Jazzie’s Place Opens its Doors to San Francisco’s Homeless LGBTQ Population

Building a strong and safe community is at the core of the shelter named in honor of the late transgender activist Jazzie Collins

Inside Jazzie’s Place, the first LGBTQ homeless shelter for adults in the country.

The day is off to a bad start. It’s 6:45 a.m. on a Wednesday and Misael Christian has left his work bag inside.

He knocks on the gate. They closed five minutes earlier and won’t re-open until 7 p.m. He stands outside the complex at 1050 South Van Ness Avenue and hopes his day isn’t ruined.

I’m around the corner in the parking lot. I’m scheduled to meet Cecilia Moreno, the case manager for Jazzie’s Place, the first LGBTQ homeless shelter for adults in the country. I’m also locked out. Misael works his way to the parking lot after his shouts and forceful knocks went unanswered.

Twenty minutes go by and neither of us have any luck. I call to get a temperature reading on my appointment. No one answers. We pass time with small talk before Misael, a Jazzie’s resident, shares his story.

A 29-year-old transgender male, Misael arrived in San Francisco this past summer in hope of completing his sex reassignment surgery and starting a new life in the Bay Area. A Virginia native, he was born Ashley Blow, the daughter of two preachers, and grew up in a “well-to-do” family that had a reputation to uphold. He was smart and driven — college-level classes in high school, a knack for drums that led to a bit role in the movie “Drumline.” He enrolled at North Carolina Central University with biomedical ambitions but never finished. Misael’s drug-addicted roommate siphoned money from his bank account until the tuition funds bled out.

After he returned home, his world started to crack. His great-grandfather, the family member that stood up for him amidst less understanding kin, passed away, and his beloved Yorkshire terrier, Loyalty, got killed. To add to the misery, he was assaulted and sent to a psychiatrist. He was 20.

He started his transition in 2009 and met a friend through a transgender network. They researched doctors countrywide, went through with the first stages of their bilateral mastectomy, or “top surgery,” and hashed out a plan to complete their transition in San Francisco. Misael sacrificed to save money, like foregoing his car insurance payments toward the end to shore up finances.

On July 17, he packed a backpack and a travel bag the size of a toaster oven for his journey across the country. He had $180 in his pocket.

Thirty minutes into our talk a car pulls into the driveway and a man with close-cropped gray hair steps out. Misael recognizes him, and we provide our individual stories. The man makes a few calls, lets Misael grab his bag and informs me Cecilia is not coming until later. I got the time of day wrong and was scheduled to meet her at 6:45 in the evening.

Misael Christian.

Misael wheels two worn rolling bags out to the parking lot. The handle on one is broken so he starts to put his stuff into the new bag, a purchase that cost him $150. There’s cleaning supplies, a smaller bag, a broken-down Swiffer, empty juice bottles, rags, sleep medicine and medicinal marijuana floating around the inside.

Misael spends his days cleaning houses. He uses the app Handy to find clients all around the city, wheeling his bag and carrying his backpack wherever he goes. The work keeps him active and away from ambition-killing pastimes like drinking and drug use. He, like so many others who use middleman services, rues the company for taking a cut and slapping the risk onto the contractors. But it’s work.

His original plan hinged on California’s favorable healthcare system, and the work of Dr. Curtis Crane to perform the surgery he needs to “feel whole.” But Misael’s transgender friend from Virginia ended up being a fraud. He preyed on people for their information and support and, in Misael’s case, a place to crash. The friend left Virginia and followed through on his own surgery before Misael stepped foot in California. After five days in town, the shelter system became Misael’s only option.

Misael got placed in a big shelter for hundreds of bodies that provided a cot and a piece of floor. People were so tight together, he says, that if you leisurely swung your arm back you’d hit somebody. He needed to be on alert all the time. One night, he saw somebody steal shoes right off a passed out person’s feet. His sleeping suffered as a result (hence the pills) and his anxiety spiked (hence the cannabis).

He became a number, a person with no identity stuck in a foreign body. It was prison without the bars, oppression with a thin veil of freedom. The staff, he came to realize, were no help against malicious threats transgender men had to deal with. But he couldn’t protect himself all the time.

One day he was sexually abused in the shower. He was moved to an SRO (single room occupancy) for safety and treatment. He wound up in a smaller shelter with 28 beds and filled out a form for Jazzie’s after he found out such a place existed.

Jazzie’s Place, named in honor of the late transgender activist Jazzie Collins, opened on June 17 of this year with a ribbon-cutting ceremony that included Mayor Ed Lee. The shelter, which is run by Dolores Street Community Services (DSCS) is a single room with 24 beds separated into three eight-bed sections — male, female and non-conforming.

Jazzie’s, the first DSCS shelter that is not male-only, is housed in the same facility as Martha and Maria, two other shelters the non-profit runs. (DSCS has four shelters total. Santa Ana is located nearby on Dolores Street and 24th Street). DSCS rents the space from the Santa Maria y Santa Marta Lutheran Church. The property includes a communal courtyard, which all clients are welcome to use; the church, which doubles as a dining hall for the dinner meal; and amenities, such as showers, outlets, and Wi-Fi that DSCS has paid for and implemented on its own.

The shelters operate from 7 p.m.–7 a.m., seven days a week. The courtyard and non-shelter rooms are used as a child daycare center outside those hours.

On initial thought, a safe haven for such a diverse clientele prone to abuse in a gender-rigid shelter system brings a freestanding structure to mind, a place isolated from the risks that caused it to be built in the first place. Yesenia Lacayo, a program manager at DSCS for the past two-and-a-half years, doesn’t see it that way.

The site of three of Dolores Street Community Services’ four shelters, including Jazzie’s Place.

“If we only focus on Jazzie’s, it reaffirms the idea that ‘these people are those people’,” she says to me in a phone conversation. “We want to build a community that runs across all four shelters.”

Lacayo and her colleagues put a premium on individual attention. The rules can be viewed as strict, Lacayo admits, but the purpose is to give clients a routine that will help them carve out their days.

“I had a client, an older person transitioning from male to female. Her first round in any shelter started at Jazzie’s,” Lacayo recalls. “She didn’t like it and left after four weeks. Then she came back and stayed for two months. During that second stint she used resources, checked in with her case manager, and found someone to advocate for her. I saw the client last week. She stopped smoking weed, carried her head higher, and followed up with her primary care.”

San Francisco’s entire shelter network runs through the 311 system, a central number that provides information and assistance for a variety of city services, including homeless housing. Prospective shelter seekers can book over the phone, online, or visit resource centers like Dolores Street Community Services to receive a 90-day stay plus a 30-day extension at whichever shelter they prefer, provided there is an open bed. The waiting list, depending on who you talk to, has anywhere from 700 to 900 people.

The other option is a separate list that fills beds on a one-night-only basis. At 4:30 p.m. every day, each shelter relays how many vacant beds it has with no reservation attached. Beds open up for a number of reasons — reservations end; residents don’t like the fit; staff dismiss people for infractions; and friends or family take someone in. Rather than cycle through long term stays only, shelters can cater to people in need of last-minute aid.

Jazzie’s is one of the few places that eschews both the 311 system and the single-night option, requiring clients to attend an in-person interview at Mission Neighborhood Resource Center (MNRC) at 165 Capp St. But as of Nov. 19, Jazzie’s joined the single-night list to provide unoccupied beds to those in a pinch. The change is part of a wider effort to further integrate it into the shelter system and welcome patrons from outside the LGBTQ community.

Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, 165 Capp St.

“I don’t want LGBTQ members sitting at a table not interacting with the rest of the community members,” Ricardo Newball, MNRC’s drop-in services manager tells me, echoing Lecayo’s words. “This is their resource center, too. Not just one for heterosexuals.”

Newball has a thick laugh that sounds forged from a lifetime of stress-free beach days, a trait you’d expect this line of work to beat out of somebody. His job is to make sure that any person who comes through the doors gets the service they need.

MNRC, aside for a two-hour lunch break, is open during the gap Jazzie’s and most other shelters leave in a homeless person’s day. Anyone is free to come through and spend time or take advantage of essentials, like laundry and showers.

Newball plans to start a member-run LGBTQ support group, a project motivated by past incidents between LGBTQ members and those in the larger community, to better address needs and issues. Newball’s goal is to help LGBTQ members realize how they are perceived when sticking to a solitary area dubbed “Jazzie’s Table” day after day, and he wants to educate the larger community about common misconceptions.

“If they are here, let’s do something about it,” he says. “I don’t want this to be a warehouse with storage bodies from 7 (a.m.)–7 (p.m.) so they are not wandering. People that just sit get into trouble, so let’s get busy.”

At 6:45 p.m., the inside of the property is much the same as it is at 6:45 a.m. There is a crowd of people waiting patiently to go in for the night. A flow of mostly men enter the main gate and form a line to check in. It has the look of a medical clinic, with one person in a bright-lit room behind a computer meeting a tail of people anxious to get through. After this daily routine, residents are free to do as they like. Most head straight into the church for a warm meal. Some find their beds to turn in for the night.

The scene has a calm, Sunday-afternoon pace. The area is clean — no trash or cigarette butts on the ground — and inviting. Webs of loose-knit groups overlap like any public space. A couple of smokers wade into the designated area. A few guys huddle around with sandwiches and water bottles as an on-site worker catches up with a client in French while handing out blankets.

Cecilia Moreno arrives. She toggles between English and Spanish with ease, reaching out to clients on a first-name basis and asking how their day is going.

The former army photographer and a mother of five, Moreno has worked at DSCS for 14 years. She has the uncanny sense of the sweet spot between firm and friendly. This quality is on display when an intoxicated client wanders through the gate and tries to fumble past Moreno into the courtyard. He refuses a chair or a cup of water. Moreno doesn’t reprimand him. She keeps her distance and suggests next steps. After two minutes he is sitting and drinking water.

“People here are so tuned into your body language,” she explains. “I was never taught how to handle every type of situation, but I learned what works when you’re dealing with people that are highly focused on the way you make them feel.”

The front desk and check-in counter for Jazzie’s, Martha, and Maria.

Her role as the case manager of the shelter site involves, among many other things, weekly Wednesday-night visits to reinforce her role as the point of contact for the 80 residents of Jazzie’s, Martha, and Maria.

Moreno’s evenings tend to involve more than liaison duties. For the two hours I was at Jazzie’s, she troubleshoots the following: figures out if a reservation is valid when the system is down; gives out tokens for MUNI; enters names into a spreadsheet; uses my cell phone to call a colleague to get the heat turned on; quells a potentially volatile situation between a client and two street dwellers; and moves children’s benches leftover from the afternoon.

She takes me through Jazzie’s while clients shuffle in and out. A blend of whites, silvers and light grays gives off a modern, neutral environment. Even at full capacity, with the contents of people’s lives splayed out, the room looks sterile and manicured.

The beds are organized into bunks. Each person is allowed to leave one bag on their bed for the day, a feature Moreno said is not common among shelters, and they can lock personal or private items in one of two drawers that sit under each bunk.

Moreno is proud of the physical space and the invisible culture she and her co-workers work hard to make real. But she isn’t satisfied. The overnight staff, two teams of three that work in six-hour shifts, still get minimum wage, and there are not enough resources to cater to the clientele’s full spectrum of needs. Her goal is to make the site more than a 12-hour safety net.

“If it’s rain or shine or thunder or lightning, they have to leave,” she says. “That’s what I don’t like about this. Sometimes we have seniors, disabled people who are frail. They have to go out there no matter what. It’s sad because they are not getting enough care.”

Dr. Barry Zevin, the medical director of San Francisco’s Homeless Outreach Team and the clinical lead for the San Francisco Department of Health’s Transgender Services, has worked to implement better care and services for the LGBTQ homeless population over the past 25 years. For years, he says, there were no specific services for queer people.

Now, the Department of Public Health requires one-on-one transgender education for healthcare staff and contractors. Zevin has provided instruction to staff at Jazzie’s Place in the past to help break down the complexities of gender identity.

“When we train staff they say, ‘OK, now I get it, someone can express gender one way that is not consistent with their gender identity’,” he begins. “That is not obvious because transgender people, more than others, need to have a safe and secure environment to feel OK with their gender.”

According to Zevin, transgender education needs to move past healthcare professionals to the general population that hears little more than “melodramatic information on Oprah.” Educating society as a whole is the most certain way to lift the tide against fear and discrimination toward transgender people.

Nevertheless, a strong, safe community for the LGBTQ homeless population, as simple as it sounds, is paramount.

“Talking to people in the LGBTQ homeless population about community, the word I hear often is fractured, that there is no place to fit in,” Zevin says. “Any patient’s strength and resilience depends on support. The homeless population doesn’t have family support and this is even more the case in the LGBTQ population.”

Steven Smith.

Charles, a 26-year-old that occupies a top-bunk in the non-conforming section, still has the afterglow of adolescence. Road trips down California’s spine were common not too long ago. For now, Jazzie’s is a place for Charles, who wouldn’t give his last name, to recover from the drama of past shelters — lice, indecent smokers, fires — and one less thing to worry about when taking Microsoft Office classes during the day.

Maria Alcira Lemus, a self-identified lesbian that hasn’t lost the inflection of her Colombian accent, just needs a place to stay while she arranges court documents to get her house back. She’s lived and worked in San Francisco almost as long as Charles has been alive, bouncing around shelters since July without sexual preference or gender in mind. Jazzie’s came up amongst friends, but the perk keeping her here has nothing to do with LGBTQ identity: her cat and two birds can stay with her, which most shelters don’t allow.

Moreno introduces me to Steven Smith outside the church’s doors. With his flip flops, jeans, fleece, and post-workout sheen, he looks like he just came from a productive day at a startup. Steven is a resident of Martha but, as a gay male, identifies with Jazzie’s community and says the LGBTQ-specific addition is long overdue. After he eats dinner, we sit down in one of Jazzie’s few quasi-private places.

Steven came to San Francisco in 1980 when he was in his 20s. He went to all-night discos and reveled in a place where his sexuality didn’t need a filter. He stayed for a decade, assembling a team of 102 for his landscape architecture firm that took jobs up and down the California coast. Then he went abroad — Paris for 14 years, Puerto Vallarta and Mexico City.

“I had a beautiful one-bedroom in Puerto Vallarta,” he recalls. “I was always at the beach and on the ocean.”

Then in July, the social security he gets for disability fell through. He didn’t know what else to do other than return home to a familiar city. He went to GLIDE, an organization that combats poverty’s many tentacles, on Ellis Street to get any bed they had to offer. He befriended five people initially, but they all spiraled downward and ended up using him for money.

“I’m sensitive about relationships now because those people took advantage of my kindness and mistook it for stupidity,” Steven says with raw dignity. “It’s not stupidity, it was generosity.”

Violence has crept up to him on the streets three times. One incident occurred in broad daylight near the Federal Building on Sixth Street and Mission Street when a man with a steel pipe confronted him before he boarded a bus.

At Martha he feels safe.

“This shelter is by far the best for security,” he explains. “Verbal attacks are caught right off the bat.”

Steven spends his days taking pictures of murals and architecture on his phone. Sitting in cafes he edits the photos into slideshows backed by music. He shows me a work in progress that is waiting for Ariana Grande’s music to complete it.

“Each morning I try to find the beauty in something because this is really depressing if you allow it to get to you,” he says. “I don’t know if anybody benefits from it, but I certainly do because it keeps my mind occupied on something that’s artistic.”

He can’t hold down a job because of his past four back operations. The pain is so extreme that he takes hours out of his day to lie down in the park so the discomfort can subside. Steven receives $16 a day through California’s General Assistance program while he works through his life’s kinks. Some things won’t mend. He has an older sister he hasn’t seen in more than 20 years because she doesn’t agree with his sexuality, and he has nieces he’s barred from seeing or speaking with. He is not ashamed of who he is; he’s ashamed of his situation.

I never see the emotions flicker that validate the humiliated feelings he describes. His candor and poise never give in to the “remarkable struggle” he says he experiences every day. Others he’s met in similar situations have not fared as well. Steven swipes through his phone and comes across people he knew from past shelters who have regressed, never gaining the strength or support to work their way back into a good job or good home. It’s a visceral reminder of what might happen if he is forced to live like this for an extended period of time.

“It’s an incredibly depressing way to live day-by-day. Some people stay in the shelter system for years, but for me it is not healthy,” he states.

His reservation expires Dec. 8. He can’t afford San Francisco, so he’s moving on to San Diego, another city from his past.

Dr. Zevin says the most immediate need for both the LGBTQ and general homeless population is appropriate housing. Transgender people, specifically, have marginal and unstable accommodations that can result in a trauma feedback loop. Shelters and SROs don’t cut it.

“Supportive models of housing with choices are the more important component for people health wise,” Levin says. “No home causes severe problems with people’s health.”

No matter how much good work Moreno, Lacayo, Newball and others do, they are not magicians who can make living spaces appear every time a person is ready to support themselves independently.

“We don’t have a drawer full of houses,” Moreno says.

The real estate market’s stranglehold on residential space has caused Moreno and her colleagues to shift their focus from housing to skill development. Moreno, who ran a successful money management program until it lost funding, knows how to help people tap into their abilities and move toward self-employment.

“Case management breaks things down into a checklist,” she explains. “A lot of people in the shelter system cannot grasp the mentality of goals. They think they need to be in a different place. But to get to a goal you need a checklist. We help them see the smaller picture to reach their goals.”

She pushes hard to get the homeless to advocate for themselves — to organize rallies, to assemble marches, to even boycott things if they must — so they can remember they still have a voice even if they don’t have a home. If the homeless population neglects to speak up, the government will speak for them however it sees fit.

The belongings of Charles, a 26-year-old residing in Jazzie’s non-conforming section.

Misael still has two months left at Jazzie’s, but he is considering other options. If the healthcare prices in his home state of Virginia drop, then he could be persuaded to go back east and start over again in a more familiar environment.

For now, he’s stuck. He’s lived nearly three decades with some beta-version of himself and doesn’t want to settle for second-best options. He wants to become the person he didn’t have the luck to be born as.

“I don’t do normal stuff, like go to the beach, because I don’t feel normal,” he says. “I’m not complete in some way.”

He wants at least one biological child. To do that, he says, he’ll need to continue to be off testosterone, as he has been for five months, and come up with $10,000 to $14,000 to remove his eggs and freeze them — not become the next Thomas Beatie and carry a baby himself, like his mom suggested.

The egg removal needs to happen before he completes the bottom half of his sex reassignment surgery or he loses the chance to reproduce. To get the Phalloplasty surgery he wants it’ll take a graft of skin from his thigh and anywhere from $32,000 to $110,000. California will help him pay for the Phallo surgery after a year of living in the state, he says, but he doesn’t think he can make it until then.

The parts of him that don’t need surgery have suffered. His outgoing personality he loves so much never gets out of second gear. He’s found little common ground with those in the shelter, and people on the street keep their distance. He’s naked all the time, forced to display the unkempt parts of his life most of us leave in apartments.

Social situations that do arise pose problems. Drinks with the boys will always lead to an ordeal when it comes time to go to the bathroom. Sex gossip involves a polemic on how sexual preference and gender identity is not the same thing and, inevitably, Misael stating that he’s not a gay male.

Romance is out of the question, a luxury the shelter system doesn’t offer. The only way to scratch the surface of a deep human connection is to see other people in love and smile. But intimacy is not his primary concern.

“I would really just like to be able to converse with somebody,” he says.

Misael has surprised himself with his survival skills and resourcefulness. His parents, even though still covering their love behind abrasive wool, have taken note of his persistence.

“The other day I spoke to my mom and she said, ‘You know what, you’re brave for what you’re doing.’ I don’t think I ever heard her say that before,” he recalls.

If only bravery was all it took.

DSCS will host a Winter Celebration on Dec. 17 that will include a special dinner and gift packages for the homeless. If you would like to donate gift cards or gift vouchers, you can drop them off at 938 Valencia Street or get in contact with Jazzie’s Place case manager Cecilia Moreno at cmoreno@dscs.org.

Dolores Street Community Services is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.

Dolores Street Community Services, 938 Valencia St.

[this story originally appeared on Ripple.News]