The Black & Indigenous Transgender Safehaus shows the need for inclusive housing programs
As more community-based organizations and mutual aid networks pop up across D.C, one group continues the struggle for housing justice they began two years ago.
The Black & Indigenous Transgender Safehaus, also known as Casa BITS, or just BITS, provides free or pay-what-you-can short-term and transitional housing for individuals whose race and gender identity provide additional barriers to housing or employment. BITS aims to mitigate those systemic inequalities by managing an apartment for Black and Indigenous transgender and intersex people of color in the District.
“BITS was created, obviously, out of necessity,” said Ahanu Tapepechul, part of the group’s leadership team.
BITS began in 2018 when Tapepechul and another BITS member moved to D.C. Both experienced homelessness before Deidre Martin, another part of the leadership team, offered them a spot at her apartment. “It just kinda became the people’s apartment,” Tapepechul said. “That’s where BITS has its roots, just welcoming in trans people of color who needed a place to stay.”
Martin, who is a white trans woman, was also houseless for about a year while she attempted to find an apartment. The difficulty of this experience, despite her relative privilege, reinforced for her the importance of mutual housing aid targeted at transgender Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC). “I just thought about how impossible odds it was, even with the privilege that I had, to get this place,” she said. “I wanted to make sure other people had a chance to catch their breath and have their basic needs met.”
Describing themselves as a “community haus,” BITS centers underserved communities in the housing market, including deaf and undocumented individuals, young people over 25 who no longer have access to youth-specific resources, and migrants from Latin America. In addition to one managed apartment, BITS also provides a safe meeting space for the network and support for members scattered across the District in individual or collective homes. BITS has between five and 15 members at any given time, including the leadership team, residents in the apartments they provide, and others being helped by the collective across the District. They have housed 12 people and helped distribute nearly 1500 meals.
Across the country, transgender individuals are overrepresented in the homeless community. About 20% of trans people experience homelessness in their lifetime, compared to 7% of the entire population. These numbers are higher for BIPOC trans individuals. Nearly all the trans people Tapepechul knows in D.C. have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.
“That’s just kinda the reality of being trans, like we get kicked out and we’re not always prepared or we get fired from a job, and finding a new job is really really difficult,” they said. “That need is definitely greater among Black and Indigenous people because you also have systematic racism.”
In Tapepechul’s experience, D.C. is home to a lot of trans people because the health care system in the District is better than in other areas in the country, preventing discrimination and mandating insurance companies to provide health care to trans residents. However, many trans BIPOC face difficulty getting housing because landlords discriminate against them, or offer apartments at unreasonably high rates. BITS, as well as other organizations like the They/Them Collective and No Justice, No Pride help to fill that need without causing more harm, Tapepechul said.
BITS generally finds people who are in need of housing through informal processes. Once someone reaches out, if BITS has a spot and the individual agrees to the house rules, they can move in. Documented individuals can stay in the space for up to three months, and undocumented individuals can stay longer on a case-by-case basis. The organization can house two people at a time. They also assist trans-BIPOC who have housing by helping to subsidize rent.
“There’s always more demand than we are able to provide, whether they know about us or not,” Tapepechul said. “That’s just the reality in D.C.”
Though they normally manage two apartments, one location was recently converted into a storage space following transphobic verbal and physical attacks and the sexual assault of one of their members. The landlord at that location is also being sued by D.C.’s attorney general for neglect and unsafe conditions.
“That location is kind of shut down,” Martin said, though BITS is still working with other residents of the building to organize. “Eventually, we would like that location to open up and flourish, but we kind of had to downsize a little bit there.”
BITS relies on community donations via their website and grants to subsidize rent for their members, in addition to groceries and education costs for students who have requested help from BITS. Through their Facebook, they also solicit aid for any members facing a housing or medical emergency, asking for rapid donations or help moving.
“When it comes to running all this, it’s a lot of money,” Tapepechul said.
The organization has raised around $65,000 in the last two years, which all goes back to the community because none of the leadership team is paid, according to Martin. BITS tried to obtain as much funding from grants as possible to avoid straining the community they are trying to serve by asking for donations.
The organization has also helped enroll students, especially undocumented students, in the Carlos Rosario School, which focuses on workforce development and English as a second language. BITS helps applicants with the application and providing housing documentation. “We just basically help them navigate that system,” Tapepechul said.
In addition to providing funds for groceries for their members, Casa BITS has been working with other community groups to provide free meals every week via mutual aid groups and nonprofits such as Empower D.C. They also provide deliveries to tenants in the same building, whether or not they are part of Casa BITS.
“Everyone is on a rent strike in our building, so we all have kind of solidarity with each other,” Martin said. “It’s not something we were formed to do but we ended up just engaging with the community in that way.”
Many members are also working to reform the housing system on a broader level. Martin is a representative in the D.C. Tenant Union, and is pushing for the District to take action on homelessness. She’s also been helping to organize with tenants at the building on rent strike and is asking D.C. to cancel rent.
In the beginning, BITS served the people who have now become its leadership team, who work closely together. “We’ve formed a nice little family,” Tapepechul said.”That’s what it takes to keep something like this going.”
Since then, the community has expanded to include everyone it has served, keeping in touch with former residents and helping them where they can. This type of mutual aid is crucial, according to Tapepchul.
“I think it’s something that’s so valuable in this place and time,” they said. Tapepechul is Indigenous and has seen the benefits that community-based aid can have. “That’s something I really value within working with BITS,” they added.
This community can be especially important to transgender individuals, who may not have a safe or accepting environment in their other circles, and benefit from having a support network.
“It’s kind of like a chosen family, being able to provide that,” Martin said. “It’s also great to see that, if people’s basic needs were just taken care of, things would be different.”