Providing a refuge for transgender men

Mr Deveshwar Sham, who is himself a transgender man, at the shelter that he and his wife have set up. Having once lived on the streets for five years, he knows the value of a home with some permanence.
Mr Deveshwar Sham, who is himself a transgender man, at the shelter that he and his wife have set up. Having once lived on the streets for five years, he knows the value of a home with some permanence.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

Couple rent 5-room condo unit, opening up a room as shelter for those with nowhere to go

Homeless transgender women have been able to turn to The T Project for shelter since 2014, but the men have had nowhere to go - until now.

In January, dog handler Deveshwar Sham, 32, rented a five-room condominium unit in the north of Singapore so that needy transgender men have a place to stay.

"The T Project accepts 'transmen' who need help too, but since it's a women's area, the men and women may not feel comfortable living in the same space over the long term," said Mr Sham, himself a transgender man.

Having once lived on the streets for five years, he knew the value of a home with some permanence. So Mr Sham and his wife Patricia, a private nurse, put their money together to rent a place.

The condo unit costs them around $5,000 a month in rent and utilities. The couple live in the apartment so they can manage the shelter, and have opened up one other room - which can accommodate two men or a couple - as a shelter for under $500 a month.

They will make the other bedrooms available only after they get used to running the shelter.

"We want to start slow to make sure that we can manage," said Mr Sham, who also runs a support group for transgender men called The Kopitiam Brothers.

Currently, there is a Malaysian residing at the shelter. He is staying there temporarily while looking for a job in Singapore.

Mr Sham said those in need find them through word-of-mouth referrals. It helps that The Kopitiam Brothers runs a bi-monthly support group here, and also launched in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in June.

But he is cautious about who he lets the room out to.

"We have some background questions: What is the purpose of leaving your current place? Why do you need somewhere to stay? We're considering having them pay a nominal sum so people don't take advantage of us," he said.

"It's not about the money. But I think we should give the space to people who really need it, not those who want to move out of their homes for independence."

At The T Project, which can hold up to eight people and is located in the east, there are currently four residents with two more waiting to move in. They are all Singaporeans and permanent residents.

Asked what has changed since it started out three years ago, founder June Chua, 44, said: "Now we prefer to take in residents who are referred to us by social workers; if not, we will take them to a social service office."

This gives her shelter programme more structure, she said, and the residents also get professional support and access to financial aid that can put them back on their feet.

Ms Chua, herself a transgender woman, said of Mr Sham's initiative: "I see it as a positive development as I'm all for more options and any kind of support for my transgender community."

In fact, Mr Sham had picked her brain before starting his shelter.

"She told me to not just blindly give the limited space out to people, that I've to do my screening well and make sure that they seriously need a place. And to have rules so the place isn't misused," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2017, with the headline 'Providing a refuge for transgender men'. Print Edition | Subscribe