Ava Pipitone isn’t a real estate agent or a social worker. Yet she spends most of her time finding housing for LGBT friends and others connected to the community.
When she started doing this, she housed friends herself. Then she started a Facebook group and added a catchy toll-free number, 1-833-HOUSEME2.
When case managers from nonprofits started calling as often as 10 times a day, Pipitone knew she needed to formalize this process. She co-founded HostHome, an Airbnb-type website for connecting people to emergency housing, starting with transgender people.
During a pilot program last year, the organization signed up four hosts who housed 21 guests at a cost of $1,200. With her OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship, Pipitone will fine tune the HostHome website and software and launch a second pilot. She says the OSI fellowship is “a very good vote of confidence” that she hopes will help her reach her goal to provide housing for 1,000 guests by the end of her first full year in operation.
“We are already housing our own on our sofas and in our spare rooms,” Pipitone says. “No one should run out of sofas to crash on in community.”
For transgender people like Pipitone, the search for a safe place to sleep is common. Pipitone has a good relationship with her family but many do not. Transgender people are often young and cash-poor, shunned by family and friends, making them dependent on strangers for shelter. How long will they be allowed to stay? Will the host be kind? Will the host be violent?
While a shelter may seem like a safe and viable option, that is not necessarily the case. The 2015 National Trans Survey found that nationally, 70% of people who stayed in a shelter in the previous year faced mistreatment, including being forced out, harassed, or attacked because of being transgender. Overall, 26% of people said they didn’t stay at a shelter because they feared mistreatment.
What differentiates HostHome from other home-sharing platforms are the safety and trust factors. Every potential host is a member or ally of the LGBT community. Guests and hosts get matched together based on compatibility. Soon all hosts will have to complete online training modules. And all hosts are paid $25 per night, though not by guests. HostHome is supported by donations and hopes to receive federal housing funds in the future.
“The money going to shelters, the money going to housing programs – taxpayer dollars are already allocated to this,” she says. “This is actually a way to save taxpayers money – to use a more direct, culturally-sensitive approach to these needs. We don’t have money from the federal government yet, but we will be compliant and get it.”
Pipitone estimates it will be two years before HostHome is eligible for federal funds. Until then, she is scaling back on her other duties – executive director of the Baltimore Transgender Alliance and worker-owner at Red Emma’s – to focus on building out her organization.
“HostHome is better than cutting people off from community and getting retraumatized,” says Pipitone. “We’re putting you in community.”