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By Sydney Boles
Vita keeps a tooth in a metal box on her bedside table. Well, it’s more of an altar, really: There are crystals, candles and incense … and that tooth.
The tooth came out back when Vita was homeless. She knew it was rotting, but homelessness will force you to ignore that kind of thing. Once you acknowledge how much pain you’re in, you have to do something about it; that’s not an option when you’re fighting to survive.
Vita Cleveland, 28, is a black trans woman. Having experienced homelessness as a man before her transition and as a woman after, Vita noticed clear distinctions in how the world treated her.
“There were more people in my life who were looking at the young black man, full of promise, full of light, full of hope.… People cared about what happened to me and if I was going to be on the streets.” But now that she’s out as trans, she said, “Nobody cares if I live or die.”
According to a 2014 report, 20 percent of transgender Americans have unstable housing; that’s compared with a national average of 3.5 percent. Trans people specifically become homeless because of family rejection, abuse, mental illness, and housing and workplace discrimination.
In Vita’s case, it was losing her job, depression and body dysphoria (the anguish of being perceived as a man when she was actually a woman).
Vita has been homeless on and off since she was 17, this time since April. Her network of friends kept her off the streets, so her kind of homelessness looked like crashing on friends’ couches and playing drums at busy intersections for spare cash.
Now, she finally has a place, a basement apartment in Pilsen. She doesn’t have cups yet and she’s not sure where to lock her bike, but there’s food in the refrigerator and hot water for baths.
But the hustle has taken its toll. She can’t work as hard as she used to; sometimes she walks with a cane. And she still can’t let down the defenses that got her through those periods of instability.
Housing, she said, “Feels like a lie that I’m trying to believe. And it is terrifying in a lot of ways because I have no idea how long this so-called idea of stability lasts.”
Amy Kane, Manager of Clinical Programs at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, says leaving homelessness isn’t easy. “When you are in a state of fight or flight, your brain operates differently. So when they get into housing, their brain is still operating in fight or flight. … It’s like the brain doesn’t know how to adapt to the quiet, the safety.”
In the trans community, the constant threat of violence and discrimination heightens that sense of anxiety.
Smiling, Vita turns in circles in her room. Her glance lingers on her fraternity paddle, her framed college degree and that tooth its metal box. “It feels really good,” she says. “I hope it sticks.”