A year in Allegheny County ends in homelessness for two young trans men

A move from Florida to the 'LGBT-friendly' Pittsburgh area brought only fleeting stability in the pandemic economy.

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Devyn Kahler-Harms, 22, stands outside of the Baldwin Borough apartment at which he then resided, with his fiance, on June 2, 2020. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Devyn Kahler-Harms, 22, stands outside of the Baldwin Borough apartment he was living in with his fiance on June 2, 2020. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Update (7/9/20): Evictions and foreclosures will remain largely barred until Aug. 31 under an order issued by Gov. Tom Wolf. The order covers any evictions or foreclosures filed based on failure to pay, and any evictions based on the expiration of leases. It doesn't apply to evictions for other breaches of leases. The order extends Wolf's earlier moratoriums, which had run from mid-March through July 10.

It didn’t take long for Devyn Kahler-Harms and his fiance to grow weary of waking up, drenched, in a back lot in Panama City, Fla. So a Facebook friend’s offer of a place to stay in Pittsburgh was instantly appealing.

"We were sleeping behind a dumpster area behind a McDonald’s for, what, three nights?" Devyn said of his last days in his native Florida, as he sat with his fiance at a picnic table outside the Baldwin Borough Public Library on a mid-June day. "[A]t night, we just kind of slept on some rocks until the sprinklers turned on. That was a great awakening.”

At odds with their families, fresh out of friends with couches to crash on, the two transgender men had little to lose by accepting the invitation to Pittsburgh. A web search suggested that the city was "LBGT friendly and stuff," Devyn said. So they pooled their final paychecks and bought plane tickets, arriving at Pittsburgh International Airport on July 3, 2019.

From the moment of their arrival, nothing went as planned. And nearly 12 months after they touched down, Devyn and his fiance were loading two kittens, Midnight and Elaine, into a Mitsubishi Eclipse, preparing for another dive into homelessness — amid a resurgent pandemic.

Their plight may be a hint of what’s to come for many Pennsylvanians.

A statewide moratorium on new eviction filings for non-payment of rent, which was instituted in March in response to the pandemic, runs through July 10. Its impending end, amid continued economic uncertainty, has some advocates bracing to head off a potential flood of evictions.

Evictions filed in Allegheny County prior to the moratorium — like one filed against Devyn for failure to pay rent in February — were frozen on March 16 but allowed to resume on June 2. Since then, according to a count by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's CREATE Lab, district judges within the county have issued 19 orders of possession, which can lead to the physical removal of tenants.

Devyn’s erstwhile landlord, Aion Management, said it tries hard to avoid ousting tenants, and worked out an arrangement with him that doesn’t tar his record with an eviction. But  as hard as homelessness is for anyone, it may be more intractable for Devyn and his fiance, as for others who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer [LGBTQ]. Allegheny County code bars discrimination based on gender identity or expression, and legislation proposed in June would extend protections — already in place for housing — into medical settings. That doesn’t mean that all doors are open.

“Very easily, a potential landlord could say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t rent to you because your government-issued ID and the way you present to me are not the same,’” said Carlos Torres, interim executive director of the Persad Center, a Pittsburgh-based counseling center for the LGBTQ community. “They may say, ‘We require two months of rent up-front.’ Sometimes the terms and conditions may change arbitrarily.”

At times, over the course of five conversations with PublicSource from May 29 through June 29, Devyn and his fiance recoiled from the challenges they saw coming as displacement loomed. At one point, Devyn called them “terrifying.” As the month wore on, he seemed resigned to homelessness. “We know we can handle it,” the 22-year-old said of himself and his fiance, 21, who asked not to be named in this story. “This is not our first rodeo.”

Thefts and gifts

The couple’s first month in the Pittsburgh area was as bumpy as any bronco ride. The Facebook friend who invited them to Pittsburgh never picked them up at the airport. They ended up spending the night of their arrival at a Super 8 by Wyndham, Independence Day’s evening in a storage closet, and the following weeks in a hastily purchased tent, as they waited for a shelter bed to open up.

They tried hiding their belongings in a bush. "We came back from walking up to Walmart to get some food to it all being gone," Devyn said. "All our clothes, laptop, skateboards."

A different trip to Walmart ended with a pleasant surprise. "There was a note that said [someone] had been there, they had been in our position before, basically blessing us, things like that, and they left $60," Devyn recounted. That bought dinner at Arby’s and a few days’ worth of snacks.

A note and money found at Devyn Kahler-Harms' tent site in July, along with the caption he added for a Snapchat post. (Courtesy of Devyn Kahler-Harms)

A note and money found at Devyn Kahler-Harms' tent site in July 2019, along with the caption he added for a Snapchat post. (Courtesy of Devyn Kahler-Harms)

A third walk to the store, though, deepened their troubles. Devyn was arrested and charged with attempting to steal $146.06 worth of shoes, socks and other clothes. The charge is still pending.

The two finally landed beds at a haven for young people, the Downtown Outreach Center and Shelter, run by the nonprofit Familylinks.

At the 18-bed facility, for men and women up to age 24, people who indicate that they are transgender "have the option of staying in either of the dorms, depending on where they feel comfortable," according to Mark Thomas, the agency's senior program manager. "If the young person says they identify a certain way, then that's it. That's how we proceed."

Devyn and his fiance weren't yet on testosterone, and the women's dorm was "where the beds were," he said, so that's where they went.

Before long, Devyn got a job delivering packages. The paychecks allowed the couple to move to an extended stay hotel, and then, in September, to The Alden South Hills apartments in Baldwin Borough.

The two connected with the Central Outreach Wellness Center, which specializes in LGBTQ health. Approved for Medical Assistance, they began taking testosterone. That's something, they said, they could not have done in Florida, which hasn’t expanded Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

They also adopted Midnight and Elaine. “Someone was going to just drop them into a field, and I’m not all about that,” Devyn recounted. “So I was like, nah, bring them to me. I had an income and everything at this point.”

They’ve become family.

“Every morning I wake up, I have both of them — I’ve got one basically on my chest almost, curled up into me, I’ve got another one curled up in my legs," said Devyn.

They're emotional support animals, he said. "They definitely know when one of us is upset. They’ll come in and lay on us, and just kind of purr."

Poverty, eviction and the pandemic

The delivery job ended after a month with Devyn's termination, following what he described as a health emergency and what a company representative described as a reliability problem.

Thus ended the couple’s flirtation with economic stability. Devyn and his fiance moved through a series of jobs in restaurants and convenience stores, and tried to cover the rent in part by taking in roommates.

An estimated 29% of transgender adults in the United States live in poverty, according to a recent Human Rights Campaign Foundation study. That’s well over double the national poverty rate, and that disparity "may be linked to discrimination,” according to the report.

For many, poverty leads to homelessness.

Recent homelessness was nearly six times as prevalent among transgender adults as among cisgender adults, according to interviews conducted from 2016 to 2019 by the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law. It defined homelessness as temporarily sheltering with friends or family members, and living in cars, shelters, abandoned buildings or on the streets in the 12 months prior to the interview.

“We are chronically suffering from homeless,” said Ciora Thomas, co-vice-chair of the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs and founder of SisTers PGH, a transgender resource provider in Pittsburgh. She plans to launch a housing program with capacity for as many as seven transgender people in the fall, and the waiting list is already nearly two dozen long. For a year, Trans YOUniting has operated a house a house for as many as four displaced transgender people, but it is full.

Ciora Thomas, co-vice-chair of the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs and founder of SisTers PGH. (Photo by Heather Mull/PublicSource)

Ciora Thomas, co-vice-chair of the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs and founder of SisTers PGH. (Photo by Heather Mull/PublicSource)

The trans community has been bracing for a newly proposed rule by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD], which would permit homeless shelters receiving federal funding to consider – on religious grounds – an individual’s gender identity when determining accommodations. Gay rights activists call that one in a series of policy changes the Trump administration has pursued to remove protections for the LGBTQ community.

“It’s ridiculous that they would prioritize going after LGBTQ people in the middle of a pandemic,” said Sasha Buchert, an attorney with Lambda Legal, a national nonprofit organization that works to achieve civil rights for LGBTQ individuals through public policy advocacy and litigation.

It is unclear when HUD will roll out the new rule. A HUD spokesperson told PublicSource that the agency does not have a status update.

Devyn Kahler-Harms' fiance, who asked not to be named in this story, sits in the tent in which the two lived in July. (Courtesy of Devyn Kahler-Harms)

Devyn Kahler-Harms' fiance, who asked not to be named in this story, sits in the tent in which the two lived in July 2019. (Courtesy of Devyn Kahler-Harms)

Devyn and his fiance eventually failed to pay the rent. In February, The Alden’s owners filed to evict him.

At a March 9 hearing, Devyn recounted, District Judge Ralph Kaiser "asked me, did I lose income? I said, ‘Yes, yes I did.’ I was basically told, try to start making payments of what you can. ... I figured, OK, I just need to find income and start paying."

Finding a job, though, was suddenly much harder.

"Coronavirus hit," said Devyn. "Service industry shut down ... which is my industry."

Nationally, according to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation study, "LGBTQ people are more likely to work in jobs in highly affected industries, often with more exposure and/or higher economic sensitivity to the COVID-19 crisis," including restaurants, hospitals, education and retail. Pittsburgh LGBTQ organizations report a surge in need for social services – including emergency housing – since the economic shutdown.

Complicating matters for Devyn, he has a difficult time wearing a mask. “For me it’s due to PTSD from childhood abuse,” he said. “I try to wear the mask, but it doesn’t last more than five minutes for me before I start freaking out.”

‘Eventually, hopefully’

The pandemic-driven economic shutdown spurred a variety of federal, state and local bans on evictions for failure to pay rent.

Aion Management, which counts The Alden as part of its 11,000-unit, five-state portfolio, always tries hard not to evict, according to company President Robin Flagler. During the COVID crisis, she added, the company has offered tenants “various different payment plans for people to either get caught up, or be able to find other housing."

She said the company has collected 94% of its rents, but expects to file evictions on around 3% of tenants, throughout its portfolio, after moratoriums expire. Tenants who sign payment agreements and try to keep up with those pacts, she added, won’t be considered for eviction until late August, at the earliest.

"There were some people that were even delinquent before COVID hit, and it hasn't gotten any better,” she said. Those who “just let it get out of control," made no effort to pay and didn’t communicate are most at risk of eviction, she said.

She said a privacy provision in the company’s leases prevented her from discussing Devyn’s situation in detail, other than to say that “he was not evicted for nonpayment of rent."

Devyn said that in May, he received a notice demanding that he return his keys and move out. The notice referenced the presence of residents in the apartment who were not on the lease, and a January altercation with a neighbor, he said. The altercation — prompted, he said, by the neighbor's comment that his cracking voice sounded like "a little boy" — resulted in a pending harassment charge against Devyn.

The Alden’s management later offered Devyn a deal: Move by June 29, and the company would drop the eviction filing and would not seek a judgment against him for the back rent.

"In the end, it helps me," said Devyn, adding that he "signed because not having an eviction makes it easier to find a place, eventually, hopefully.”

“So right now it’s pretty much looking like we’re going to be staying in the car for a little bit, which in itself looks like it’s going to be difficult, due to not knowing like where we can park to sleep, things like that. ... I’m not really scared." -- Devyn Kahler Harms (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

“So right now it’s pretty much looking like we’re going to be staying in the car for a little bit, which in itself looks like it’s going to be difficult, due to not knowing like where we can park to sleep, things like that," Devyn Kahler-Harms said. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

‘I’m not really scared’

The couple mulled a return to Florida. But they’d be giving up the Medical Assistance coverage that enables them to take testosterone. Plus it would be tough to return for Devyn’s late-July court date on the harassment charge. Missing that hearing would further blot his record.

Instead, Devyn signed up for an information technology boot camp, for which the bill would be due only after his IT career began. The camp starts in late July and pays a living stipend. The first check, though, won’t arrive until the last week of the month.

“We’re looking at shelters, but we’re not really finding much,” Devyn said, as he sat at the picnic table June 19, the deadline for leaving The Alden just 10 days away. “We’re thinking about staying in our car.” The plan: Get an air mattress and some battery-powered fans, and then move himself, his fiance and the kittens — with a litter box — into the Eclipse.

A week later, with the deadline three days away, that prospect seemed less attractive. But alternatives were scarce.

“I contacted Allegheny Link,” he said, referring to the county's one-stop shop for resources for people struggling with housing and other health and family problems. He said he was told that his options were Familylinks, with two beds tentatively open, and Bethlehem Haven, a women’s shelter, which “would end up being extremely awkward.”

“So right now it’s pretty much looking like we’re going to be staying in the car for a little bit, which in itself looks like it’s going to be difficult, due to not knowing like where we can park to sleep, things like that.”

Devyn presented it as a logistical challenge. “I’m not really scared,” he claimed.

Homelessness is perilous for anyone, but "trans people are in more danger in general than the average person," said Alexander Young, director of marking at the Central Outreach Wellness Center. He cited the stigma attached to transgender status and the murders of trans people.

When transgender individuals – particularly trans women – become homeless, they often face unique barriers: misgendering, discrimination and, in some cases, assault, advocates said. And in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, crowded shelters could pose an infection risk.

Even in shelters, being different carries risks.

"If you’re any part of the LGBTQ+ community, it’s more dangerous, depending on who else is in that room and what mindset they might have," said Kellie Wild, IMPACTS program director at East End Cooperative Ministries. The East Liberty social services center includes 21 emergency shelter beds and another 30 for people in recovery from substance abuse.

Wild said she doesn't tolerate homophobia or transphobia in her agency's dorms. "If I hear of anybody doing anything that’s mean, abusive, oppressive or otherwise, you will be discharged immediately," she said.

Usually, she said, it doesn’t come to that. If a client objects to being housed near a transgender persion, “we say, ‘Hey, this is someone else in the same situation as you are. ... They're just looking for a bed to sleep on, just like you. Let's keep them here.’”

Into the Eclipse

Devyn and his fiance were struggling with all of the uncertainty. “It causes arguments — a lot of arguments,” Devyn said on the Friday before their departure deadline of June 29. “It puts [their relationship] under a lot of strain, but also at times it is a blessing to have another person.”

In a last-ditch effort to get some cash before hitting the road, the couple decided to donate plasma. During intake questioning, Devyn revealed that he was on testosterone. His driver’s license, though, still identifies him as female. Because of the discrepancy, he said, he and his fiance were turned away.

They were broke. Running out of options. With kittens.

“With them being under a year old, and all they’ve known is us, I don’t think they’d do very well in a new home,” Devyn fretted.

On deadline Monday, Devyn’s fiance walked out of their apartment in The Alden, carrying a laundry basket with a blanket over it.

Kittens Midnight and Elaine sit in a laundry basket as they await transport to their foster home on June 29, 2020, in Baldwin Borough. (Photo by Rich Lord/PublicSource)

Kittens Midnight and Elaine sit in a laundry basket as they await transport to their foster home on June 29, 2020, in Baldwin Borough. (Photo by Rich Lord/PublicSource)

Over the weekend, they had reached out to East End Cooperative Ministries. The agency’s emergency shelter has been full of late, but staff sometimes converts available rehab bedrooms into crisis housing. Devyn and his fiance were scheduled for an afternoon intake interview.

They cautiously peeled back the blanket, revealing skittish Midnight and Elaine. As the clock ticked on their departure deadline, they had identified a foster family for the kittens, roughly a 40-minutes drive from The Alden. Then they’d head for East Liberty.

They loaded the basket gently into the Eclipse and climbed in.

The next day, Devyn texted that he and his fiance were admitted into East End Cooperative Ministries. Midnight and Elaine “did well,” he wrote. “They are with their foster. We are doing good also.”

Tenants struggling to pay rent as a result of the pandemic and its economic effects can, effective July 6, apply to the state's Rent Relief Program. Homeowners unable to pay mortgages can apply to the Pandemic Mortgage Assistance Program.

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

Nicole C. Brambila is the local government reporter for PublicSource. She can be reached at 412-515-0072 or nicole@publicsource.org.

Develop PGH has been made possible with funding from The Heinz Endowments.

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