LGBTQ-specific Homeless shelter next up for unstoppable local trans activist – but she needs your help
It’s not often you meet a woman like Zakia Mckensey, but those who have met her are often doing better because of it. Mckensey, in her early 40s and a lifelong Richmond resident, has been working in HIV/AIDS and transgender support for nearly as far back as she can remember.
But now, she’s set a new bar for herself, even as someone who has already accomplished a lot with very little. She’s looking to raise $200K to purchase a house in Northside and turn it into an emergency homeless and drop in shelter for Central Virginia’s most marginalized folks – LGBTQs.
“There’s a need in the city,” said Mckensey from the desk of the office of NATIONZ FOUNDATION, a fledgling non-profit she started just over a year ago which now offers HIV/AIDS testing and a food pantry. “We have a lot of LGBTQ youth and trans woman of color; when people try to come out who they are and live authentic, their families will put them out. They can’t get gainful employment to care for themselves.”
Mckensey is all too familiar with the homeless side of the equation. When she came out as gay in her teens, her mother put her on the street – it didn’t get any easier when she came out as transgender years later, but by then she’d been making headlines as a Drag Pageant queen around the country by that point.
“All of my experiences have brought me to where I am today and it’s changed drastically,” she said.
Her work started with club outreach through Fan Free Clinic, a RVA free clinic that changed its name to Health Brigade earlier this year. From there, she pioneered local programs involving testing in clubs and on the streets.
She had been a club kid and drag queen for years, but when her drag mother Mercedes Sevill, died of HIV/ADIS in 1999, she recommitted herself to a good cause.
That brought her to the steps of Fan Free. After years there, they helped her secure a gig at the local Virginia Department of Health where she continued to address the growing HIV/AIDS crisis in Richmond - one of the worst in the country.
Her work has left a lasting impression. She remembered the first time she had to tell someone they had contracted the disease.
“It was so many different emotions,” she said, looking back. “I was nervous, I was scared, I wasn’t sure how the person was going to handle the news.”
But with the kind and open heart she has, Mckensey said she still keeps in touch with the individual and they are doing well.
“All of their fears that they had then, they’ve conquered [them] and everything they’ve wanted to do in their life they’ve done,” she said. This is the life some folks end up with when diagnosed these days – medications and treatment have advanced, but the stigma around the illness remains, and the fear of addressing the issue does as well.
She said about 50% of those who test positive disappear from her services. She’s not sure if they end up getting treatment elsewhere, but she hopes so.
“The best thing is to get tested and get into care. The meds are better now, they don’t have the same side effects, its not as a many pills,” she said. “If you get diagnosed and get into care you can die in some other crazy kind of way.”
That light hearted, frank attitude is key to Mckensey’s success. She’s a no-nonsense girl who only wants best for those she touches. And that’s what makes her homeless shelter project so incredible.
“There’s no where for LGBTQ or trans people to go and be safe with emergency housing,” she said noting trans men and women often face judgment, discrimination or worse when seeking help in a shelter. They often can’t stay with the gender they’ identify with and she believes forcing someone to live inauthentically can only compound the problem.
“There’s a need in the city,” she said.
The project was also spurred on by the murder of her friend and local trans woman Noonie Norwood Norwood’s case remains unsolved, but Mckensey hopes the service the house and NATIONZ FOUNDATION can provide will lead to less lives lost for those like her.
“As long as Trump holds office, his band of mostly old white men (GBT seniors excluded) will make moves to ignore and marginalize.”March 22, 2017
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