Transgender shelter owner: 'There are no rules here'

Transgender shelter owner: 'There are no rules here'
June Chua (above) says transgender people are told too often how to behave. June is the founder of The T Project, Singapore's first shelter for homeless transgender individuals, which will soon have to relocate due to a lack of funds.
PHOTO: The New Paper

The law recognises them. Transgenders who have officially changed their sex can legally marry here.

But to be accepted by society?

That is a major hurdle that The T Project is struggling to overcome.

The T Project runs a shelter for homeless transgenders, many of whom have been kicked out of their homes by their families, rejected by some strangers and refused jobs by others.

Miss June Chua makes it her mission to help them. She was born male, but at 17, she decided to undergo gender reassignment surgery in Thailand.

"I did not have to 'come out' to my parents as I was already wearing 'girl clothes'. They knew all along that I was different," says Miss Chua, now 43.

"I am fortunate that they showed me unconditional love. They have never seen me as their son or their daughter but their child."

But not every transgender person is as lucky.

Two years ago, Miss Chua decided to help the transgender community by setting up The T Project with her sister, Alicia (not her real name), who was also a transgender but died last year.

"I wanted to share my blessing with other less fortunate transgender people," she tells The New Paper on Sunday.

Located in central Singapore, the shelter has been home to eight people over the years. But due to a lack of funds, the shelter has to move out of its current premises.

When Miss Chua, who works at a women's healthcare centre during the day, broke the news to the residents on Wednesday, Rose (not her real name) broke down.

She told Miss Chua: "Please do not leave me."

Rose, 78, was recently featured in a video posted on Pink Dot SG's Facebook page as part of a campaign for the movement in support of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Miss Chua says: "Rose is very attached to the shelter as she has lived here for two years. It breaks my heart to see her like this. She is like family to me."

The shelter can house up to four people and acts as an interim accommodation for homeless transgenders, says Miss Chua.

Shophouse attic

The shelter is in a shophouse attic and funded by a non-profit organisation here.

"They get free lodging and food so that whatever they earn from working can be saved to help them get back on their feet," says Miss Chua.

She declined to disclose the shelter's benefactor and its address.

Besides Rose, the other shelter residents are Jess and Pearl (not their real names).

When TNPS visited the shelter on Thursday, it was neat and clean, filled with several wall art contributed by well-meaning people.

Miss Chua says: "I have no rules for the residents here.

"They have been told enough times by society to act or be a certain way. I want to give them the freedom to do whatever they want."

She claims the transgender community faces discrimination everywhere they go.

"They get rejected at job interviews, social welfare centres and healthcare service providers," she says, adding that homeless transgenders struggle to survive every day.

"It is a vicious circle," explains Miss Chua.

"Those with early transition might get kicked out of their homes by their families and drop out of school.

"Without adequate educational qualifications, some resort to becoming sex workers to make money."

The transgender women who have stayed in the shelter have their own heartbreaking stories of abandonment and rejection.

Pearl, for example, was homeless for several months, lugging a trolley full of her belongings around Clarke Quay.

Miss Chua says: "Pearl got skin rashes from sleeping on the streets. The rashes were so bad that she had to be admitted to Singapore General Hospital.

"She now works at a bakery and is saving money to get a place of her own."

Miss Chua was recently informed that The T Project might be relocated to a dormitory that houses 70 migrant workers.

She says: "I was devastated when I thought about Rose. I do not know if she can cope at a place full of strangers."

Miss Chua says its costs about $500 each month to operate the shelter.

She hopes she can raise enough money to keep it going.

"I hope to one day open a transgender resource centre where people can learn about transgender issues."

For more information on The T Project, go to www.facebook.com/TheTprojectsg

She became a sex worker to survive

When she was 18, Miss Maya (not her real name) was kicked out of her home by her step-grandfather.

She says: "I knew I was all alone when even my father refused to pick up my phone calls.

"My struggles were different from those of a typical 18-year-old. I had no time to think about meeting friends or buying new bags. I just wanted to survive."

Miss Maya ended up as a sex worker, homeless and almost broke.

But thanks to The T Project, she has found her feet. "I am grateful to Miss June Chua as she gave me a place to stay when I did not have one," she says.

"Staying at the shelter allowed me to save money to get a place of my own. I did not have to worry about rent."

Miss Maya, 22, told The New Paper on Sunday that after she was kicked out of her family home, she found work at a karaoke lounge as a waitress and rented a room in Bishan.

All alone

She says: "It was the first day of Hari Raya when I moved in. I spent it all alone. I realised I had no family members with me any more."

But three months later, Miss Maya got home to the sight of all her belongings outside her room. She says: "The landlord wanted the room back. He wanted me to leave immediately and did not even return my deposit money."

With only $70 and no place to stay, she engaged in sex work and stayed at the cheapest hotel she could find in Geylang. "I had to do it to survive, even if it was sex work."

But as the months went by, Miss Maya found it increasingly difficult to pay rent.

She says: "Every day, I woke up worrying if I would end up homeless again."

It was then that her friend told her about the shelter for transgender people.

Miss Maya says: "I went for an interview and on the same night, Miss Chua called me and took me to the shelter.

"There were three other transgender women staying there at that time. I connected with them because we shared similar experiences. They taught me how to be street smart and independent."

She eventually saved up enough to rent a room in Woodlands.

Miss Maya, who works as a social activist for the transgender community in Singapore, credits Miss Chua and The T Project for helping her out of the darkest period of her life.

"Now I have a roof over my head and I can support myself," she says with a proud smile.


This article was first published on May 8, 2016.
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