Building My Sista’s House
Terri Wilder: Thanks for speaking with me today. You co-founded the organization, My Sistah’s House. How did you and others come up with the idea to start it, and who are the clients that you serve?
Kayla Gore: About five years ago, myself and the other co-founder, Illyahnna [Wattshall], were working at the LGBTQ Community Center here in Memphis. We noticed that a lot of trans adults were houseless, and they didn’t have access to emergency shelter. The initial plan was we had space in our homes and were just going to allow people to stay. Then we saw that people had needs. We were trying to figure out: How can we provide resources for these needs?
We went through a couple different ideas. The first idea was to do an Airbnb. We would rent a two-bedroom apartment, and one of the bedrooms would be designated as a shelter and the other bedroom would be an Airbnb, to kind of offset the cost. We never had plans to actually be a fiscally sponsored organization, or to be where we are now with the Tiny House Project. But things just kept developing for us. People started to know outside of our networks that we were actually providing this housing resource. They wanted to help us bolster it and make it the way it is today.
I would say two years into housing people in Illyahnna’s apartment and my house, we got an opportunity from an organization in New York. They came down to Memphis to visit me at the LGBTQ Community Center because they’d heard about the work that we were doing, the grassroots work with My Sistah’s House. It was kind of eerie because I was out of the office. When I came back, there was this big pamphlet from the Trans Justice Funding Project—and Gabriel Foster had come all the way from New York to meet me.
I was like, “Oh, this is fascinating.” And it was. It was fascinating that somebody from New York would come down here to Memphis to see me.
I read over their end-of-the-year report that they left at the Center and was like, “Oh. This pertains to what we do with My Sistah’s House.” At the time, we didn’t have a name for it. But we did have a social support group that we formed. And it’s been the longest-running support group here in Memphis for trans women of color: Bold & Beautiful.
So, we applied for funding for Bold & Beautiful, and they gave us a $2,500 grant. I was like, “Well, we can do a lot of stuff with this money.” We would cover people’s name changes who were living with us because we saw that as a barrier for folks trying to access employment or housing—because their appearance didn’t match their identifying documents.
There’s a heavy concern for people of experiencing discrimination. Therefore, they don’t access certain resources, like housing and employment. That was something we did with the money. We also paid people’s legal fees because some people were coming out of incarceration. We would help them with their attorneys.
Then the following year, we sent them a report on what we had done with the $2,500. They gave us $10,000 the next year. That’s when we were able to really amp up our services. We had registered with the state as a nonprofit. We were able to purchase our first house, which is where we housed people—now it’s our drop-in center. And we came up with the name My Sistah’s House.
The reason behind the name: We went back and forth about many different names. We wanted something that on paper, if someone said it, it was a conversational thing. If I say I’m going to the Union Mission, you know exactly where I’m going. But if I say I’m going to My Sistah’s House, I could literally be going to my sister’s house—or I sleep at my sister’s house, or I live there. And people will not feel the stigma related to being homeless or houseless.
Wilder: Can I ask you a question? What is the homeless situation like in Memphis for trans people? You took people into your homes because there were no other options?
Gore: There was one option there: the Salvation Army Single Women’s Lodge. They will house trans women in their facilities. But their capacity, I want to say, is about 12 beds. At the end of summer, those beds are literally filled and there’s a long waiting list. So, that’s a barrier. Then, our Union Mission only accepts men, and there’s also a fee associated with that.
A lot of our shelters that provide emergency shelter or transitional housing are faith-based, which presents another barrier for trans people accessing that. Then there’s the question of, “Should I tell you?” or, “Where would this person sleep?” Or there would be concerns about the safety of the current residents, versus the safety of this person who’s actually unhoused. And you actually are saying that this is what you do—you provide housing for people who are unhoused.
Those were the conversations I was having as the mediator between communities and these organizations that say they provide housing. Those were hard conversations. I could only imagine if someone was navigating that for themselves, how discouraging that would be.
Wilder: You brought people into your own home as a way to help people get off the street. And then you got this money.
Gore: Initially, it was the house I grew up in. My mother had remarried, and I moved into the house. I was like, “Oh, it’s kind of empty and creepy. Nobody’s upstairs.” People would come to the Center and we would gauge our capacity to actually hold this person, if we could. Some people would be families, with small children, so we weren’t able to house those folks. But single individuals, we were able to do that.
Tiny Homes, Big Vision
Wilder: I’m very fascinated by this tiny homes project that you all started. I want to hear more about it. How did you come up with the idea? How many people can you house at a time? What is your goal and vision for doing tiny homes?
Gore: During the global pandemic and the Black uprisings, a lot of our members who had never experienced homelessness or housing insecurity were on the verge of that because they couldn’t go to work. As I said before, trans people are on the top of the list for discrimination in housing. When we don’t have our rent, we don’t get a lot of leeway or flexibility around that.
Even during the pandemic, even when there were moratoriums on evictions, a lot of trans folks in our network, our members, were not in legal contracts or a lease agreement. They were in housing situations that don’t follow the guidelines set forth by the state around making sure that people have access to hot water and that their windows close and things like that.
During the pandemic, if you didn’t have your money, a lot of people were being kicked out of the places they were living in—especially people who were transient, in hotels. We can only house four people at the drop-in center. So, we were full. We were at capacity. At that time, I want to say our budget was about $37,000. And that budget was solely dedicated to intervention that we were doing with trans women of color here.
We reached out to the funder, and they allowed us to repurpose those funds to help with hotel costs, rental assistance, and utility assistance for folks. We were like, “What do we do to be proactive? In this situation, what creates stability? What creates security for trans folks?”
And for us, we thought home ownership. Illyahnna was having issues with her landlord—because she lived in an apartment and there were people coming and going, staying a week or a month or a day. Some of these people were in domestic violence situations that carried over onto her at that property, and that caused problems for her. So, she wasn’t able to renew her lease.
But once we purchased this home, we didn’t have that problem anymore. No one could tell us that we couldn’t have people coming and going and things like that because we owned the property.
We wanted to pass that on to the community. We were thinking of many different ways to do that. We thought, they have these storage units that are constructed on your property, like what Home Depot would sell. But the city doesn’t currently have codes that allow those to be living situations. You can store things in them, but you can’t have plumbing.
So, we started researching. This is a way for building homes that were very cost-efficient and high-performing. And we started seeing that people were converting those sheds into homes. But we couldn’t do that here. That was our initial plan.
We have a huge backyard (which is now our garden). But we were like, “We could put four of these in the backyard, and that could increase our capacity.” But of course, with code, we couldn’t actually do that and actually have people living in them.
Everybody wasn’t on board, because there was a high-cost issue with building the homes. Then, of course, our capacity wasn’t where it needed to be because we were completely volunteer-led at that time.
One of our volunteers created a GoFundMe account without the knowledge of everybody else. The next day, I woke up and I was being tagged in this Facebook post, where a guy was basically tearing the GoFundMe apart. He was like, “We need more information. Who’s over this? What organizations?”
She had left out a lot of things that people needed to know to be able to actually engage with the GoFundMe. Not even support it, but just engage with it. And he tore it apart.
I looked and was like, “Oh. What? It’s at $500. Let me go in and add a little more language that will help people understand what the project is, who’s going to be the recipient of this project, what organization is behind it, and all the players.”
So we did that, and posted it again. I went to sleep—and I think it was at $17,000 that morning. And then it went to 40-something [thousand]. Every day there was a huge increase. It started to increase by $50,000 every day, and then $100,000 in one day. That came from a celebrity called Noname sharing it. They shared it on their Twitter, and it went viral.
Then the campaign just blew up from there. We had a lot of support from people who are Instagram famous and allowed us to use their platform—an Instagram takeover, if you will—to share not just the Tiny House Project, but to share a lot about our work, our services, our programs. We shared a lot about our history, as well. We do IGTV a lot here.
Getting to the point where we are today was a huge community effort. We have one home that is completed, and two homes that are in construction and will be completed in April. Then we will be starting on a fourplex, which will be right across the street from the two homes that are being built currently.
Wilder: How many people can live in a tiny home?
Gore: The models that we’re working on now, the duplex, they’re both going to be 400 square feet, and there will be one person in each. Then, there’s the fourplex—because we know that some of our members need community. The square footage hasn’t been decided yet by the architects.
The fourplex will serve as kind of a group home, but the people will have their own separate living quarters and share a common area. Kind of similar to the drop-in center we have now, but this will be more independent, transitional housing for folks. They could come here for emergency services or drop in for 30 days. Then we can transition them into the fourplex until we get more of the tiny homes built.
We are at a budget deficit when it comes to building these tiny homes. We’re actively fundraising because they’re very costly. We initially thought we would be spending $22,000 per home, but it’s like double that number. That’s just because there’s not a price differential on building material costs for nonprofits. So we’re paying the same costs as if you or anybody else was building their home.
Our architects are actually providing their services pro bono. They’re out of Indianapolis, and their name is DKGR. They have been really helpful with making sure that we’re staying in alignment with our Memphis 3.0 plan, which is the plan that was created by the city and the county to take us to where we need to be—when it comes to people coming into the city, or local folks building in the city—to make sure that we’re building in a way that we’re considering the future, versus in the past. We haven’t always been thinking about 100 years from now, what it’s going to look like, or what’s the purpose that it’s going to provide for the community.
They’ve been really helpful with that, especially with getting approvals from the city to actually start to build. That’s a rigorous process—notifying all of the residents within a five-mile radius. That seems like a small pool of people, but normally the average number of people we’ve had to contact has been about 180. That’s the average number of homeowners and landowners within a five-mile radius of wherever we’re building. We’re doing something for a community of folks in the South that are discriminated against a lot, and we have to write a letter of intent to our neighbors, basically, asking for approval to actually start to build—and we have to tell them the purpose.
In those letters of intent, I was very vague around who we’re actually providing the homes for. We clearly said they were for people experiencing homelessness, but we didn’t add the fact that they’re transgender individuals who are experiencing homelessness, or are gender-nonconforming people, nonbinary folks, because we’re building in owner communities of color.
During my time working at Out Memphis, we were trying to do something similar with building a new emergency drop-in center. We were asked to leave a community because we were building a drop-in center for LGBTQ youth. We didn’t want to run into that problem, so we kind of left a little language out. That was a conversation that we had with the architects, that you don’t have to line it out like your GoFundMe, or line it out like your plan that we’re committing to funders to actually help us take this project onto the next level.
Wilder: That’s heartbreaking, that you have to leave out that information. At the same time, stigma is real. Transphobia is real. As these letters went out to the community, did you receive any pushback?
Gore: No. So, it’s a public hearing, and it was virtual because of the pandemic. So, everybody’s on Zoom. It was very confusing the first time. I was like, “Did they just say our number? And did they just say that there was no opposition and that we could leave the call?”
The architects were on the call. Our builder was on the call. We had board members who were on the call. I was on the call to represent the board if there was opposition. I stayed on the call to get familiar with the whole process. We got approved this time, but what happens when we don’t get approved? That’s what I wanted to know.
There was another group who was actually trying to convert a home into a drop-in space. It was around housing and homelessness and health care—and there was a lot of opposition to their proposed plan. And the things that people were saying were, “Oh, it’s going to be full of crime.” And that we’re going to have people hanging out on corners. It was just so heartbreaking to hear people speak that way about people who are experiencing houselessness.
I want to say there was some type of mental health component to the work that they were doing. So, they’re providing multiple, multi-pronged services to these individuals. You don’t think that that might better their outcomes, that they’re not standing on the corner? Or that the corner rate might go down because now they have access to things? But it’s just in your neighborhood, so it’s a problem.
We didn’t have any opposition. I literally cried on the conference call. I was by myself. I’m getting emotional now, just thinking about it, because everything else was in the balance when it came to the variance approval. Going forward, we’re still doing variance approval, which is why we’re trying to stay in this general area, where we already have our homes. We’re buying up any piece of land over there that’s available. We’re actually contacting people whose land is not listed but they’re vacant lots to see if they would like to sell their properties. We actually had one person give us a discount. They took $5,000 off the price because they saw what we were doing.
Full Acceptance, No Requirements
Wilder: That’s amazing. There’s a concept in housing called Housing First. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your past is—people have a right to be housed.
Are there any requirements for transgender people who are homeless or unstably housed for getting into your programs? Do they have to be drug-free? Do they have to have a job?
Gore: There are no requirements to access our shelter. We don’t charge for our shelter at all. We provide meals for people here. With our Tiny House Project, our list comes from the people who have already accessed our services, which is basically our members now. That’s how you access a tiny house.
That’s our vision. We accept people here, regardless. We’ve had people come from mental health institutions. We’ve had people come from incarceration and from hospitals. Since this project has garnered so much media support on a national level, we’ve had people come from Texas, from Florida, from the top of Tennessee in Knoxville, and from St. Louis. We’ve had people come from all over accessing our housing.
It’s a good feeling, and it’s a bad feeling, because people shouldn’t have to cross state lines to access affirming shelter.
Wilder: So, how do you decide who gets these spots?
Gore: As far as the emergency shelter, it’s on a first-come, first-served basis. We literally had people, three people that called on the same day and we were like, “We’ve got two beds available.” If they need transportation, we’ll go and pick them up.
But, again, that’s where we are. In cases where we’re at capacity here, we do have money in our budget to house people off-site at a rooming house or an extended stay until there’s room available here, or until their current situation changes.
Wilder: For your clients that are living with HIV, are there any opportunities for you to apply for Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS [HOPWA] money in your location?
Gore: That’s our plan. We’re actually working with a development person and our architect to build out a more comprehensive plan going forward. For all of the pieces of land that we own here in Memphis and we’re able to build on, we’re going to go ahead and design a proposal that we can submit to the teams to get that funding.
Wilder: I want to hear more about your life and what influenced you to get involved in serving the transgender community within this social-justice framework.
Gore: I’ve been doing the work I’m doing for over 10 years. Twelve years ago, I was living in Phoenix and I was experiencing homelessness. And even then, there were no housing options. I always told myself: “I can go home. I have a home. I can just call my mom and I can go home.”
But something kept me sleeping on top of a park bathroom for safety at night. Something just kept me there. I think that’s where it started for me. I didn’t have the best life, but I had an OK life. I was provided for. I had a loving family, and they were even more supportive in my transition.
But that was a moment of reckoning. Like, it can all be gone just in a matter of seconds. That’s how it happened for me. I went there for a job. It was rescinded when I got there, and my housing fell apart because I didn’t have an income.
I came back to Memphis, and I interviewed for a transitional housing program here in Memphis. I realized that it was harder for me accessing these services as a trans person. And providing food for myself was even harder. I was doing survival sex work here in Memphis. I got connected with an organization called Mid-South Peace & Justice Center because I was hungry, and they had good food at their meetings. I was just going for the food. I would chime in here and there when things made sense to me. But I didn’t know that those were strategy meetings, and that we were actually strategizing toward a goal, until we actually were out on the street. We were protesting a facility that provides shelter for people who are experiencing houselessness because their employees were harassing the residents in a play-to-stay kind of way. They were sexually harassing female-identified residents at this place. And we were protesting them almost every week. We were out there with signs and water and bullhorns and protesting them because of how they were treating our community.
We formed a sub-group within the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center called H.O.P.E., which is Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality. Then from that we noticed that our opinions, our thoughts, our input weren’t actually being heard. So we formed another committee called H.O.P.E. Women’s Caucus. This was for women and people who identify as women. This was 10 years ago in Memphis. When we suggested this to the leadership of Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, there was no pushback. And that gave me hope, because I felt like people did not care about me anymore. They helped me get my first job, which brought me out of doing survival sex work. I continued to volunteer with the organization for about two years.
A representative from the LBGT Community Center came to one of our meetings that I was facilitating around housing justice. At the end of the meeting, she said, “We have a position that I think you would be great for.” I was like, “I don’t know. You don’t know me.” But she asked me to send a resume. When people ask me to do stuff, I do it—so I sent her my resume. Three interviews later, I was the first Black trans employee at the LGBTQ Community Center in Memphis. That’s what started all that is today. It’s people believing that we matter and giving us the opportunity to do something great. Not just for ourselves. A lot of times when you’re in a marginalized community people want to do for you. They don’t normally give you the opportunity to do for yourself—and that’s what we want to do.
I worked there for three years, where there was a lot of change within the organization. It went from being called the Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center to being OUTMemphis. There was no trans programming other than a sub-work group called Perpetual Transition. And we built a program with no budget. The only budget they had was for my salary, and it wasn’t a lot. But we got very innovative. We were able to build a great network of support where, the following year, we actually had a budget because people were donating specifically to trans services.
Then I left there and worked at the Transgender Law Center. I left there in March of this year after two years. Then I got some consulting work with the Transgender Strategy Center, which is a national capacity-building organization that’s trans-led. Their priority is building the capacity of trans-led organizations nationally. So, it ended all here at My Sistah’s House. That’s me in a nutshell. I don’t have a personal life.
“So, We Have Wigs”
Wilder: Thank you for sharing your story. I want to circle back around to where we started—about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the community.
I saw on your website that you have set up this COVID-19 mutual aid opportunity. Can you talk a little bit about that and what it does for the transgender community in Memphis?
Gore: Absolutely. Our COVID-19 Mutual Aid Fund were those dollars that we got from a funder to do an extension. We eventually started getting donations to bolster that fund. And that fund was utilized by our members and people who were not our members who needed utilities paid, or needed gas, food, or their rent or mortgage paid. That’s something that we weren’t able to do until people responded.
I want to say this, also. The Mutual Aid Fund was led by Black trans women nationally. Then a lot of other organizations followed suit, to take care of their members or their constituency. And that’s what we wanted to do. We knew we couldn’t house everybody here safely because of COVID-19. But we knew people needed housing. We knew people needed food. We knew people needed money for self-care. We have a self-care check box, if you need to buy a candle or some bubble bath. We didn’t want our members to not be whole.
During the pandemic, where you’re asked to shelter in place—and some people didn’t have shelter in place—we wanted to make it as easy as possible for folks to be able to survive through this. We didn’t know what we were dealing with. But we knew what people needed in that moment, and that’s what we provided through our COVID-19 Mutual Aid Fund—funds for people to actually continue to thrive throughout the pandemic.
Another reason we did that was because for a lot of the aid that was coming from county, state, and federal, trans people did not fall into those categories. Here in Memphis, we had the city deem a few hotels as shelters for families and children—and trans folks just don’t fit into that.
I’m actually working with the executive director of the Hospitality Hub, because they spearheaded that initiative for the city. We’re having conversations about the language, so that if this happens again, or just in general, they can update their language to speak to the trans community.
The language that said families and children—if I look at it, I’m like, well, they don’t consider me a family. I’m definitely not a child and I don’t have any children, so that’s not for me. That’s a hindrance, when we don’t see ourselves in the language, or we don’t see pictures of ourselves on TV—which we actually do now, in a positive light—or on the radio, for that matter. But that was another reason that we did that. We wanted people to feel supported, that if they needed something, there was a space that they could go to and get it.
Wilder: I clicked the button on your website for the COVID-19 Mutual Aid, and it takes you to this list of everything from masks—because obviously we want people to be safe during the pandemic—to water and snacks. I also noticed there are wigs that people can purchase.
Gore: Yes. Heavy on the wigs.
Wilder: Tell me about why the wigs are on this Mutual Aid list.
Gore: Well, our Amazon wish list are things that we wish for, for our survival kits. We provide hot meals on Thursdays to any individual experiencing homelessness, to our members, as well as cis folks, queer, straight, and nonbinary. It doesn’t matter. We go out into the areas of Memphis where homeless people congregate, and we provide hot meals and survival kits.
So a lot of those items that you see on the list will go in our survival kits, like deodorant, baby powder, soap, and face masks. A lot of PPE supplies are on there, as well as some harm-reduction tools.
The wigs are really specifically for our houseguests who are coming near emancipation, where they basically had to de-transition to access those services—which means they would have to throw away their hair or cut their hair. So, we have wigs.
People really don’t buy the wigs, I’ll say that. But we do have people who donate. We have hair stylists here in Memphis who have donated wigs specifically for our houseguests. We have a dresser with hair in it for members who come because we have a lot of people that come here and do not have hair. That’s a part of building a person back up, especially for trans folks. Having hair—it’s a real thing.
A lot of the stuff on there you wouldn’t normally see nonprofits asking for. But we’re a totally different type of entity when it comes to serving our community. We think about things, special things, like wigs and syringe disposable units and test strips, fentanyl test strips, and things like that.
Wilder: When you said that people are coming from institutions where they were forced to de-transition, do you mean if they were incarcerated, their gender identity wasn’t respected?
Gore: Correct. So when you’re in a hospital, they don’t allow you to have any, you know, aesthetics. If you’ve got false lashes and false nails, they want them to come off. If you have a wig on, they want that to come off, so they can monitor you.
We’ve had horrible issues with health care here in Memphis, specifically with trans folks and their transitions not being respected, myself included. I’ve had my name legally changed and my gender marker legally changed. But when I go to a hospital that I haven’t been to in years, and the last time I was there I was a different person, they won’t honor my identification that I present to them. My wristband will say my old name and “male,” and I have to advocate for myself.
One particular time, I had the flu. I’m in all kinds of pain and having to go back and forth with the intake nurse about my name and gender. I spoke with their manager and she said, “Well, the policy is we go by whatever identification you bring us.” I said, “Well, what was different with me?” I gave her my identification that said Kayla Gore, but she gave me an armband that said something totally different and refused to change it.
And people bring their own personal biases into the workspace. Incarceration, you have to defeminize. If you are assigned male at birth, the State of Tennessee does not allow you to change your birth certificate’s gender, and so you are housed with men. You have to defeminize yourself because of PREA [Prison Rape Elimination Act] guidelines. They don’t want to entice anybody to cause anyone any type of sexual discomfort or harm.
In some of the mental health facilities, we have some affirming mental health facilities that allow people to be who they are fully, but we also have some that do not. There are substance abuse centers that also want you to defeminize yourself.
I had a friend who worked in one of these facilities who actually got me into training the staff. They would call me when a trans person was standing in front of them and ask, “Where do we put her?” Or, “Where do we put them?”
I’m like, “Ask them where they would like to be housed. Maybe that might be a start.” But they would never allow me to come into the facility and have a conversation of, “What are you all doing right now? Or what could you be doing better?” This was when I was working at OUTMemphis, and we would provide training for organizations to bring their staff up to date on terminology, how to address people, and how to ask certain questions. Where should you house people? How should you treat people? And it’s not according to their anatomy, it’s according to how they’re showing up—that’s how you treat people.
Those are all instances where people could come here and, if they’re feminine-identified, they’ll have male clothes. Their heads could be shaved. Or they could have their own natural hair, which, for some trans folks, that’s not what they want to put out. They want long, flowy, curly. They want what they see on the TV. We want to help people to be able to leave the house.
Wilder: And you want to let people have their humanity after it was taken away.
Gore: Yes. When I said, “leave the house,” I mean daily. If I don’t have my hair, I might put a hat on to leave the house, but I will feel more comfortable if I have some hair. It might not be the hair I want, but it’s hair. It’s going to make me assimilate more into society when I leave the house.
Wilder: And for folks who come to your organization for services and housing, a wig can make the difference in a job interview, safely walking down the street, going to medical appointments, and being recognized.
Gore: And being affirmed.