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‘It was the life raft’: Transgender people find a safe haven in Florida’s capital city


‘It was the life raft’: Transgender people find a safe haven in Florida’s capital city

Feb 19, 2024 | 5:00 am ET
By Nada Hassanein
‘It was the life raft’: Transgender people find a safe haven in Florida’s capital city
Jae Cancel sits at the window inside a Tallahassee, Fla., transgender safe house. The safe house was launched in December 2022 by local nonprofit Capital Tea, a group that focuses on transgender outreach. Experts say safe houses are essential to combating disparities as transgender people disproportionately suffer homelessness and other barriers. Nada Hassanein/Stateline

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Quandarius “Chanel” Johnson twirled a gold-colored crown that glinted with light streaming in from a nearby window.

It’s a symbol to remind her of her strength. After all, “I’m a Leo,” Johnson said.

She keeps the crown hanging on her bedpost. Johnson, a Black transgender woman, lives in a safe house not far from the Florida Capitol, where lawmakers in recent years have placed new restrictions on transgender people, as have legislators in other Republican-dominated states. Last spring, for example, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a new law prohibiting puberty blockers and hormone therapy for minors, and another barring transgender people from using the restroom that matches their gender identity.

Tucked in a quiet neighborhood on the eastern outskirts of Florida’s capital city, the four-bedroom, 1,600-square-foot house with a brick archway and shrub-lined walkway is just 5 miles from the capitol building. But it offers a sanctuary — albeit a limited one — from the transgender debates roiling the Florida legislature.

A person holds a crown.
Quandarius “Chanel” Johnson, 23, holds a gold-tinted crown that she keeps in her bedroom at a transgender safe house in Tallahassee, Fla. Nada Hassanein/Stateline

Launched by Capital Tea, a local transgender outreach nonprofit, it opened in December 2022 and has five resident beds plus another bed for emergency stays. The money to run it comes from foundations and nonprofits concerned about violence against LGBTQ+ people, said director Janel Diaz.

Transgender and gender-nonconforming adults are more likely to be homeless, with many of them kicked out of their homes by disapproving relatives, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. About 1 in 5 transgender people have experienced homelessness at some point, the National Center for Transgender Equality reports, and Black people make up a disproportionate number of them.

“When I came out to my family, I was kicked out of my house, too,” said Diaz, who is transgender. Then 18, she lived on the streets for a year. “To some people that might seem not a lot. But for me, it seemed like an eternity.”

I want Capital Tea to be the Underground Railroad of trans housing.

– Janel Diaz, founding director of Capital Tea, a transgender support nonprofit

Residents can stay for up to a year at Capital Tea’s safe house, which is reserved for transgender women. This summer, Diaz said, the group plans to open a house for transgender men. She hopes to grow the program beyond Florida and create a model program for other states and cities.

“I want it to be to where it is not just Tallahassee-based,” Diaz said. “I want Capital Tea to be the Underground Railroad of trans housing.”

Efforts elsewhere

In Memphis, Tennessee, where gender-affirming health care for youth is now illegal under state law, My Sistah’s House offers a shelter for transgender women. Tennessee, like Florida, is GOP-dominated, but similar homes exist in Democratic-controlled states.

A ministry group runs the R&R Space in Michigan; a group of Republican lawmakers in that state last month discussed banning transgender health care for everyone.

Other examples include a transitional housing program run by the Transgender Emergency Fund of Massachusetts, and one run by the TransLatin Coalition in Los Angeles.

Laws banning gender-affirming treatments can block trans youth from receiving other care

The issue of housing resonates throughout transgender communities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a series of reports last month on transgender women, HIV disparities and housing. Among 1,566 transgender women, 31% reported being homeless for between a month and a year. In addition, more than half of transgender women who reported being evicted or denied housing due to their gender identity also reported being homeless for that amount of time.

Elle Lett, a University of Washington School of Public Health statistician-epidemiologist, who is a Black and trans woman, has researched the issue.

“Trans people are subjected to interpersonal and structural discrimination that often leaves them unhoused, without social supports, and these things are exacerbated by other intersecting systems of oppression like racism and ableism,” said Lett, who is also a medical school student at the University of Pennsylvania. “They have a lot working against them.”

Public health experts note that housing and well-being are closely linked. Christopher AhnAllen, director of inpatient psychology at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said places such as the Capital Tea home “create spaces of love and joy and wellness that are essential to contrast the hostility and hate that may exist in other spaces.”

At home in Tallahassee

The house in Tallahassee is decked out with contemporary-style furniture — velvet gray sofas, pink candles and tall lamps that glow different colors. Heavy incense wafts through the air. A rec room closet has a stack of board games and donations of clothes and toiletries.

Johnson, who has HIV, receives health care from a local clinic for low-income HIV patients. But she doesn’t know how she will pay for her upcoming medical transition.

People at a dining table.
Janel Diaz, right, the founder of the transgender outreach group Capital Tea, shares a meal with residents of the organization’s safe house for transgender women in Tallahassee, Fla. Nada Hassanein/Stateline

On a recent afternoon, she had more pressing concerns on her mind. Johnson and her housemate Jae Cancel had just finished tidying for incoming residents, and Diaz announced that she was making a run to McDonald’s.

“Filet-o-Fish?” Diaz called out to Cancel.

“Yes! Love you!”

Cancel, 20, has been homeless since they were 15. Cancel’s mother kicked them out multiple times, shuffling the then-teen to their father’s house, where they said they were beaten. Stateline agreed to use a pseudonym for this story and withheld Cancel’s full name for their safety.

In the summer of 2022, before connecting with Capital Tea, Cancel got off the streets and was doing yard work for a homeowner in exchange for a room in an RV. The situation quickly deteriorated, however, and Cancel didn’t feel safe with the homeowner.

A person writes in a notebook.
Jae Cancel, a 20-year-old resident of a safe house for transgender women in Tallahassee, Fla., writes in their notebook on a recent afternoon. Nada Hassanein/Stateline

After Capital Tea saw Cancel’s social media posts about the housing situation, Diaz and her team got them a hotel room before taking them to the local homeless shelter, where they shared a room with other homeless transgender youth until the Capital Tea house became ready at the end of the year.

“It was the life raft thrown when you least expect it,” Cancel said.

Cancel shared a room and single bathroom with other trans residents at the homeless shelter, and was followed around the premises several times.

“Here [at the Capital Tea house], I know that I’m not going to be judged when I turn this corner, and I’m not going to be talked about,” Cancel said. “I’m able to really sit in silence and stillness.”

Johnson was 18 when she started wearing lashes and getting her hair done. But her family in rural Georgia rejected her transgender identity.

At 19, she moved to Tallahassee to get away. At 22, her mother died while Johnson was living with a roommate who didn’t accept her identity and was “toxic,” Johnson said.

“It had me in a low place,” she said, her chin trembling, adding that living with her previous roommate “felt like I was still being robbed of who I was as a person.”

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She met and befriended Diaz through local drag shows.

“I need to get out of this situation,” Johnson said she told Diaz. “She [Diaz] was like, ‘Can you hold on, and I got you?’ I did what I needed to do to maintain.”

One day, Johnson got a phone call.

“I’ve got a surprise for you,” Diaz told her. She picked Johnson up and brought her to the house. “This is going to be where you’ll be staying.”

Johnson said she sees herself and her housemates as a “sisterhood.”

“She didn’t know me from a can of paint, but she knew I was connected to her in some type of way,” she said about having Diaz as a mentor and “second mom.” “She’s been one person that has literally been in my corner.”

Johnson said she is relieved to have shelter.

“You can’t box something that was never meant to fit in,” she said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct Christopher AhnAllen’s title.