One summer evening, in New York's West Village, Justice and Sophie peer into passing cars, searching out men who might offer a bed for the night and some cash for sex. A black Lexus stops at the curb, and Sophie leans into the window. She wears her curly hair pulled back at the nape of her neck, and slopes her shoulders in the hope of making her lanky frame appear more petite. Two pearl bracelets slide down her right forearm, and her chipped mauve nail polish matches the leggings under her short black halter dress. The driver, a familiar client, is an older man wearing a baseball hat. He asks to see Sophie's penis for 10 bucks. She turns him down, hoping he'll offer more. Justice tells Sophie the same man was looking for her the previous night. He circles the block three more times but they ignore him. "He's playing with me too much," Sophie says.
In the Dominican Republic, where Sophie was born, her mother struggled with addiction and sent Sophie to live with her grandmother in New York when she was six months old. Her grandmother, who was able to send the family money, food and clothing, Sophie says, by pimping out undocumented girls, was nearly beaten to death by two men when Sophie was in the fourth grade. Both her grandmother and her father hit her, she says, and sometimes locked her out of the house. "It was more hatred than discipline," she recalls. "My dad would beat me in the shower with a belt and punch me in the face, calling me a faggot. Then he'd turn around and say, 'I love you.' How can you treat me like this if you love me?"
She began living on the streets at 16, attending school whenever possible, but more often worrying about where to eat, shower and sleep each night. "You can't go to school smelly and drawing attention," she says. "I would take cat baths at Starbucks." Now, at 21, she's hoping to build a civil-rights career, either as a lawyer or a social worker. The next morning, in fact, she has an interview for an eight-week internship at the American Civil Liberties Union. "I know I'm going to be a very successful person," she says. "I want [my father] to learn he lost something."
Sophie's friend Justice is a member of the Lumbee tribe in North Carolina. She first traveled to New York when she was 19, accompanying a man who advertised his amateur porn business online. Justice says her father had been imprisoned for rape. "I always knew he was a bad man because I was always visiting him in prison," she says. Her mother, who spent more time partying and doing drugs than looking after Justice and her sister, lost custody of them when Justice was four years old, though they remain in touch, Justice says. "I'm her favorite. She understands me, and I understand her."
That first brief stint in New York, four days in which she was filmed having sex, was enough to inspire her return on a Greyhound bus with only a suitcase. When she told the Port Authority police she was homeless, they sent her to an organization that offered a ticket back to North Carolina. Instead, Justice scanned Grindr, a dating app, for a solution. A man in his sixties brought her home. She briefly stayed at a men's shelter, but says both another resident and a staff member tried to rape her on separate occasions. "I liked that there wasn't staff up your ass, but your safety's at risk," she says. "I Googled shelters for gay people and found Sylvia's Place," an LGBTQ-specific emergency shelter.
Justice is slender with angular facial features and a cleft chin. She wears a stonewashed jean jacket and holds her new blond wig in place with a crystal headband. Her nails, freshly painted a hot pink, match her lip gloss. A few months earlier, she married a friend that she met at Sylvia's Place to get extra benefits. They presently have a private room in a family shelter and are on a waiting list for Section 8 rental assistance. "I like it because you can stay in the room all day," Justice says of their current placement. "You get your own bathroom and refrigerator, so I can make my own food."
She slips out of her flats and into a pair of stilettos, as Sophie moves toward the curb. Most nights, Sophie either sleeps on a train, with a customer or with a 55-year-old man in Washington Heights. "He's been my sugar daddy since I was a butch queen," she says. "He always said if I had any friends who'd want to make some money and get their dick sucked that I should bring them over." She calls herself a hopeless romantic – "I want to be with a guy who wants to know what my favorite color is," she says – but for now, she has found a routine on the stroll. "If they pay me," she says, "at least I won't feel used."
A skinny blond man, smoking a glass pipe cupped in his palm, slows to talk to her.
"How are you doing tonight?" Sophie says.
"I'm a straight guy," he says, "but your kind's been discriminated against so much, especially as trans girls of color. Want to walk with me for 10 minutes?" Sophie tells him he's sweet and that she'll be around all night if he wants to flag her down later. "But what if some other guy snatches you up first?" he asks. She doesn't reply, turning in the other direction. She's hoping to earn enough money to rent a hotel room on 27th Street and sleep for a few hours before her interview with the ACLU at 9:30 a.m. She migrates to the corner, her left hip thrust toward a line of cars waiting for the light to change.
There are now more than 350,000 transgender people under the age of 25 in the United States, the majority in the largest cities of New York, California, Florida and Texas – and an estimated 20 percent of them lack secure housing, though many service providers believe that figure is low. Craig Hughes of the Coalition for Homeless Youth notes that the federal definition of homelessness does not include those who trade sex for shelter; instead, they are considered "unstably" housed. "There are thousands who go uncounted," Hughes says. "They are disconnected from services, sleep on multiple couches a month and spend some nights trading sex for shelter."
Overall, about a third of the nation's 1.4 million transgender people report experiencing homelessness at some point in their lives. On average, transgender kids are 13 years old when they first find themselves on the streets of New York, a city with only about 400 beds for an estimated 4,000 homeless youths. Even still, for many transgender teens, shelter is a misnomer. They often lose beds for minor infractions and are left without recourse for appeal. Seventy percent of them report being harassed or physically and sexually assaulted in a shelter. "City shelters have always been unsafe," says Kate Barnhart, director of the New Alternatives drop-in program, "especially for LGBT people." With so few housing options, prostitution is often the easiest way to access a bed. "Within 48 hours of being on the streets, youth will be solicited," says Cole Giannone, a director at the Ali Forney Center, a drop-in shelter for LGBTQ youths. Sophie, who is saving up for transition surgery, says she doesn't mind the work but resents the stigma. "I hate the stereotype that we're all crackheads," she says. "I have a lot more falling and getting up to do."
Even in the shelter system, young people rarely have a chance to stabilize their lives. At a dinner for homeless LGBTQ youths at St. Luke's Church in the West Village, two trans girls walk in with obvious injuries. One of them, Elii, a 24-year-old from Queens, keeps her left arm hidden in a gray hoodie that is covered in blood. Two nights earlier, her boyfriend stabbed her in the hand and left bicep during a drunken fight; her left earlobe still sports stitches from when he previously cracked her head open with a wooden board. Elii recently lost her bed at a youth shelter. "I was written up for going to the bathroom at night because I wasn't fully dressed," she says. "I was in my long T-shirt and underwear."
Many youth shelters are time-limited – available for only 30 to 60 days – and often have age restrictions. Elii's friend Aurora limped in that night wearing tattered fishnet stockings and a pair of busted flats, her feet covered in raw blisters. A rash from dry shaving with disposable razors has broken out on her skin. "Look at my arms," she says. "I look diseased." She has been living on the street since the age of 14, cycling between shelter beds and sleeping on pavement. In a week, when she turns 21, she will age out of her current shelter. "They're gonna bake me a cake and kick me out," she says.
The Federal Runaway and Homeless Youth Act earmarks funds for services to kids up to 25 years old, so states and municipalities choose whether to turn away those older than 21. "Arbitrary age limits don't work," notes Beth Hofmeister, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society. "Especially for kids who've gone through trauma. Even a week of street homelessness affects you."
Out on the streets, many trans teens build criminal records for low-level offenses: jumping subway turnstiles and drinking, urinating, defecating or re-tucking their genitals in public. Those records become further barriers to accessing the resources they need to escape homelessness. "Law enforcement sees these kids as criminals," says Meredith Dank, a researcher at John Jay College in New York. "And the minute you have a criminal record, good luck with stabilizing your life."
There is also a range of needs specific to transgender people: regular access to health care for hormones and surgery; gender markers on IDs; and access to gender-appropriate bathrooms. Police routinely assume they are prostitutes, and others on the street regard them – especially those who don't "pass" – as easy targets of violence. And then there are countless moments of judgment, when members of the public, in myriad ways, suggest their lives aren't as worthy. With so many cards stacked against them – poverty, racism, sexism and homo- and transphobia – they are, in many ways, America's most vulnerable population.
It's a lot harder to be trans when you don't pass as the gender with which you identify. The girls critique friends for failing to pass as cisgendered – when one's gender identity corresponds to his or her sex at birth – and remind one another to "act like women." They get peeved when one of them is "clocked" as male or re-tucks her genitals in view of the others. "You have to come correct," Justice says. As of last summer, she had been presenting as female for only a few weeks, but was learning to pass with the tools available to her: clothes, makeup and testosterone blockers. A friend on the street gave her a first dose of hormones for free. "I'm tired of shaving," she tells Sophie over the stub of a blunt one day.
The pair are sitting outside the Hetrick-Matin Institute (HMI), a nonprofit for LGBTQ youths, when another friend, Scarlet, joins them on the bench. Scarlet tells them she was arrested at a shelter for fighting with the security guard. She had arrived past curfew and lost her bed. "I was sleep-deprived and messed everything up," she says. She spent six days locked up at Rikers Island, housed with the adult male population. Sophie falls silent, sucking her thumb; in 2015, she spent more than nine months locked up for stealing UPS packages from doorways, and says she had been placed on suicide watch after an officer assaulted her. (Trans women are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted by prison staff than other inmates, and nine times more likely to be sexually assaulted by other inmates.)
At HMI, Sophie and Scarlet are looking forward to taking a shower. Sophie hasn't bathed for at least five days; for Scarlet, it's been more than a week. After getting out of Rikers, she hooked up with a guy on Grindr who offered her meth in exchange for sex. He was HIV-positive. "I knew he was poz and detectable, but I stopped caring because I just wanted the drugs," she says. "I'm an addict. Drugs make me feel better. Takes away my hunger. Makes me feel thin." They had unprotected sex, and afterward, Scarlet says, "he gave me a handful of Truvada" – which can reduce the risk of contracting HIV – "to try and appease his guilt for having sex with me."
For Scarlet, "peeling out" and presenting as male in Rikers had been a painful concession. "I've seen girls peel out just to feel safe for a little while," Scarlet says. "I had to live as a man for six days because I was scared." But the counselor at HMI is more concerned about her exposure to HIV. "All she heard was HIV," Scarlet says. "I was disappointed because I thought she would understand what I was going through psychologically." She also hasn't been able to get her hormone shots. "My facial hair is growing back and my boobs are shrinking," she says. "Am I really a woman?"
In the U.S., 41 percent of trans people start hormone therapy between the ages of 18 and 24, a process that on the street can be sporadic and dangerous. "They're not necessarily getting hormones that were made in this country or that are appropriate," says Ronica Mukerjee, a faculty member at the Yale School of Nursing. For example, many of Mukerjee's patients have used birth control as a substitute for hormone treatment, she says, "which can cause cardiovascular complications." Likewise, without access to surgery, many of them get silicone injections, a life-threatening procedure often performed by unlicensed practitioners, colloquially called "pumpers," to modify trans women's bodies by adding curves. Just as dangerous, though, is the inability to pass as their preferred gender, which is associated with higher rates of violence.
Many trans girls receive medical treatment, including hormone therapy, under Medicaid, the health care program for indigent Americans expanded under the Affordable Care Act. But accessing health care, like housing, can be a daunting process, often requiring, at the very least, correct gender markers on identification documents. "Medical settings are pretty unfriendly to people who are homeless and transgender," says Mukerjee. Lacking the appropriate paperwork, trans girls like Scarlet and Justice often start their transitions unsupervised, on the street.
Scarlet was adopted from Russia when she was two and later fostered by lesbian parents in Wisconsin. After graduating high school, she bounced between jobs at designer-clothing and jewelry stores before enrolling in beauty school, but says her mothers asked her to leave home when her drinking grew out of control. She used her last paycheck from Nordstrom to move to New York.
She tried to adapt to sleeping on the subway, learning quickly that some trains were safer than others. Sometimes she woke to discover her purse had been stolen, or a man was rubbing her leg. Once, she was jolted from sleep as a man punched her in the face, already mugging her. She wound up on suicide watch at Mount Sinai twice that December, using the hospital as a shelter to rest for the mandatory 72-hour watch. "I just needed a bed," she says. "I did what I had to do to sleep for Christmas."
That first winter, she met Elii and Quinn, a former fashion-design student prone to lengthy political rants. They invited her to sleep in an abandoned car in Queens, where the girls would huddle under multiple blankets with their coats on and drink Four Lokos. Around that time, Scarlet took unprescribed hormones for the first time. She was thrilled with the change, though the process turned out to be slower than she expected. Accessing health insurance became her top priority. "It was something to hold on to," she says. "I have to take my transition seriously so other people will take it seriously too." At the moment, Scarlet is able to get hormones from a community health center. New York's Medicaid program started covering gender-reassignment surgeries for transgender patients in 2015, becoming the ninth state to do so. Scarlet is hoping to get surgery within the next year. "I need New York to give me my vagina," she says. "Then I can leave."
One rainy evening, Scarlet and Quinn sit on the steps of a stage in a park in Harlem, scrolling through Grindr and smoking a joint. Quinn tells Scarlet about her latest romance, an artist in the Bronx. He's in his thirties and deals meth. "He thinks I'm beautiful," Quinn says. "He always says, 'Wipe off your mascara. Take off that makeup.' " Quinn has asked him about his HIV status. "He said he was negative, even though his ex was positive," she says. "He said he was tested three months ago." Scarlet calls his ex-girlfriend "dirty," but Quinn admits her own ex was positive too.
In New York, one in two trans girls contracts HIV before she turns 24, the highest rate of infection of any demographic, according to the city's 2014 HIV Surveillance Report. "The numbers are shocking," says Jason Walker of VOCAL-NY, a local HIV/AIDS awareness group. "Young people who have been displaced from home are using their bodies to access housing. It's difficult for a young person to negotiate what safe sex should look like."
When Quinn came out at 16, her mother kicked her out of the house. A photography teacher at her high school in Charlottesville, Virginia, took her in, allowing Quinn to graduate and enroll in college. By sophomore year, she had landed an internship and moved into an apartment with her boyfriend. Her tuition was $26,000, and financial aid didn't cover half of that, so Quinn sold Ecstasy on the side. She was arrested for offering 200 pills to an undercover cop the first semester of her senior year.
After 18 months in prison, she stayed at Sylvia's Place intermittently until she aged out. She turned to hookup apps to find places to sleep. Sexual intimacy was usually expected, and negotiating safety complicated. "You always tell them you're trans, never assume they know," she says. "I'm just looking out for my safety. These boys be fierce."
Tonight, none of the guys on Grindr look good – "Too many butch queens and transvestites," Quinn says – so they decide to relocate downtown. At 42nd Street, a man smoking a K2 blunt shares the rest with them. Synthetic marijuana is now mostly illegal, but the previous summer, the girls say, K2 was plentiful. Lexington Avenue used to be known as K Alley. "It's the drug of the future," Quinn says. "You can be walking down the street and it transports you to a different plane."
Happily buzzed, they continue to the nearest pharmacy, where they split up, wandering through the aisles. Quinn steals eye shadow and lip pencils, Scarlet an expensive bottle of contact-lens solution and a gemstone clip that she slips through her topknot. They return the loot at another location for a gift card worth $58 and head to Penn Station. At a water fountain near the police stand, Scarlet recognizes a man stumbling toward them. "You got anything to smoke?" Scarlet asks.
"Yeah," he replies. "I got somethin'." As they ride the escalator out of the station, Quinn locks eyes with the man, telling him, "You know we aren't going to be doing nothing with you, right? No expectations." He nods as Scarlet slips her arm through his.
At another pharmacy, Quinn and Scarlet pay for energy drinks, fruit salad and seedless red grapes with the gift card, while their new companion sways by the doorway, devouring a dripping lamb gyro. Quinn leads the way to a small park, where they settle on a bench, surrounded by five sleeping bodies. The man rolls a blunt while Scarlet rubs his back. "What's her name?" Quinn asks the man. "She's not just a sex object."
Recalling his last encounter with Scarlet, the man says, "She sucked my dick so hard she had me wanting to marry her."
"That's so disrespectful," Quinn says. "You need to remember her name. I just said it. What's her name?"
He raises his eyebrows at Scarlet, who moves her hand down to his thigh. "I need a bed," Scarlet tells him. "Not an alley or a phone booth or a bathroom." He leans in, whispering so Quinn can't hear. Scarlet jerks back. "A port-a-potty? Are you fucking kidding me? Does this look like a port-a-potty mouth?" Quinn rolls her eyes and stands to leave. It's 3:30 a.m. "We've got to go," she tells Scarlet. "I still haven't made no coin."
Sophie lands the internship at the ACLU. She earns $10 an hour, 20 hours each week – plus monthly subway cards – but hasn't told her supervisors that she's homeless. "I worked so hard to get in the door," she says. "I want to work. I want to make my own money." Most nights, she is still picking up dates. According to a recent study, about 80 percent of homeless youths would quit selling sexual favors if they had other options. "Young people are savvy and can navigate resources, but they can't afford housing because they're getting paid crappy wages," says Giannone, of the Ali Forney Center.
Over Labor Day weekend, Sophie's finances are particularly tight. The night before, a date offered her $60 and bought a 20-piece chicken nuggets to share on the subway back to his house in the Bronx. Sophie was looking forward to getting some sleep, but after sex, he refused to pay – the first time she's gotten tricked, she claims. She slept in a park instead. Tonight, Christopher Street in the Village is slow. Sophie stows her bag in a newspaper vending machine, and soon spots a man sprawled on the sidewalk in front of the entrance to the PATH train. "That's my coin," she mutters, running to him. "Baby, get up!"
"I'm dead," the man slurs.
"No, you ain't," Sophie says as she pulls him upright into her embrace. A couple pause to ask what's going on. "He just needs some TLC," Sophie tells them. The couple ask the drunk man for his address, promising to take him home. As they each take one of his arms and guide him into the station, Sophie shouts over her shoulder, "Cockblocker!"
By midnight, Sophie drags an index finger across her eyelids; her makeup is irritating her corneas, and she blinks to soothe her red and watery eyes. She settles on a stoop to smoke the rest of a saved blunt and then retreats toward the subway station, stopping to buy a pack of white-chocolate Reese's before jumping the turnstile. It's 12:45 a.m. and Sophie figures she can sleep until 6 a.m., then try to pull a date before heading to her internship. She can pick up a $2 breakfast on the way with the $7 left in her wallet.
On the train, she chooses a corner seat, across from the conductor booth. A man sitting at the opposite end of an otherwise empty car stares at her while she stretches out across several seats, dressed in a light-pink dress with a short white sweatshirt and white Toms with a lace-pattern overlay. When the train pauses midtunnel, the man lights a cigarette. Sophie wakes from the cold and slips on a black dress that she borrowed from a friend for the office.
She re-emerges from the Christopher Street station at 3:40 a.m., hoping to catch the "early-bird special." She passes between groups of people strolling or stumbling toward the pier and eventually finds a date around 6 a.m., allowing her to "get some rest and make some money." Sophie texts her supervisor at the ACLU, saying she can't make it to work. "They were OK with it," she says. "But my supervisor said to give her at least two days notice next time. She said she's trying to teach me responsibility."
In the face of incalculable odds, these girls spend each day striving to retain a sense of dignity, to feel loved, to find a place to belong, to survive. But most of them have struggled to make progress. A year later, Elii is locked up for stealing, Aurora is still sleeping on the sidewalk, and Quinn is spending most nights in a park on 34th Street after a winter living with her boyfriend and getting high every day. "If I want to flourish, I can't be there," she says. Scarlet has since overdosed on heroin twice and planned to commit suicide on her 25th birthday "because my life sucked." Instead, she made it through detox and managed to get a bed in a women's shelter. She now fills her days with group therapy but still struggles with sobriety. "I want a job right now, to be more productive and be less bored," she says. "The universe will deliver."
Justice filed for divorce from her husband because his drinking grew out of hand, and is staying at an adult men's shelter (her ID still has a male gender marker). She works at a peep show – "I have a curfew at night, so I had to learn how to sell my body during the day," she says – and spends most of her time at the men's shelter presenting as male, for safety reasons. "They think I'm a weak bitch," she says of the other residents. "I love to fight!"
Sophie has had more luck than the others. In August, she moved into a supportive-housing placement. "To qualify, I had to be chronically homeless for more than two years, have a history of substance abuse or incarceration," Sophie says. "I had all three." Her apartment building includes a gym, garden and community room, but Sophie spends most days inside her studio, cooking and searching for company online. She can do in-calls from Grindr now, which feels safer than soliciting on the street. Despite her initial hopes, she wasn't offered a job at the ACLU, and now wants to find work at a law firm or in the shelter system. She started taking hormones eight months ago, and has gotten her name updated on all of her documents except her passport. But she's still trying to get used to living alone. "I've been living in facilities with other people for a while now, whether it was jail, the shelters or treatment," she says. "The loneliness is hard. I don't want to die and have nobody to bury me. As a trans woman, I think about these things."
This story was reported with support from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism's Urban Reporting Program.