BALTIMORE, Md. — The staff at Baltimore Safe Haven knows how to help vulnerable trans people because they’ve walked in their shoes.
"That trauma, that scars you, physically and emotionally that scars you for life and that leads to not being able to have positive relationships with people," said Melissa Devereaux, who goes by Molly.
Molly is one of the staff members who has lived experience, someone who has lived through traumas like discrimination, homelessness, drug addiction and survival sex work. She and other staff members at Baltimore Safe Haven use their experience to meet trans folks where they are.
"It's a never-ending cycle of violence, and it's that oppression that we here at Baltimore Safe Haven are trying to break. And it's not going to be easy, but we're going to do what we can to ensure that we break that cycle," she said.
The founder of the organization is also a trans woman of lived experience.
"Imagine how many trans kids are understanding this, not just trans women, you know, trans men, non-binary individuals, who are going through this suffering because of who they are," said Iya Dammons, the founder and executive director of Baltimore Safe Haven.
Kicked out of her home at 14 after coming out as trans, Iya was forced to survive on the streets, selling her body in order to afford motel rooms to stay in. It was her lived experience as a Black trans woman that inspired her to offer something that didn’t exist – a community offering free support from people who understood.
"We also have to get to the core grassroots issues of what's happening in the community to be able to service our own people," she said, "I'm living the experience and you can't tokenize me, tell me when to stop or anything like that because I lead the ship. So, that's what makes this work so magical because it's led by a person who has lived at all."
Baltimore Safe Haven staff meet trans people on the streets to hand out free hygiene and safety supplies, offer housing, help with GEDs and education, and offer HIV testing and connections to rehab.
"I think a lot of people really appreciate the human connection to just be seen just someone to like listen to them for a while and just encourage them," said Wren Taube, who works outreach for the organization.
Sadly, a part of having lived experience is also knowing what it’s like to lose people in their own community. While violence against all trans people is devastating, trans women of color are disproportionately impacted. Black trans women exist in the intersection of sexism, racism and transphobia and overcome more barriers when trying to access basic needs.
Last year, 2021, was the deadliest year for trans people. At least 51 trans people were murdered, the majority of which were Black and Latino.
"These are your fellow humans, like it's as simple as that and there's so much pitted against like my trans siblings, especially trans siblings of color," said Wren. "They're not necessarily able to thrive they're living in survival mode."
According to the national LGBTQ Task Force, Black trans folks have a 26% unemployment rate, 41% have been homeless, more than five times the general population, and nearly half had attempted suicide. These statistics are among many reasons why many Black trans women resort to survival sex work.
"My life matters. People need to understand that there's different people in the world. They need to understand that I matter as a Black trans woman or any trans woman, non-conforming individual, we matter. Sometimes they look at us like we're lesser," said Iya.
As Baltimore Safe Haven expands, offering more housing, more resources and advocates for more inclusive policies, Iya and her team are asking us all to expand our hearts and minds to make room for more understanding to one day stop violence against trans people altogether.