It was a dreary morning in Los Angeles, but in the front yard of a historic Koreatown home, there was a small crowd with a lot to celebrate. Mayor Eric Garcetti, along with Councilmen Herb Wesson and Mitch O’Farrell, announced the grand opening of Casa de Zulma, the first publicly funded bridge housing project for transgender women in LA County.

Bridge housing is temporary housing meant to serve as a refuge for homeless people to get back onto their feet. Casa de Zulma’s ultimate goal is to link trans women with permanent supportive housing. Named after transgender advocate Zulma Velasquez, Casa de Zulma will not only provide beds for 16 transgender women but also offer its residents access to psychotherapy, substance use support and case management.

Speaking to the crowd from the home’s front porch, Garcetti spoke out on the discrimination the trans community faces.

“Too many trans women of color in this country have lost their lives this year—and every year—to violence that is unspeakable and unacceptable,” Garcetti said.

He added that far too many trans women find themselves on the streets, on couches or in cars.

“Not enough of them have been able to come into shelters because we have never designed policy to see and to feel the needs of the trans community,” he said.

Thursday’s event came at a crucial time. According to the FBI’s latest crime statistics report, hate crimes against transgender and gender non-conforming people are increasing: there were 40% more offenses based on gender-identity bias in 2018 than the year prior.

O’Farrell appeared visibly moved by the occasion.

“The only thing that separates us is our bias against one another,” he said. “Every time we can provide for folks that have been marginalized their whole lives, and who are still at great risk from the larger society, it helps elevate the cause.”

The front steps of Casa de Zulma. (Photo by Hayley Smith)
The front steps of Casa de Zulma. (Photo by Hayley Smith)

Although trans people make up roughly 0.6% of the U.S. population, studies show that nearly one-third of transgender Americans will experience homelessness in their lifetime. The state of California has the highest share of homeless people in the country at 24%, and Los Angeles alone holds half of its homeless population.

Councilman Wesson says these statistics make it essential for the city to lead the nation in protections for the trans community.

“If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a million times: the winds in this country blow from the west to the east,” Wesson said, “and cities all over this nation look to us for leadership. They look to us for guidance.”

Several of the other attendees, including Karina Samala of the Transgender Advisory Council and Veronica Lewis of the Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System (HOPICS), spoke about the dangers facing the LGBT and trans community, including extreme violence, sexual abuse and random acts of cruelty.

“I have seen the best and worst of human behavior toward the transgender community,” said Samala.

Samala says Casa de Zulma is a huge step forward and is a vitally needed housing project that will make a significant impact on the safety of her community.

“This shows that our friends and neighbors care about us, and are willing to provide services which I am convinced will save lives,” she said.

Lewis agrees and says that although the county has other shelters and bridge projects, having a space dedicated to trans women is not only meaningful but represents a possible start for more projects to cater to specific underserved communities.

“This is a win for the homeless services system in LA County because this is the first step to many specialized programs that meet the unique needs of subpopulations,” she said.

Despite the somber statistics that underscore the need for dedicated transgender housing, the event itself was a joyful occasion. The house, painted a cheerful shade of pink, appeared warm and inviting—an apparent embodiment of the person who is its namesake.

Velasquez, who died in August at the age of 62, was known for hosting weekly “Cafecito with Zulma” gatherings that served as a safe space for queer and trans community members to meet and talk about their lives.

“She gave so much life to this city and community,” Garcetti said after cutting the ribbon. “This truly is a city of angels.”

Here are resources for anyone in the trans community in need of support: