Tatyana Woodard tests space to hang art at Ark of Safety, a new North Philly shelter for LGBTQ people Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Philly resident Tatyana Woodard is opening a shelter for LGBTQ people because she knows how much it would have helped her, decades ago.

Woodard, a Black trans woman, left home at 14 and experienced homelessness and housing insecurity for years. She spent half a decade oscillating between short-term hotel stays and nights on friends’ couches.

“I don’t think people understand that it’s a trauma that always stays with you,” said Woodard, now 33 and a community affairs manager at the Mazzoni Center. “It never leaves the back of your mind.”

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Homelessness is a persistent issue for queer and trans people. In 2019, 17% of LGBTQ people reported experiencing homelessness in their lives, compared to just 6% of cisgender, straight people. This can leave LGBTQ people particularly vulnerable to other systemic issues, like violence.

Now, Woodard is doing something about it.

In the last few years, she partnered with an inclusive church, secured fiscal sponsorship from two community health orgs, and connected with nonprofits to open the Ark of Safety: a 12-bed shelter in North Philadelphia. Some of the beds will be reserved for trans people — and will connect them to rapid rehousing at the end of their stay.

Though there are other housing programs for LGBTQ people, Woodard and cofounder Bishop Romaine S. Gibbs say this is the first shelter designed specifically for queer and trans people in Philadelphia. Advocates say it’s overdue.

“It makes 200% sense,” said Michael Melvin, assistant supervisor of prevention and education services at Bebashi, an HIV/AIDS service org specifically for Black and brown people in Philly. “This is something that should have happened a long time ago.”

Housing is not a service Bebashi offers directly, but people are constantly asking for it, he added. “We get at least five people a day that come in here looking for housing. It’s an issue that comes about with people who identify as trans and even some gay men: they don’t want to be in a shelter because of discrimination. This is the number one priority.”

With grants in pocket and a space secured, Woodard hopes to open the shelter in mid-September. But she’s hoping for more cash from a crowdfunding page she started last year, to help hire operations staff.

“It’s about time that Black trans women take ownership over services,” Woodard said. “I know I have the ability to run an organization. I am the expert in this. I experienced it. I went through it.”

Woodard stands in one of the common areas of the Ark of Safety, which is targeting a mid-September opening Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Beds and support for a dozen at a time, plus weekly meals for more

Gibbs first met Woodard on New Year’s Eve in 2018. She showed up to his holiday service at Germantown’s Next Level Revival Church, and he noticed her right away.

“I remember I was preaching and I just saw this young lady so full of life, and so into the worship,” Gibbs said. “She came in week after week, and I said, ‘It’s time for you to work.’ So she joined the ministry to work with the trans community.”

Growing up gay and religious, Gibbs faced his own set of barriers at church. That’s why his congregation is designed to welcome LGBTQ people. Once Woodard started telling trans people they’d be safe there, they came to receive the church’s regular free meals constantly.

“We found out some members, that was the only meal they were getting that day. Some were facing really serious housing deficiencies and we didn’t know that,” Gibbs said. “So we actually came together and talked about that we needed to do something.”

That’s when the two got started working on the Ark of Safety. By now, it’s almost a reality. They’ve received six figures in grants from several organizations, with the Mazzoni Center and Bebashi serving as primary fiscal sponsors.

Colorful signs decorate Ark of Safety, a new North Philly shelter for LGBTQ people Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

In total, Ark of Safety will open 12 new shelter beds for the LGBTQ community. Eight of those beds will be emergency housing, and the remaining four will be a special cohort specifically for trans people. They’ll stay there for six months, and receive wraparound services like job readiness and financial literacy trainings. There will also be regular support groups and free gender-affirming clothes, via the Philly nonprofit Prevention Meets Fashion.

After six months, the four cohort members will be referred to a more longterm rapid rehousing program.

The North Philly shelter will follow a housing-first model, with no eligibility requirements to get in — except that you’re LGBTQ. Since there are only 12 beds available, they’ll likely have to develop a waitlist. To serve the broader community, Woodard said, they’ll offer free meals once a week.

In addition to fiscal sponsorship, Bebashi will provide regular STI testing, HIV/AIDS prevention services, and short-term case management on site at Ark of Safety.

Keeping trans people safe

There are a handful of existing Philly programs that help LGBTQ people find housing.

There’s Way Home, a rapid rehousing program for LGBTQ people. Morris Home is a residential addiction recovery program for trans and gender-nonconforming people. The Gloria Casarez Residence offers a few dozen affordable homes for queer and trans people, and the John C. Anderson Apartments house LGBTQ seniors.

But the Ark of Safety appears to be the first emergency shelter in the city open only to queer and trans people.

For now, Woodard is keeping the location of the shelter under wraps, because she’s worried about the safety of her clients. Trans people are roughly four times more likely to be victims of violence than cisgender people.

Woodard has some other ideas she hopes to develop, like hiring an intern to collect data on Philly’s LGBTQ homeless population, and creating a resource book with queer- and trans-friendly landlords in the city.

If she’s successful, she wants to grow the Ark of Safety into a network of LGBTQ shelters.

“Not only do we hope to house people, but also organize around this issue and tackle it on a larger scale,” Woodard said. “I hope this won’t be just one facility. The hope is that we’ll have a community-based organization attached to us, that’s trans-led and the first of its kind.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Thetelegraphfield. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...