Nonprofit tackles homelessness within Pittsburgh’s transgender community

PITTSBURGH — Struggles with homelessness within the transgender community are something a lot of people don’t know about unless you’ve experienced it first hand.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equity, 1 in 5 transgender people have been discriminated against when trying to find a home.

Ciora Thomas, the founder of SisTers PGH, said coming out as a transgender woman, drug addiction and being homeless at just 15 years old led her to one of the darkest times of her life.

“I would always see the bridges, and I would make my way up to them and literally climb over it, look down at the water and just be crying,” said Thomas.

Thomas overcame the difficulties she once faced and founded a trans and nonbinary shelter and nonprofit that helps transgender people transition into the world.

Homelessness is one of the problems Thomas continues to see for trans people in Pittsburgh and said discrimination is the root of it.

“I personally called landlords around the city as a prospective tenant. I would tell them, ‘I’m trans. I’m looking for a place to live. Is this a safe space for me?’ and I would get, ‘Um, no. No, thank you,’ or they’d hang up,” said Thomas.

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Marilyn Blackburn, vice president of SisTers PGH, said they’ve also been seeing young people who no longer live with their families.

“There are parents out there who just don’t like their daughter or son coming out as being trans. There’s name-calling, kicking them out because they don’t understand the lifestyle,” said Blackburn.

There is hope, though. It comes from President Joe Biden’s selection of Pennsylvania’s health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, as his assistant health secretary.

“Having her literally in one of the highest positions in the U.S. is a game changer. She can speak on a lot of things when it comes to the health crisis for the queer community, especially the trans community,” said Karl Shaley with the Pittsburgh Equality Center.

Blackburn and Thomas agree that Levine’s appointment should help to broaden protections, policies and procedures that protect trans people.

“She’s opened a door for our trans community, letting you know we are here, and there will be more of us coming,” said Blackburn.