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Stories from Shelter Organizing: Allilsa Fernandez

In the fall of 2018, SRLP launched our Shelter Organizing Campaign to support the safety of trans and gender non-conforming (TGNC) people in the New York City shelter system. For decades, our communities have faced issues accessing supportive housing services at DHS and face overall barriers to affordable and safe housing. Sylvia Rivera believed deeply in fighting for our rights for safe and affirming housing. Her legacy and our struggle continues!

The urgency is clear: DHS can not keep TGNCI people—or anyone—in their care safe and healthy, and the spread of COVID-19 has only exacerbated these conditions.

Recently, in our meetings with the DSS Office of Disability Affairs Director Liz Iannone, DHS Office of Program Development and Implementation Kevin Thrun, and Director of Disabilities Access and Functional Needs Claudette Jordan, our members have laid out the failures of DHS to provide adequate safety, accessibility, and accommodations. 

We encourage you to read below the story of Allilsa Fernandez, a Shelter Organizing Team member, who illuminates the inadequacy of the shelter system to house our community members living as TGNC people with disabilities, as well as interviews with Ace and Jamie.

Adelaide, Director of Grassroots Fundraising & Communications: Allilsa, would you start off by introducing yourself and saying how you got connected to SRLP and the Shelter Organizing Team? 

Allilsa Fernandez, Shelter Organizing Team member: My name is Allilsa, My pronouns are he, she, or they, and I ask that you mix them up. I’m a peer specialist and a mental health advocate. I got involved with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project because I myself was homeless. The homeless stage ended around November of 2019, and around that same time, ironically, I saw this town hall meeting that happened because of SRLP with the Center for Constitutional Rights. 

Adelaide: During this time, you’ve been supporting people as a peer specialist in moving through the DHS shelter system and other connected supportive housing and shelter systems. Could you speak about first, before COVID, and then we’ll move to this moment of pandemic? What do you see as an advocate in terms of supporting TGNCI people of color in moving through the shelter system or experiences of homelessness?

Allilsa: I was in the domestic violence shelter, which eventually was going to lead to DHS but I was able to move out before that happened. In that shelter—oh my god—the harm caused to TGNC people is incredible. From the very first time that you enter the system to the minute you leave it, there is zero inclusion. In paperwork, I couldn’t say my pronouns. I couldn’t identify myself. From choosing my clothes, I was forced and given dresses. I don’t wear dresses, I don’t wear what society calls quote-unquote “femme” clothes, and that’s what they were giving me, resources to femme clothes. “This is the clothes that you can get right now.”

I once went to a food pantry, and because it was a church, the people were like, “oh, you get next.” Even though I was one of the first in line, and I waited like everyone else. I usually have a very boy cut look, and I honestly think it was that. All I said was, how do you even create bias other than the way I look?  They were like, “oh, you gotta wait for the food, you can wait at the back of the line.” The only thing I can think of is that it was because of the way I looked. And I was given resources that are not LGBTQIA+ friendly.

Every step of the way is violent. There were social workers and Directors who refused to work with me. I was in there for close to 3 months, and I didn’t receive services at all. I was always asking, why am I not getting housing services? Everyone else is getting housing. There’s a lot of discrimination, and a lot of violence, and it’s not coming from just the people, its coming from staff. That was a wake up call for me. That’s why I joined the Shelter Organizing Team, because I was like, we have to change this. This is horrible.

Victoria Bell, Fundraising & Finance Team intern: How is your mental state at this moment during COVID-19?

Allilsa: Its a struggle now, mentally. I think, being in the system, it would have been worse. Because before COVID-19 when I was in the shelter—oh my god, it makes me tear up. I think about those moments. Its why I do this. Its why I advocate because I was having such a difficult time obtaining food and obtaining clothes and obtaining job services to get back on my feet. And this was before COVID-19, I can not imagine… and it was horrible, I had depression, I had anxiety, I had breakdowns. I cant imagine being in the shelter system now with COVID-19. I can’t imagine it. It’s impossible for me to imagine it because I was mentally harmed then, what would it mean now? Its horrible. 

Victoria: What do you think they should do better within DHS?

Allilsa: I feel like its going to take a true systemic change. They need to incorporate pronouns, that’s first off. If you’re asking me my name, you should be asking me my pronouns, and every step of the way, it should be very inclusive. The resources should be inclusive. They should be making sure that people get food. Even now, I’ve heard from people and they’re not obtaining their food. We’re living in one of the richest countries in the world, there should be zero reason for that. Providing them with a resource if necessary: the vouchers, the housing, education, meaning financial education, school education, whatever it is that people want to do, meet them where they are at, and provide them the appropriate resources. 

Adelaide: The Campaign for Safe Shelter has had longer term demands around healthcare access, around safety for TGNCI people, around moving people to permanent supportive housing. Then, we released this set of demands specific to COVID-19, as well, when DHS is receiving these funds and a lot of attention from the city, from the federal level. As an advocate, how have you seen DHS using those resources? And how do you think they could be using those resources?

Allilsa: I’ve been working with a lot of families in shelter currently. We’ve been able to connect them to food, long-term support, meaning food stamps, applications for public assistance if they qualify, filling out for unemployment if they qualify. And all this, I’m doing by myself, by the way. People are reaching out to me, and they’re desperate, truly desperate. I have had mothers of five children break down and say, what am I gonna do to survive? Because they are being denied in the shelter these very basic resources. They’re not asking for a computer and a car, shopping. They’re asking to be fed. They’re asking, how can I get back on my feet? Not give it to me, but how can I get on my feet, so I can get a house, so that I can provide for my children, so they can continue to go to school. That’s not being met, especially in the time of COVID.

So, I think moving forward, DHS has to—no exception—has to ensure that the resources are being met. Meaning, if people need help with filling out unemployment forms, the social worker or the case manager should be helping them. Or if they need food stamps, or finding schools and pantries, especially for the TGNC community. We can’t go to the church down the block because they might discriminate. So, finding resources that really can help us and not put us in further harm. That’s my feeling, they really have to come through.

DHS sent a letter to Sylvia Rivera Law Project, stating that they didn’t have hand soap. How do you not have hand soap? BJ’s has that, Walgreens has it, Walmart has it. So many places have soap, there’s zero excuse. I keep hearing from families, these are people with children, who are saying I can’t wash my hands. How do you lose human dignity? That’s human rights and human dignity. Are you kidding me?  I can understand hand sanitizer, completely. But soap should never be a question. Its ridiculous to me.

Adelaide: You’re talking about this level of systemic change, that it’s not just within DHS as an agency, but that the experiences of TGNCI people of color within DHS are indicative of how the system is failing everyone. Whether it is to Administrator Carter or to the city at large or just to New Yorkers or SRLP community reading this interview, what would you hope they can imagine in terms of the efforts for change that our government can be making or that we can be making as a community?

Allilsa: I would say: people can see this step-by-step. You have been abused, you have gone through trauma, and this happened, and this happens a lot with LGBTQIA youth. Families kick them out because they cant accept their identity. They have sometimes been beaten, sometimes raped or attacked, by their family members, okay? You have families who have beaten or abused by their partners. You have people who recently have lost their jobs because of COVID-19, jobs that said just go home, and they don’t qualify for unemployment because they’ve been there for 2 months or 3 months. You have people who are undocumented. So, even though they pay taxes, they still don’t qualify for benefits. And you have people who couldn’t pay rent this month, and they got kicked out—illegally!—but they still got kicked out cause they didn’t know their rights and they ended up in the street. You have folks who have just lost their homes, and know they have to go through the system that’s another level of trauma.

You’re already coming from trauma and the system, instead of saying, I got you, I can help you, I can uplift you to get you back up on your feet so you can continue to live life, its beating you down, its making things worse because they’re not ensuring that you have food, because they’re not ensuring that you’re getting proper help filling out paper work, not ensuring that there are accessible spaces. There are people who are reporting that their elevator has been out for months and they can’t get to their room, they have to have other clients, not even staff, carry them on their backs to take them up to the 6th floor or downstairs to go shopping, which is ridiculous.

You have all of these things going on, which produces another layer of trauma, when we could just move forward, if DHS was willing to move forward. I ask for the readers to be conscious of all of these barriers that were creating, if we don’t stand up and demand change. And also for them to know the struggle, walking them through those barriers, and that things can be different, if DHS just paused and ensured that food was being met for every single client. That there was accessibility for every single client that needed it, that people were connected to resources. And that may mean that staff need to be trained better. That they need to partner with Sylvia Rivera Law Project to have that conversation of what it means to deliver services to TGNC people. That may mean that they need to get better training on how to ensure that there isn’t food scarcity. Demanding that there’s better access to resources and better handling of people’s trauma. 

I would just add, just in closing, it makes me sad, but in this work I have to make mention of her. I wanted to uplift the work of Stacy Milbern. She is part of our community. She is a person of color who identified as queer and stood up for our community, TGNC people and everyone who identified as part of our community. And she was doing a lot of work on the ground because she knew, especially, especially our community, that we are hit twice as hard. If white people and ordinary people are struggling in DHS, we’re being murdered by the system.  Stacy made hand sanitizer from scratch, ensuring that people of color and LGBTQIA people received those resources, because she knew that the most marginalized people were the worst without. She made sure that our communities had access to hand sanitizer and to food. She teamed up with people so they would be able to deliver food on the ground. She made space so that we could speak about the homeless and the unhoused and what it looked like in New York City for the unhoused, especially for TGNC people and people of color. She ensured that money was distributed to the trans community. She was on the front line of that on the national level. And just recently, before her passing, she asked, who needs this money? Because she knew that the trans community needed this money and she wanted to ensure that some of our members received the money. We’ve lost a hero in our community. She worked to ensure across the country that disabled people, TGNC people, people of color had a voice and had a home. She was the producer of Crip Camp and her first webinar this past Sunday, you should have seen the number of people who identified as queer, and she created that safe space for disabled folks. She just became another one of our ancestors who paved the way for us to continue this work. Even though she had multiple disabilities and she was laying in bed with oxygen, she still fought ensuring that our communities needs were being met. This is what DHS should be doing, this is what other systems and institutions should be doing. This shouldn’t have had to be Stacy’s work, hopefully DHS can commit to continuing Stacy’s work, that one day we wont have to be the ones taking on the labor, but instead, DHS should be hiring people like Stacy, and Victoria, who should be leading this work. 

Adelaide: Thank you so much Allilsa for uplifting Stacy, for all of the ways that you’re fighting for all of us, for your community, and for centering that leadership.

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