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A builder's tiny homes will house transgender Memphians from hate and ignorance | Weathersbee

Tonyaa Weathersbee
Memphis Commercial Appeal

On Ethlyn Avenue in South Memphis, in a zip code where people are expected to live shorter lives than anyone else in Shelby County, the scene matches that statistic.

Vacant lots are home to dead leaves. Weeds wrestle with the wind and plastic grocery bags. The duplexes sport more plywood than windows.

But Orange Mound tiny home builder Dwayne Jones and My Sistah’s House are working to replace that blight with wooden homes and warm bodies. Bodies that aren't the ones the homeowners or tenants were born with, but the ones they are happy with.

Even if some people don't want them to be either happy or, for that matter, alive.

My Sistah’s House is a Memphis organization that works to provide housing for transgender women — women who are constantly fighting homelessness, violence and ignorance.

Jones has already built one home for them in Orange Mound.

Now he’s building a duplex on Ethlyn Avenue that, like the home in Orange Mound, will also house three transgender women. And My Sistah’s House is eyeing the desolate, littered lots that surround it for more homes, Jones said.

Kayla Gore, co-founder of My Sistah's House, which helps provide housing for Black and transgender people of color in Memphis, Tenn. Gore is photographed outside of her Frayser neighborhood home Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, a place where has housed at least 60 trans women in the last 3 years.

“Each unit is 400 square feet,” said Jones, “and it’s a studio style with a bathroom and a kitchen…the ceilings are vaulted…

“My thing is providing affordable, decent housing, and homelessness has always struck a nerve with me. But I think when I met them it gave me more of a sense of urgency, with them telling me how many transgender people needed shelter.”

“They told me 128 transgender people needed housing…that means we have 125 more to go…”

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Alexis Jackson, director of programs for My Sistah’s House, seconded what Jones said.

“A lot of trans people here are homeless, and they don’t have families,” said Jackson, “and not a lot of orgs are based here that will shelter them. There’s a lot of discrimination here, and a lot of people who are unaccepting of people like me…

“It’s very important that we have a safe haven, and a comfortable place to live.”

But if Jones is known for anything, it’s for trying to make it easier for people marginalized either by their income or, in the case of people like Jackson, their sexual orientation or gender identity, to afford a place to live.

He made national headlines last year when he built three 450-square foot homes, known as tiny homes, in Orange Mound, the community where he was raised.

Jones got the idea for the homes from his travels to Ghana, where he saw people happy in their modest digs, and saw the tiny house movement as a conduit to helping people making $25,000 to $35,000 a year own a home for $45,000 - or rent one for $400 a month.

Interest in the homes, Jones said, was intense. Then the pandemic struck.

It slowed Jones’ plans and stifled people’s dreams.

“Last year, when people learned about this, everyone wanted housing,” Jones said. “I had 46, 47 people who were interested, but United Housing (an organization which offers down payment assistance) had to offer (homebuying) classes online, but the people didn’t have internet access.

“Then, they started to lose jobs…”

Jones’ other construction projects were put on hold, he said, until around late summer.

“Around August and September, people started getting cabin fever, and they wanted decks and fencing,” he said.

Leo Granados, left, director of operations for My Sistah's House, and Alexis Jackson,  director of programs, pose inside the tiny home that builder Dwayne Jones is constructing for the organization in South Memphis. Jones brought the tiny house movement to Orange Mound to help people earning low incomes afford homes,  and he's now building tiny homes for transgender women - who struggle disproportionately with violence and housing discrimination.

It was also around that time when Roshun Austin, the indomitable executive director of The Works, Inc., introduced Jones to Kayla Gore of My Sistah’s House – a Memphis organization that works to provide housing for transgender women in Memphis.

Through Gore, who is a co-founder of the organization, Jones learned about another group of people who were hard to house not solely because of lack of income, but because of an abundance of ignorance.

According to data from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, transgender women – and especially Black transgender women, disproportionately struggle with violence and discrimination. Twenty-six percent of Black transgender people are unemployed, and many lost their jobs when COVID-19 struck.

Forty-one percent have been homeless at some point in their lives.

The Human Rights Campaign found that 44 transgender people were killed last year. Two-thirds of those killed were transgender women of color. One of those murdered was in Memphis.

And Tennessee is one of 27 states that doesn't have an LGBT nondiscrimination law.

When Jones learned what Gore was trying to do, he thought of his own ambitions in Orange Mound – and how he was trying to help house people who were being shut out of home ownership, or decent rentals, because of their income.

Construction of a tiny home in south Memphis, Tenn. where Kayla Gore, founder of My Sistah's House, is working to help provide sustainable options for the homeless transgender and BIPOC community.

If someone is being shut out of housing because of who they are, well, that’s even worse, he said.

“The biggest thing for me being a Christian person, is that I have my belief system, but I believe God loves everybody, and at the end of the day I don’t want to see anybody homeless,” Jones said.

“I don’t want to see anyone without shelter, and I can’t help everybody, but the ones that I can help I want to provide my services for them to provide quality housing.”

So now, on a street in South Memphis, a duplex is rising amid the blight. More may be built nearby – thanks to the determination of Gore and through the talent and idealism of Jones.

Jones.

A man who borrowed an idea from Africa, brought it to the nation’s first Black residential community, Orange Mound – to people seeking affordable housing in a city that is short of 33,000 such units – and is now helping to house people who, even if they could afford housing, might not get it because they can’t be what others want them to be.

That’s just plain wrong.

“It’s not where you live. It’s how you live,” Jackson said.

And Jones just wants people to have somewhere to live. Regardless of how much they earn. Or who they are.

You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Tonyaa Weathersbee at 901-568-3281, tonyaa.weathersbee@commercialappeal.com or follow her on Twitter @tonyaajw.