1 Jessica’s Story
I just turned seventeen and was kicked out for being trans. My mother simply did not accept me or understand. I had no street smarts and felt incredibly vulnerable. It was 1993 and I ended up panhandling in front of a Fred Meyer in Puyallup, Washington.
I see a woman who looks old enough to be my grandmother. “Can you spare some change,” I ask. “Get a job!” the old woman yells. “I am trying to. Lady, I’m just a kid!” I plead desperately. The lack of empathy seemed brutal. People would ignore me, glare disdainfully, and glance curiously but no one helped me. I was feeling abandoned and betrayed by the world.
Stacey was in foster care until she turned eighteen. Now she was abandoned to the streets like me. So here we are living in her car together. Neither of us were equipped to deal with street life. Meeting Shannon proved to be a lifeline for both of us. My friend Bill met Shannon in inpatient therapy. He was there after cutting his wrist badly in a suicide attempt. He became friends with Shannon, who was there after a suicide attempt involving pills. After Shannon’s release, she was staying with her sister. Stacy and I picked up Shannon up and she came with us. Bill went back to his parents’ house.
Shannon was over twenty-one and knew how to survive on the streets. She explained that we had two options: stealing and sex work. Suddenly, stealing sounded pretty good to us. But first, we had a mission. Andrea was sixteen and needed to get away from her parents for personal reasons. We went to pick up Andrea, who appeared with a bag and her favorite blanket, which she named Hannah. This would be our street family for the next several months.
Shannon showed us how to steal food and merchandise from stores. We practically lived off Fred Meyer take-out deli food. We would steal clothes and return them for a refund at a different location. The money went toward motel rooms and the occasional bottle of tequila. We also did gas and dash and dine and dash, too. When we couldn’t get a motel room, the four of us slept in the car.
Living day to day forced us to be bold and to take risks for each other. It bonded us together in interdependence against a world that had nothing for us. And I learned that sometimes I must hide who I am to survive. Transphobia could be deadly for me on the streets. After all the close calls, months of living this way took a toll on me. At night I could feel that Sword of Damocles hanging over my head… just barely. I was emotionally exhausted. How long could I keep this up?
Living in Bad Faith
I eventually ended up in Juvenile Hall. After a short stay, my mom came to pick me up. After the beat-down the world gave me, I would try to not being trans. I could not find space in the world as a trans girl and I was internalizing oppressive messages about my gender identity.
Living a lie was incredibly damaging to my psyche. I no longer trusted or valued myself. I was often so depressed I could not function. Still, I tried everything under the sun to make myself a cisgender heterosexual male. I hated every minute of it.
I lived this way for years. Sometimes I held jobs and sometimes I lived off the grid. I lost myself in music and drugs as a coping mechanism. I experienced a lot of what I call “soft homelessness.” I stayed with a friend, shacked-up with a partner, or “couched surfed.” Sometimes I compromised by living a double life.
I did a short term in jail for a felony conviction in 2002. The result of that conviction destroyed my life. It was not the jail term, but the surveillance and restrictions of the “community custody” term of one year that did it. While sitting in the DOC office, the officer told me I could not stay at the address I was released to. “What am I supposed to do?” I asked. She told me to leave Puyallup and go to the Tacoma Mission. To be in compliance would mean being ripped away from the only people, help, and support I ever knew. I was being banished.
I failed to report and went off the grid. At one point I had an offer to stay with someone and I declined. I didn’t want to bring cops around their place and wasn’t sure it would pass inspection anyway. Besides, now I have to go to jail for not reporting.
I became more hopeless than I could ever imagine. I used drugs whenever possible and became suicidal. The only way I saw moving forward was death. What is the point of living when my future looks like jail and then the Mission, then what? I hated using drugs but I hated my life more.
My Arrest in 2004
On January 6, 2004 I was visiting at my mom’s house. It was a late snowy night and my stepdad asked me to leave. I told him I would leave in the morning but he insisted I leave that night. We had some difficult history and things got heated. He ended up calling the cops and I chased him around with a big kitchen knife. In the end, he wasn’t hurt and I was arrested. The cops said they would have shot me if they had a clear shot. Part of me was disappointed they didn’t.
After a degradation ceremony that is called trial. I was sentenced to 242 months for first-degree attempted, murder domestic violence with a deadly weapon, and interfering with a 911 call. The prosecutor and court was the worst. The prosecutor appeared to accuse everyone of lying when it did not support his narrative. Evidence that I was assaulted was not allowed. In the end, I believe the prosecutor and courts did more to harm the people involved than the harm that they were there to address. I also found it ironic that as a homeless person, I could be convicted of a crime of domestic violence.
While I was in jail, on the way to prison, I was approached by a large man wanting sex. I declined. Another man asked me, “What are you gonna do if he doesn’t want to take no for an answer?” His friend then says, “He is a pretty big guy. You better learn to fuck or learn to fight.” They walked away laughing. This is the moment that I decided I had to grow some facial hair and put on some weight. I would live in bad faith and learn to fight. I have experienced a great deal of trauma in prison. That, however, is a different story for a different time.
My progress in prison was curious. After my second suicide attempt, I vowed never to take another breath again but in good faith. I immediately “came out,” again, as trans. This time it was a very public, assertive, and deliberate declaration. I resolved to never again doubt or reject myself and made a personal promise to die living out my values. From now on I will do things my way no matter who doesn’t like it.
The prison system has been awful, but I have learned to love myself and find people who value me. I am now accessing life-changing gender-affirming health care. I have earned a college degree and am a published writer. And as the prison system obstructs my growth and development I find great folks in the community to mitigate the harm and empower me to not only survive, but thrive.
After nearly eighteen and a half years, I will release from prison as a forty-six-year-old trans woman with a lifetime of trauma in May 2022. I am concerned that DOC surveillance and restrictions may make it impossible for me to access support and destroy my life chances. I still have community custody from twenty years ago due to tilling, even though it is for a class C felony. Then I have the community custody for the current charge to deal with. I also have a one-year suspended sentence for interfering with a 911 call. Any wrong move could put me back in jail for a year, even after a long prison sentence. And if I do, that twenty-something-year-old community custody term will be waiting for me. My legal financial obligations started off as $1500, but have grown to over five digits somehow while I serve my time. I feel my life being drained as I write about these endless burdens that know no mercy.
I imagine home as a place of belonging, safety, and care. It is a place where I expect needs for food, clothing, and shelter can be met. It is also a place where I imagine freedom from hyper-punitive surveillance, capture, and punishment. The most important part of what I imagine home to be is what I imagine it is not: biocidal.
Interventions and Options
We don’t usually need strangers to show up with guns on the scene to “help.” Incarceration should not be the primary solution to address crime or harm. But that does not mean that we do nothing! Reimagining support and interventions takes bold, creative, engaged, and resilient communities so let’s build them together!
The Divestment Feedback Loop
Instead of asking what is wrong with a person, ask yourself what happened to them. The term divestment feedback loop describes what happens when a person feels chronic and/or acute lack of empathy, care, and investment from others. This person may feel abandoned or betrayed by society. They respond by divesting from society and by showing lack of regard for others. Incarceration is not the solution. It isi care, or human development that disrupts the divestment feedback loop.
Incarceration may be a deterrent or punishment for those who fear disruption of their tolerable if not happy lives. But what is incarceration to someone who is already in a state of poverty, crisis, and hopelessness? What is arrest and jail or prison, but a change in venue, degree, and type of suffering?
For one who feels forsaken and betrayed by society, anger and defiance may be a natural response. How does one express their feelings to a nameless and faceless system? So who gets this misdirected anger? If it is externalized, it is the store clerk who never lets you use the bathroom. It is the business owner who chases you off the sidewalk or away from the storefront. The shopper with their bags of goods and their perceived apathy. And maybe anyone who happens to be there, because it has been one of those days. I still remember that mean old woman in front of that Fred Meyer yelling, “Get a job.” I was trying to. I was just a kid.
Capitalism and Homelessness
Capitalism affects our psyches as well as our everyday objective realities. The result is a society that is engaged in competition instead of cooperation. Whether it is out of concern for family, business, or job — or to keep from losing an election — people search for quick solutions to their individual problems. But like the person experiencing homelessness, it is not simply the moral failure of the individual. The system and circumstances produce these responses. In order to actually address our community problems, we must do so together in the conditions of a system that incentivizes human development and well-being for all.
Jessica Pheonix Sylvia is a writer, community organizer, and revolutionary abolitionist. She is also a philosopher and advocate for the humanization of trans prisoners. She is currently working frantically to make her dreams come true faster than the world can kill them. Find her on Twitter @AbolitionJess .