SAN JOSE — When Stevie “Melissa” Phillips first arrived at the New Haven Inn in San Jose last month, she was hardly sleeping at night.
A survivor of human trafficking in Fresno, Phillips, who is transgender, was staying at a hotel in San Jose, far away from her former captors. She thought she was safe until terror struck in the night: Two people broke into her room and raped her, she said.
After she got out of the hospital, her case worker told her about New Haven Inn, a newly-opened shelter dedicated to lifting transgender, lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning and gender non-conforming people out of homelessness.
“When I first got here, my first couple of days, I would jump,” Phillips said. “I’d be nervous and scared. I couldn’t sleep.”
Resident Stevie Melissa Phillips becomes emotional during an interview with this news organization at New Haven Inn, the second LGBTQ-focused shelter in the Bay Area, on June 20, 2019, in San Jose. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
Without the shelter, Phillips’ options were limited, she said. Though she’s a native of San Jose, she had been living in Fresno for the past two decades and was long estranged from the family she fled from when she was 14. She didn’t feel safe in mainstream shelters, she said, where derogatory remarks are routine and more extreme forms of sexual harassment commonplace.
“Now I sleep so well,” she said of New Haven. “I’m able to breathe.”
The 20-bed facility opened quietly in December on a residential street in a neighborhood just south of downtown San Jose, and it has gradually been accepting new residents. It’s at capacity now with a waiting list, said Dr. Brian Greenberg, the vice president of programs and services for LifeMoves, the nonprofit that runs New Haven Inn, along with other shelters and supportive services throughout Silicon Valley and the Peninsula.
As only the second LGBTQ shelter in the Bay Area and one of only a small handful in the country, Greenberg said the shelter fills an important niche. Nearly a third of the homeless population in Santa Clara County identifies as LGBTQ, and of the 20 residents in New Haven, over half are in some stage of gender transition, Greenberg said.
A Pride flag is displayed in the kitchen at New Haven Inn, the second LGBTQ-focused shelter in the Bay Area, on June 20, 2019, in San Jose. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
“That’s a population that mainstream shelters have struggled to successfully serve,” he said. “And when we talk about successfully serving people, we mean exiting people into permanent housing.”
People who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual often face taller barriers when it comes to securing a job or housing, even in the Bay Area, said Thu-Quynh Phan, a case manager at New Haven who uses the pronouns “they” and “them.”
Add to that an even more entrenched stigma against people who don’t conform to the gender they were assigned at birth, and transgender people have an especially hard time. As someone who identifies as queer, Phan had seen first hand the way societal stigma exacerbates past trauma. Phan had been working at another shelter at LifeMoves and heard New Haven was opening, immediately jumping at the opportunity to apply to work there.
“It’s just practical experience in the queer community,” Phan said. “And I wanted to help make this a safe space for our population because I know what it is that makes it safe.”
Case Manager at LifeMoves Thu-Quynh Phan, right, talks with this news organization while giving a tour of New Haven Inn, the second LGBTQ-focused shelter in the Bay Area, on June 20, 2019, in San Jose. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
Phan’s input led to pronoun-identifying name tags that all staff wear and are available for residents to wear, too.There is gender-affirming clothing available to all residents, so they can wear clothes that help them identify with their chosen gender. And while bathrooms, changing rooms and other areas offer privacy, the dormitories and bathrooms are all unisex.
No one is asked “how queer” they are, Phan said. And homophobic, transphobic or other types of bigotry are strictly prohibited.
“It’s hard to overestimate how important non-stigmatizing environments are for homeless populations in general,” Greenberg said. “All the research bears that out that if people feel like they landed in the right place for them, they get better. They are more successful.”
For Phillips, her trauma began with a stigmatizing environment. As a teenager, she began expressing her desire to live as a woman, only to be told by her parents her lifestyle wasn’t welcome in their home. She left, sleeping in the park behind her high school in East San Jose while still attending classes.
She would eventually graduate and start a family of her own, raising four children. Presenting as a man, she suppressed her desire to live as woman for decades, she said. When she finally decided to take the leap to express the gender she always felt was inside her, she and her wife separated and her life began to unravel. She found herself staying in homeless shelters.
“I wanted to live my life,” Phillips said, “and I paid a very, very large price for wanting to live my life.”
Even though she’s only been at New Haven for a month — residents are allowed to stay for 60 to 90 days with exceptions granted on a case-by-case basis — Phillips said so much has already happened for her. She’s been approved for permanent, affordable housing. Her head is getting clearer, and she feels less anxious, she said.
“That’s why I’m so grateful for this place,” she said. “It’s given me so much hope.”
SAN JOSE, CA – JUNE 20: A portrait of a resident Stevie Melissa Phillips at New Haven Inn, the second LGBTQ-focused shelter in the Bay Area, on June 20, 2019, in San Jose. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)