transgender Emergency Fund of Massachusetts. That house opened in May in Dorchester and offers up to a year of housing for eight people who are transgender or gender nonconforming.
Chastity Bowick, executive director of the Transgender Emergency Fund of Massachusetts, said she does not know of any other similar houses in New England, although the need for it is great. Bowick said transgender people are more likely to be discriminated against in employment, then end up on the streets. They may be kicked out of their family’s home at a young age. They are often excluded from or harassed in shelters. “It’s a cycle of oppression,” Bowick said. “The society system is not set up to help us become sustainable.”
The Transgender Emergency Fund house offers services to help people sustain themselves, teaching life skills, referring them to job coaching or culturally appropriate health care services, and helping them find housing and employment. It is funded through a one-time grant from the state, which will end next month, and Bowick is fundraising, applying for additional grants, and hoping for more public support. The demand far outstrips supply: the organization has received 56 applications for eight spots.But Bowick said she cannot serve the same population the Black and Pink house can. Because the emergency fund’s house is located within a school district, it cannot accept sex offenders or people with open cases for certain criminal offenses. For people with those types of criminal records, the Black and Pink house will be a valuable option.
Cox said because homes serving transgender residents are so rare, in many ways, the new house is an experiment. Practices will be adjusted based on the needs and input of residents. “We’re just going to beta test it and see what happens and modify the model,” Cox said, “because they’re going to teach us what works, what doesn’t work, what we didn’t think of.”