EDGEWATER — Transgender woman Keisha Allen has been forced to sleep in cars, in alleys and in homeless shelters since her Evangelical family disowned her at 16 years old.
Now 46, Allen said the transient and often dangerous life she's led is the norm for thousands of trans people throughout the country.
Nonprofit Chicago House hopes to stem the problem as it opens the TransLife Center Monday in an Edgewater mansion, formerly an AIDS hospice.
"I know several transgender women who are out on the street as we speak who are looking forward to" the center, Allen said. "It will be a safety net."
Allen first began working with Chicago House a year ago. Since then, she's taken culinary classes and received her city and state food sanitation licenses. She's a big fan of the Taste of Chicago, and someday she'd like to run her own restaurant.
Stan Sloan, who runs the nearly 30-year-old organization, said the new center near Loyola University — the exact location kept secret to protect its occupants — would help many people like Allen.
"People can get off the street, take a shower, have a meal — just be free of discrimination and free of all that hatred for a few hours a day," Sloan said.
The house will have nine bedrooms and will manage 30 scattered sites throughout the city to house transgender people.
It will also be the hub for several other services, like a four-week employment program, a legal program to help people navigate life after transitioning to another gender, and a health program. A doctor would be on site to direct people to transgender-safe health services, Sloan said.
"This is a big step to becoming more accepting," he said of the center, which will be the first of its kind in the country to offer so many services under one roof.
Homeless shelters, he said, can discriminate against transgender people who look and identify one way but have a birth certificate or ID card that says something else.
Allen, who has breasts and takes hormones but has yet to have sex reassignment surgery, said she sleeps in a West Side shelter with seven men, who call her "it" and "that creature."
She grew up on the West Side and has always been "different," she said.
Her brothers would call her "sissy boy" and "fairy," and her parents eventually disowned her, she said.
She no longer speaks to her family.
Being forced onto the streets early in life, she never finished high school. Instead, she lived on the streets of Chicago, Madison, Wis., and Atlanta.
"I was going from one place to the next for survival," she said.
Because she was arrested several times for sleeping where she wasn't supposed to, she hopes the legal team at the TransLife Center can help her expunge her record of "trumped-up charges."
She's also looking for work after completing Chicago House's job program. She plans to live in one of the center's available apartments, too.
"There are certain things that have an inevitability stamped on them," U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said Monday at the center's ribbon-cutting ceremony. "We will win — hopefully soon — this fight" for gay and trans rights.
Sloan said transgender people of color have it especially rough: 50 percent have participated in the drug or sex trade, according to a survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality.
The same survey of transgender people showed that 41 percent had attempted suicide, compared with 1.6 percent of the general population.
"That’s how miserable life has been," Sloan said.
Angelique Gwinn, 43, is a transgender woman who works with Sloan.
"It’s not going to be another promise, promise, promise," she said of the TransLife Center. "We’re actually going to deliver — a sense of security, someone to talk to, whatever is needed. I wish I had that when I was transitioning."