To Sadé Ali, former deputy of the city’s department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services, understanding the needs of a subset of transgender Philadelphians was simply a matter of walking out her front door. Ali lived near “the stroll,” an area off Broad Street known as a place for sex workers, some of whom were transgender women, to meet clients. Ali talked with them, asking them how they were and what they needed.
Those conversations sparked the idea for Morris Home, a residential addiction treatment and recovery facility specifically for trans and gender nonconforming folks located in West Philadelphia—the first program of its kind in the United States. As Ali envisioned it, Morris Home is a new kind of recovery center, one that not only gives trans folks access to addiction care, but that is also a space to truly recover and feel safe.
“We treat the whole person, which means sometimes treating anxiety or trauma that comes from having to live in a community where you are marginalized on a daily basis,” says Laura Sorenson, Morris Home’s Director. “Trans folks are more likely to delay drug and alcohol treatment because of harassment or discrimination.”
Trans people here and nationwide struggle with drug and alcohol addictions at rates far above the general population, and existing recovery centers can be insensitive to their health care needs, leading to lower rates of success and higher rates of relapse.
A home for trans people, operated largely by trans people, can be a hard sell in some neighborhoods. Program Supervisor Kai Bigelow, who has been with the program since its inception, says that a group of advisors went to town meetings in several different neighborhoods to find a space that could house the program. “It was a terrible process,” Bigelow recalls. “People just kept saying we don’t want those people here, not in our back yard.”
But the house and its residents were welcomed by the community around 50th street and Woodland Avenue, which sits on the border of several neighborhoods—Kingsessing, which also contains Bartram’s Garden and the Bartram Village public housing complex to the west and south; the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods of Squirrel Hill and Cedar Park to the east and north. The result is that the area surrounding Morris Home is a rich mélange that includes many immigrants from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and West Africa; recent young transplants from all over the country; a robust queer community; and fourth generation residents who value knowing their neighbors. Could it be this mix of perspectives–part of what led the Pew Charitable Trust to name University City the most diverse neighborhood in Philadelphia–that has led to the warm reception of Morris Home? Already, the residents are an integral part of the neighborhood—on special days like Halloween and Memorial Day, neighbors come over and enjoy festivities and grilling with residents.
For the estimated 3,000 to 10,000 trans people in Philadelphia, “affirming” health care—care that recognizes transgender as a legitimate identity and is sensitive to the needs of the community—can be difficult to come by, or non-existent. Trans people here and nationwide struggle with drug and alcohol addictions at rates far above the general population, and existing recovery centers can be insensitive to their health care needs, leading to lower rates of success and higher rates of relapse. “Too many people in the trans and gender variant community here feel marginalized and maltreated,” said Ali in a statement just before Morris Home opened in April of 2012.
Sorenson says Morris Home is successful partially because Philly is such a hub of supportive services for the trans community, with local resources like the Mazzoni Center, the TransHealth Information Project, The Attic, William Way Center and the Mayor’s Office for LGBTQ affairs; not to mention hosting the annual Trans Health Conference. The house is funded through the city’s department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services, and through Resources for Human Development, a national nonprofit.
“Philly has a long history of trans activism,” says Sorenson. “Many trans people have identified Philly as a community that can be very supportive.”
Morris Home is named for Nizah Morris—a Philadelphia transgender woman whose 2002 murder is still unsolved—and offers daily therapeutic group sessions in areas like life skills, trans identity, healthy relationships, and sober social space as well as weekly individual therapy, assistance with legal name changes, and access to hormone therapy. Every resident has their own cheerful room. Residents, who range in age from early twenties to mid sixties, stay an average of 4 to 6 months and while at Morris Home form a tight community. They eat meals together, perform chores, and spend time in the house’s bright blue-walled common room.
At the core of Morris Home’s work is a holistic approach which emphasizes meeting the full needs of particular residents to live their lives in healthy and authentic ways, whatever they may be. The program buys hair and makeup for residents and administers a donations-based clothing closet to help residents who are seeking to shift their gender presentation, but may lack the funds to do so, or may have entered with only the clothes on their backs. Before Morris Home some residents had been homeless or incarcerated; others found their way to the program through research or referrals from Mazzoni and other resources.
About half its staff of 17 (including therapists, teachers, administrators, and interns) are transgender or gender variant themselves, a key ingredient of the original vision for the center. To accomplish this, trans staff were recruited from all over the country and mined from Philly’s best, like full-time counselor Andrew Spiers, who studied social work at Bryn Mawr College and worked at the TransHealth Information Project before coming to Morris Home. “A lot of our folks have been badly burned in the past by trying to access care and it really means something to work with a professional who looks like you and who can understand your experience in a deep way,” says Sorenson.
Morris Home’s overall mission goes beyond its eight beds. When Morris Home staff hear of residents’ negative experiences with other health care providers, they reach out to educate the provider. Sorenson says they hope to expand to more people throughout the region, and to make health care in Philadelphia more trans-affirming. “People here and in other places are really excited about the work that we’re doing,” she says. “This is a really interesting opportunity to pilot this work and figure out how it can be replicated.”
The best part about Morris Home, Bigelow says, is watching residents transform and blossom. “I love watching individuals accomplish goals and do things they were told they could never do.”
Header Photo: via Morris Home Facebook page.