Trans, Homeless, and Turning Tricks to Survive

(William Murphy/ Flickr)

At Rolling Stone, Laura Rena Murray chronicles the dangers young trans women face as they struggle to survive on the streets of New York City. Often the targets of violence, one in two trans women in the city will become HIV-positive before she turns 24. Turning tricks to bring in cash, some have gone so far as to attempt suicide simply to gain access to a bed for the duration of the mandatory 72-hour watch period. “I just needed a bed,” says Scarlet. “I did what I had to do to sleep for Christmas.”

In the Dominican Republic, where Sophie was born, her mother struggled with addiction and sent Sophie to live with her grandmother in New York when she was six months old. Her grandmother, who was able to send the family money, food and clothing, Sophie says, by pimping out undocumented girls, was nearly beaten to death by two men when Sophie was in the fourth grade. Both her grandmother and her father hit her, she says, and sometimes locked her out of the house. “It was more hatred than discipline,” she recalls. “My dad would beat me in the shower with a belt and punch me in the face, calling me a faggot. Then he’d turn around and say, ‘I love you.’ How can you treat me like this if you love me?”

She began living on the streets at 16, attending school whenever possible, but more often worrying about where to eat, shower and sleep each night. “You can’t go to school smelly and drawing attention,” she says. “I would take cat baths at Starbucks.” Now, at 21, she’s hoping to build a civil-rights career, either as a lawyer or a social worker. The next morning, in fact, she has an interview for an eight-week internship at the American Civil Liberties Union. “I know I’m going to be a very successful person,” she says. “I want [my father] to learn he lost something.”

There are now more than 350,000 transgender people under the age of 25 in the United States, the majority in the largest cities of New York, California, Florida and Texas – and an estimated 20 percent of them lack secure housing, though many service providers believe that figure is low. Craig Hughes of the Coalition for Homeless Youth notes that the federal definition of homelessness does not include those who trade sex for shelter; instead, they are considered “unstably” housed. “There are thousands who go uncounted,” Hughes says. “They are disconnected from services, sleep on multiple couches a month and spend some nights trading sex for shelter.”

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