Sitting down with Rev. Debra J. Hopkins at a coffee shop in Charlotte, North Carolina, as the barista brings over her hot chocolate and my latte and I hit record, she warns that she likes to talk, letting me know to cut her off when necessary.
Two things quickly become apparent: her insight into her verbosity is accurate, and I have zero intention of ever cutting her off.
Hopkins speaks with an eloquence and passion that rises even above what one might well expect from a veteran pastor and advocate. It is made more compelling still by her tendency to speak without reservations, showing strength while allowing herself to be open in a way most would feel was too vulnerable to consider for themselves. Strength, it is soon apparent, has been far from a luxury but a clear necessity throughout her life.
Debra Hopkins. supplied
New York Beginnings
As Hopkins told SAGE in a 2016 interview, coming of age as an adolescent during the ’60s and early ’70s in New York City, she was “struggling…crying a lot and getting angry with other people,” aware she was not interested in most of the activities she was expected to partake in with the other guys, and aware of the growing LGBTQ rights movement, but still not sure what was causing her so much internal upset.
She credits a chance meeting with Christine Jorgensen—the WWII vet who has been called the first famous trans woman after she transitioned publicly in the early ‘50s—with encouraging her to push beyond what she thought possible for herself.
Eventually Hopkins, who spent time working as both a middle school teacher and a broker, came to realize she was transgender, deciding to transition in the mid-’90s.
For a time, she hit her stride, relocating to Hunstville, Alabama, where she tells NewNowNext “no one knew of my transition.” She bought a three bedroom, two bathroom house and started a church, called the New Life Christian Fellowship.
“This ministry’s focus was on homeless women and children,” Hopkins says. “Our funding was through donations from the community and from my personal savings.”
She was beginning to find a balance she had long hoped for, but turmoil was about to reappear.
A Series of Tragedies
After a decade of living as her true self, preaching and helping those less fortunate, the trajectory of Hopkins’ life was forever altered when, in 2007, she says she was wrongly accused of a crime she didn’t commit.
Hopkins says the judge routinely deadnamed her, which she believes was done intentionally to cause embarrassment. She also reports having been sexually assaulted multiple times while imprisoned.
The charges against her were ultimately dropped for lack of evidence.
By the time she was able to clear her name, which she says took a year and a half, Hopkins says her reputation was severely damaged in the town.
Further trouble came when her mother suffered a heart attack, causing Hopkins to travel to South Carolina to be by her side. It was then that her cousin suggested she move to the Carolinas to be closer to family, she says, and to give her a second chance at starting over.
Hopkins decided the move made sense, and in 2011, with her remaining $4,000 of personal savings, the rest of which had been spent on her defense, she headed to North Carolina to begin again.
She found an apartment able and got a job as an OnStar navigator, but says her failing eyesight caused her to lose that job, once again putting her in a perilous situation. Hopkins soon found herself in the position of the women she had ministered to back in Alabama, without a home and no one willing to take her in for long.
“The systems that are in place: DSS, and others…they denied me the help I needed. The local church, members of my family, and the system really turned their back on me,” she says, remembering herself as a “broken, depressed woman” at the time.
She recalls what followed were nearly two-and-a-half years of living on the streets, selling what little she had left in order to survive, and attempting suicide on three separate occasions.
She says her status as a trans woman made staying in shelters difficult, with a woman’s shelter asking her to submit to a strip search, told she was “making other people uncomfortable.”
“I felt alone, ashamed and scared. I began hearing voices that weren’t there, seeing things that weren’t there…I started losing my sense of reality,” she recalls.
Hopkins admits she was struggling to believe her life could turn around for the better, but then it did. Salvation came in the form of Monarch, a statewide mental health and human services provider, which set her up with temporary housing, treatment, and support to once again resume a productive and healthy life for herself.
She says the 16-month program is designed to offer stability while the individual works on becoming self-sustaining. She showed those who had offered her a helping hand how serious she was to be an active part of her journey back to a better life right away by walking in the snow on two separate occasions the approximately eight miles to job interviews uptown. She had no intention of wasting the opportunity.
On a Mission to Help Others
Before long, Hopkins’ life began to gain some stability again.
In time, she started an online ministry, which she continues to this day, called Essentials for Life Ministries, in an effort to reach people of all walks of life, from all around the world. She is also taking her experiences and the knowledge she gained in overcoming her struggles and the challenges life threw her way to help others in the community who are experiencing homelessness while being woefully under-served by the system; a situation which has only gotten worse under the Trump administration.
While there are some resources in the city for LGBTQ youth—albeit still never enough—with organizations like Time Out Youth doing work to house homeless children and teens, LGBTQ adults are often left with few options. Transgender individuals are especially vulnerable.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 19% of trans and gender nonconforming have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.
To help address this issue, Hopkins started the nonprofit organization There’s Still Hope in the spring of 2018 to offer temporary shelter, along with food, hygiene products, and access to counseling for transgender adults and survivors of domestic violence.
More Help Is Needed
There’s Still Hope was given a grant through another nonprofit, Transfaith, which is based in Philadelphia, which has allowed it to help a number of trans individuals facing homelessness.
However, the $3,000 it received ran out quickly and Hopkins has been taking people into her personal home while working to obtain more resources to do her organization’s important work.
“It’s hard to run a shop $3,000 a year,” she admits. “It’s hard to help those that are in need when you get that phone call and have to say, unfortunately we have exhausted our expenditures, and let me connect you with some of my offers out there and hope that they have something available.”
She is also hoping the City of Charlotte will do more to address the problem. She says she plans to have conversations with Mayor Vi Lyles, whom Hopkins notes has been touting an open door policy for constituents to have their voices heard, and other elected officials to attempt to drum up support for her efforts.
“What is the City of Charlotte prepared to do to help support the work that we’re doing?” she asks. “We got money coming in. This city has a wealth of money, this state has a wealth of money, and we still have this homeless problem.”
She notes that when the city has large events, like when it hosted the Democratic National Convention in 2012 and looking ahead to the Republican National Convention coming in 2020, it manages to push the homeless out of public view, without offering real long-term aide to the community they temporarily drive out.
Hopkins says she would love to someday be able to offer more permanent solutions to the crisis of trans homelessness. She knows it won’t be easy, but as her organization’s name suggests, she also knows there’s always still hope.