After last April's murder of Brandy Martell, the staff at TransVision, an East Bay HIV prevention and treatment program for transgender women, experienced a tragic drop in morale as they mourned the loss of one of their own peer advocates to a senseless act of violence.
Now, the 10-year-old program overseen by TriCity Health Center in Fremont has something exceptional to celebrate in Martell's name. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has allocated a Health Resources and Service Administration grant to TransVision under the initiative of enhancing engagement and retention in quality HIV care for transgender women of color in the form of $300,000 per year for five years.
"This has been a long, hard year for us as a program," said Tiffany Woods, coordinator of TransVision. "We're most excited about naming the grant the Brandy Martell Project to honor her memory."
Martell, 37, died April 29 after a gunman shot her as she and some friends sat in her car near 13th and Franklin streets in downtown Oakland. The case remains unsolved.
HRSA is a federal agency tasked with improving access to health care for people that are uninsured, isolated, or vulnerable, which includes those living with HIV/AIDS. This is the first year HRSA money has been directed toward trans-specific services. A total of nine trans-centered organizations were awarded the same grant – two in Chicago, two in New York and five in California, three of which are in the Bay Area (TransVision, the Pacific Health Institute, and the San Francisco Department of Public Health partnering with the Asian and Pacific Islander Wellness Center).
"It's a big deal for HRSA not only because they've never done transgender funding before," Woods said, "but also because they're designating specifically transgender women of color. They've acknowledged there are issues with keeping them in care."
HRSA required grantees of the Special Projects of National Significance program to select a structural issue affecting transgender women of color then to formulate a plan to address it. TransVision opted to identify the specified demographic as particularly vulnerable to being profiled by police for solicitation. Incarceration in men's prisons, poor court treatment and citation fees often ensue after arrests, further entrenching the cycle of oppression upon an already disenfranchised population, according to Micah Ludeke, author of a 2009 paper, "The War on Sex."
TransVision clients affected by profiling will now have access to a lawyer that will help them navigate the criminal justice system to reduce penalties incurred, Woods explained.
"We think it's going to make a big difference because now they won't be stuck with thousands of dollars in fines," Woods said. "If their legal issues are taken care of, that frees them up to focus on their health care."
HRSA grant money is also enabling TransVision to hire consultants to implement a series of life skills classes. The workshops will include GED/high school diploma preparation, financial management information, "Know Your Rights" training, immigration 101, and domestic violence education. Monetary compensation for taking the classes has also increased, which will contribute to a rise in class enrollment and retention, Woods said.
In addition, clients will be linked to individual case management that will oversee their health care and life skills development.
Last year, TransVision operated on a budget of $85,000. With the HRSA grant, the budget now sits just under $400,000 per year, enabling a significant expansion in services. Awarded last September, the various components of the Brandy Martell Project have not been fully implemented yet, but, Woods said, are definitely under way. The organization has begun interviewing for legal advice personnel and has already hired three more peer advocates and another full-time staffer – all of whom are transgender.
"While Brandy's name will always be attached to her murder, which remains unsolved," Woods said, "now we'll read it in a positive light. It's all over federal documents, which is another way to create awareness around violence against the transgender community."