Creating A Safe Haven for Black Trans Youth In Baltimore

Above Photo: SHAN Wallace / Okay Player.

Because of the leadership of founder Iya Dammons, Baltimore Safe Haven stands in a class of its own when it comes to community work that centers Black trans youth.

In late May, a crowd descended on Central Baltimore’s 6,000 square foot Ynot Lot for a day of free food and entertainment. Local artists like the contagiously candid Lor Choc, the sharp-rapping Fmb Foreign, and decorated Baltimore Club DJ Scottie B took the lot’s stage. Onlookers danced in their respective circles, many holding cloudy, ice cold bottles of water to contend with the sweltering sun. Others occupied shady spots to permanently plop down in.

Just outside the Ynot were mobile stations providing confidential STI/HIV testing, as well as COVID-19 vaccines from pharmaceutical companies Moderna and Pfizer. By all accounts, the star that day wasn’t the artists onstage, but the person who facilitated the event: Iya Dammons, founder of Baltimore Safe Haven (BSH), whose leadership was clear from the outset. Dressed in a sleeveless pink wraparound top and a blue denim skirt, she was on the move nonstop: calling people over to give discreet directions, checking in on employees who occupied white folding tables and making sure artists were ready to start their sets. People in the crowd gazed at her as she walked around handling her business. But even as an authority figure, Dammons had an ease in her approach.

Baltimore Safe Haven stands in a class of its own when it comes to community work. The non-profit, which prioritizes providing vulnerable Black young adult trans people in the city — with an emphasis on those who are in the survival sex work field — with health services, housing, food, access to computers, and an overall space to safely convene, has only been in existence for a bit over two years. And, in that span, it’s been able to become an all-encompassing beacon for the city’s LGBTQ+ community, which has been historically neglected by city government.

Baltimore Safe Haven is one of few LGBTQ+ shelters in the state of Maryland, with a large staff (13) of LGBTQ+ staff members. It’s also the first transitional-based housing program that exclusively works with LGBTQ+ youth in Baltimore City. Its impact is best understood by considering that Dammons, who is 36, has life experiences that run parallel to the people she serves.

“Baltimore has been historically behind for many years, and I just thought to push it to the next level, we were going to need someone who looked like us,” she said via phone a few days before the event. “My lived experience taught me the way of each and every trans woman who goes through survival sex work or the injustice and violence that we face. In Baltimore City, you have never had a person of lived experience get this far — a Black trans woman — in this body of work.”

Dammons was born and raised an hour down the MD-295 parkway in Washington, D.C. Having a mother who struggled with addiction, Dammons was in and out of group homes. As she grew older, she found herself needing to take part in sex work to earn a living in both D.C. and Baltimore, before permanently relocating in 2014. What she endured on the streets began to be too much for her, including a traumatic incident with a Baltimore City police officer that she isn’t at liberty to go into detail about. Knowing these kinds of situations were commonplace for other trans women in Baltimore (and beyond), initiated Dammons conceptualization of Safe Haven.

While still in D.C., Dammons was under the tutelage of Ruby Corado, an El Salvador-born trans activist who settled in the nation’s capital after migrating to the U.S. as a teenager. In 2012, Corado established Casa Ruby, D.C.’s first and only bilingual and multicultural organization for its LGBTQ+ community. Through it, vulnerable individuals are provided with housing and health services. That was the model for Safe Haven which, in 2019, was mobile — a minivan that would be parked in strategic intersections in the city to provide testing and food for trans women participating in survival sex work. It has grown exponentially since then.

“Well, we have a girl over here on the couch right now,” said Dammons, when asked what’s a typical day-to-day at Safe Haven’s base on the city’s east side. “One on the phone. We have some visitors here right now who are just watching me at this moment. It’s a safe space. They can just talk, be themselves without being judged, without being ridiculed. You name it.”

From the early stages of Safe Haven, Dammons’ work has been recognized on a national scale. In 2019, Gabrielle Union dedicated social media posts to the work that Dammons was doing, pledging to donate clothing for Safe Haven’s outreach initiatives. In summer 2020, she was the cover star of the Washington Blade, the oldest LGBT-focused newspaper in the country. In June of the same year, Dammons organized the Black Trans Lives Matter rally with 200 protesters traveling from City Hall to downtown Baltimore. It was photographed by local standout photographer Devin Allen for the cover of TIME Magazine. But with many Black trans women still living under the threat of violence in their daily lives, for her, press opportunities aren’t met with much excitement.

“All the hype really didn’t do it for me,” she said, regarding the accolades and heightened media interest around social justice after last year’s uprisings. “All the hype from people thinking it’s the right thing to do to donate to Black trans women at that time. But guess what? We still gon’ be here. The root issues are still going to be here. So we’re still going to be fighting when people forget about us. That was a year ago, and I’m still working on grassroots issues of what happens to the trans community. And not only the trans community, but the LGBTQ and non-binary community.”

As of May 13, D.C.,based Humans Rights Campaign has recorded 24 violent deaths of trans and gender non-conforming people in 2021 — one of which was Danika “Danny” Henson of Baltimore on May 4. In 2020, HRC recorded 44 of these fatalities, the most since numbers officially began being tracked in 2013. The organization also released a report in 2020 that detailed the heightened risk of intimate partner violence that LGBTQ people were likely to face during the COVID-19 quarantine. Figures like these, as well as the overall lack of infrastructure in place to ensure safety and equal opportunities in Baltimore City, is why Dammons’ attention can’t be wasted on superficialities. Even when the rest of the world was forced to slow down due to COVID-19, Safe Haven’s work didn’t falter.

“We’ve been on the ground since COVID,” she said. “That affected the world, but it didn’t stop us from doing the work in our community because our community still needed the work to be done. Some people don’t have places to quarantine so luckily many people survived it.” Throughout the pandemic, Safe Haven, if anything, had to work more tirelessly considering that trans sex workers in Baltimore had even less health resources at their disposal.

Dammons is optimistic about her organization’s evolution, regardless of the challenges that are thrown at it. What sustained that reassurance in an abundant future over the past two years is Safe Haven’s internal growth, as well as her being able to see her influence start to manifest itself in the interests of the youth she’s taken in over that span of time. Devine, who came to Safe Haven as a 16-year-old and was onstage addressing the crowd toward the end of the Community Day event, spoke about the difference that Dammons made in her life as a trans youth caught up in the Baltimore juvenile justice system.

“When I got out of jail, Iya took me under her wing,” she said. “I consider her a mother. She listens to me when I need to talk, and she’s teaching me how to conduct myself as a woman. She’s teaching me and other youth how to thrive and survive the right way.”

Devine also mentioned that she’s in the process of establishing her own non-profit organization, a clear sign of Dammons’ impact. Dammons has also been giving Devine opportunities to sharpen her skills as a public speaker and activist.

Reflecting on her favorite moments of being a mentor, she counted off a few highlights.

“Being able to see one youth take something and look at you as a mentor and say, ‘I want something different.’ How bad they wanted to see me win is how bad I want to see them win. I can do any interview, and that really doesn’t do anything for me as much as to see one of them say, ‘Hey I wanna be just like you.’ And I ain’t even Michael Jordan. I’m just trying to make a way, like Fantasia say.”

After her second performance of the day at Ynot Lot, FMB Foreign, who has performed all over the city since 2013, spoke to the accommodating experience that Dammons and team created that day.

“This is my first time performing at an LGBT event,” she said. “The love is there, though. A lot of shows that I went to — not to down talk nobody — it wasn’t always put together. It means a lot when you can just come perform and do what you got to do as an artist.”

Two weeks before Community Day, Safe Haven added a new Chief Operating Officer in Jabari Lyles, who spent the previous few years serving as Director of the mayor’s LGBT Affairs. Though he’d worked with Safe Haven as a consultant since its inception, a deeper involvement in the organization was something that he felt led to do when he saw a job opening on its website.

”I’ve been doing LGBT work in the city for a long time and have never seen anything like this,” he said, from a quiet corner at the Ynot Lot. “Iya’s leadership and vision really inspires me. She sort of doesn’t give a fuck about respectability politics. She’s taught me a lot about advocacy, and I think it’s such worthy work.”

For Lyles, the key distinction between trying to make a change from within local government and the in-the-field approach that Safe Haven has is the immediacy of his impact.

“Number one, your oppressor can’t be your savior,” he said. “This was government, and I knew that from the jump. I went in there, and I was very clear on day one that my allegiance is to my community. If you want a ‘yes’ man, then don’t hire me. And I stuck to my word on that. But this is more direct service. The mayor’s office was systemic work, which was good, but the work was slow. Safe Haven has grown really quickly. In 2019, it was just an idea with a minivan. And today we have the largest LGBT staffed team in the state.”

Local government’s lack of urgency is what gives Dammons a bit of trepidation when she thinks about, one day, trying her hand at making a difference from within the system. But her work with Safe Haven suggests that she could be exceptional in that realm. She isn’t fully closed off to the possibility, though.

“I don’t think Baltimore itself wants to make a change,” she said. “That’s why the infrastructure is so behind. I do look at being a council member in 2025 — to be the first Black trans woman to sit in the seat over there. But I can’t say I’ll throw my bid in quite yet. We got to see what doors open for me now.”

What Dammons is absolutely sure of is her refusal to be exploited by local government by way of contracted liaison services, which, to her, wouldn’t even make financial sense. (She insinuates that she likely makes more as the Executive Director of her own non-profit than she would as an official member of the mayor’s team.) But she does see a benefit in having the opportunity to move barriers in terms of infrastructure in a place that has failed the LGBT community as much as Baltimore has — specifically the Black LGBT community.

“In DC, you have a housing model that gives you Section 8, gives you equal housing opportunities where most of our girls here in Baltimore City don’t really have the opportunity to get an education,” she says to demonstrate the disparities. “Let’s put it like this: The Caucasian counterpart is able to get money from the city without having to show any of their programming is sustainable. I have to show you everything I’ve done — my accounting services, my bookkeeping. I have to show you that my finances are sustainable before you’ll throw a crumb my way versus my Caucasian counterpart that doesn’t have to show you anything.”

As it stands now, the city’s LGBT Affairs aren’t a permanent part of the government. When the commission was created by former Mayor Catherine Pugh in 2018, it was deemed that it could have up to 15 members. But Jabari Lyles’ position was the only staffed role; the other slots were made up of volunteers.

Now that Lyles is at Safe Haven, his former role is still vacant. And the commission could be axed by city leaders at any time. In late May, local NPR station WYPR reported that a bill written by Baltimore City Councilman Kristerfer Burnett would ensure that the commission’s permanence (as well as a larger staff) is headed to the full council for a second reader vote at their next meeting. The belief is that if it makes its way to Mayor Brandon Scott’s desk, then it will be signed.

Regardless of what happens at City Hall, it’s clear that Dammons’ work will persist.

“It’s showing if it’s a will, it’s a way,” Dammons said. “You can do anything if you set your mind to it. We’re the only organization that has direct services. We’re the only organization that actually does vocational training, GED, bus passes, daily food, showers, laundry [specifically for young Black trans youth.]… I’m a firm believer in that lived experience individuals should start getting equal opportunities and pay because my street knowledge can outdo your book smarts any day.”