Supporting Cape Town’s Homeless Transgender Women During COVID-19

November 19, 2020

“It’s a new start for me,” Abby Hanns says, flashing a broad smile. “It’s only temporary, until I find a job. But I have my own space now. My own room,” she says, widening her eyes incredulously. “I’ve left that shell. I feel free.”

Twenty-three-year-old Hanns—who left her hometown of Kimberley in South Africa’s Northern Cape province to get away from transphobic violence against her—had lived almost a year at a rundown shelter in Lansdowne, a neighborhood in one of Cape Town’s sprawling townships. “It was horrible,” she says, shaking her head.

Hanns smiles as she describes the three-bedroom house she now shares with an old friend in Delft, a windswept Cape Flats neighborhood 17 miles east of the city. “There’s even a big backyard.”

In August 2019, Hanns joined Sistazhood, a group of about 40 homeless transgender sex workers living across Cape Town, South Africa’s most populous city situated on a peninsula that curls off the country’s southwest coast.

Although not a sex worker herself, Sistazhood membership provided Hanns with a network of support amid strict curbs imposed across the country in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a ban on the movement of all but essential workers starting in March 2020.

Before the national lockdown started, Sistazhood’s in-person monthly meetings—which took place at the Cape Town offices of trans rights organization Gender Dynamix (GDX)—brought members together to discuss topics like health, employment, and skills development.

“There was help for us. We got a free meal and transport money. It was a major support for each and every girl,” says Hanns of the meetings in GDX’s board room, where the walls are painted the blue, pink, and white of the transgender flag.

Responding to the “multiple systems of discrimination and marginalization” faced by trans and gender-nonconforming persons, GDX’s mission is to “advance, promote and defend the rights of trans and gender-nonconforming persons in South Africa, Africa and globally.”

“We fight more than we sleep”

Despite enjoying protections enshrined in the country’s Constitution—often referred to as one of the world’s most progressive—transgender women in South Africa face myriad forms of discrimination: from family rejection, bullying at school, and community rejection to lack of employment opportunities, verbal and sexual abuse, and other forms of violence.

A 2019 report by the lesbian, trans, and intersex rights organization Iranti found that across South Africa, conservative attitudes and cultural, religious, and traditional moral codes disproportionately affect young lesbian and transgender women, leaving them particularly vulnerable to violence.

Hanns grew up in a deeply religious Muslim family who opposed her gender identity and expression. At the age of 17, she was raped by multiple assailants and decided to leave Kimberley to find peace 600 miles from her hometown.

During her first four years in Cape Town, she found work in liquor stores, but after leaving a retail job at the end of 2018, her housing situation grew unstable and she started to rely on friends for accommodation.

We Fight More Than We Sleep, a 2013 report by GDX, notes that “transgender individuals are the most marginalized when it comes to homelessness,” and “disproportionately represented in the homeless population.”

Although there are no official data on the number of homeless transgender sex workers across Cape Town and surrounding province Western Cape, area outreach workers served 202 transgender sex workers, almost all homeless, between January and June 2020.

During this same period, while lockdown restrictions had been lifting slowly, more than 2 million workers lost their jobs in South Africa, Africa’s most industrialized economy, where the unemployment rate has remained above 20 percent for at least two decades.

With transgender persons already facing extremely high rates of unemployment due to persistent and widespread discrimination, the pandemic made earning an income for Hanns and other Sistazhood members even more precarious.

“I would always do people’s hair, nails, or makeup to earn some money. But with COVID-19, everything was shut down,” Hanns explains.

Shifting to support the most vulnerable

“People don’t want to engage with them because they’re on the streets and seen as carriers of the virus,” says Khanysile Phillips, GDX’s community engagement officer. “Not being able to make money [because of the pandemic] puts them under further strain and makes them more vulnerable.”

In June, in a bid to provide much-needed relief, GDX temporarily shifted focus from advocacy, donating food vouchers to five national partner organizations and delivering food parcels and temporary shelter equipment to Sistazhood.

It also ran a food voucher program for the broader LGBTIQA+ community, through which people could apply online if they live outside areas serviced by GDX or its national partners.

The wider relief program, which now also includes personal protective equipment, mental wellness support, and leadership and organizational support, has since been expanded to nine partners nationally as well as others in the southern African region.

“It’s time to chase my dream now”

It was on her 24th birthday in August this year that Hanns made her way to the GDX office to receive her food parcel.

“I really want to thank Gender DynamiX for all their help; their food parcels and everything. It really helped me, because at that time I was in deep, deep need, and things were just not right. And they blessed me.”

Hanns now has her eyes set on the goal of obtaining her high school diploma.

“It’s time to chase my dream now,” she says, adding that she aspires to be a teacher.

“I see a life for myself. I see a future. That’s what I am chasing. So every step I take now is one step closer to what I want. I just want to be successful and happy and free, you know. And to just be myself.”

Stories of Impact aim to show the transformative effects of Arcus grantee partners on the individuals, organizations, and communities that they serve or support in strategic areas of focus around the world. Individuals featured in these stories have participated in determining how they are described and represented. They do not necessarily receive support directly from Arcus.

This story was authored by Carl Collison, a South African-based journalist focusing primarily on LGBTIQ-related matters across Africa. Collison was the Other Foundation‘s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian, and a community news reporter, freelance writer, photographer, and columnist at multiple South African and international publications.