Trans-affirming recovery sets a national standard in West Philadelphia

To be admitted into the Morris Home, one must be actively seeking recovery, and identify as transgender or gender non-conforming. The program operates at the intersection of trans-specific trauma and addiction.

Addiction looks different for everybody, there is no singular identifier or symptom. Certainly, actively seeking recovery mirrors that.

“I thought I was different,” said one resident, who wished to remain anonymous. “I paid my bills. I went to work on time. I was a functional alcoholic.”

The resident credits her successful first steps in recovery to a supportive family and to Morris Home is the first and only inpatient residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation program in the United States for people who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming. There are LGBTQ+ affirming recovery models across the nation, but Morris Home is unique in that its residents must identify as transgender or gender non-conforming to be admitted. The program works to address the intersection of addiction and trauma specific to trans populations.

“The staff here are willing to fight,” they said. “For us to see another day clean.”

Morris Home opened on Woodland Avenue near 51st Street in Southwest Philadelphia in 2012. The facility is funded by the national nonprofit organization Resources for Human Development, which helps the homeless, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and those seeking recovery.

As an eight-bedroom facility operating out of a renovated RHD-owned home, the Morris Home offers short and long-term rehabilitation programs. Residents’ average stay ranges from four to six months.

Each resident has their own room for the sake of privacy and to encourage a level of personal accountability in independent living. Residents participate in daily chores and individual and group therapy that incorporate themes of trans empowerment and self-care. They are also encouraged to volunteer during their stays.

“It’s definitely an eclectic approach because there aren’t a lot of traditional [recovery] curriculums or models that are trans-inclusive,” said Laura Sorensen, Morris Home’s executive director. “A lot of our folks are living at the intersection of having a lot of different identities, having faced trans-specific violence, poverty, racism, sexism. For a lot of folks, addiction is sort of secondary to the trauma of being a trans woman of color in our country right now.”

Sorensen said about 200 clients have enrolled at the Morris Home over the past five years. Individuals pay for their treatment  through their insurance, mostly Medicaid. About 90 percent of residents saw a decrease in substance use from the month prior to treatment to the last month of their rehabilitation. Additionally, 83 percent of residents received medical treatment, including preventative HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C care, and an additional 89 percent transitioned from use of street-grade unregulated hormones to medical-grade hormone treatment.

The home offers trans-specific resources, like facilitating legal name changes. According to a February report from the Morris Home, 86 percent of residents successfully changed their gender on their state identification while living in the home, and almost half were able to obtain a legal name change.

Morris Home also actively recruits trans-identifying staff members, which Sorensen said helps build trust among members.

“Most trans people in the city have had really negative experiences with other service providers,” Sorensen said. “We have to do a lot to prove ourselves.”

“Morris Home has been crucial for trans identified folks in Philadelphia that have struggled with substance misuse,” said Elaine Dutton, the Trans Care Services Manager at the Mazzoni Center, a Philadelphia-based LGBTQ health center.

Dutton said the center’s health clinicians often refer trans-identifying clients to Morris Home upon hearing a person is seeking long-term recovery from an active addiction.

To have an agency where they can not only trust there will be trans-competent care available, but to be with folks who they have shared lived experience in common with is really important.”

In addition to offering trans-specific resources, Morris Home utilizes a harm reduction model, meaning that if someone resumes substance use, they are not immediately kicked out of the program.

“What we’re going to do is bring folks back and ask, ‘What wasn’t working for you?’” Sorensen said. “‘What did you need that you weren’t getting? What would you do differently next time?’ The goal is to keep moving forward.”

“I really think we are a model that could be replicated,” Sorensen added. “There is a huge need for space like this.”

About the author

Maggie Andresen

Maggie Andresen is a graduating senior studying journalism at Temple University. She specializes in documentary storytelling through photography and videography. Maggie has produced work for audiences in the United States, South Africa, and Italy. She had the pleasure of working as an intern for New Orleans-based newspaper The Times-Picayune, and will join the video team of The Denver Post this coming summer. Feel free to contact Maggie at tue90146@temple.edu.

1 comment

  • As a former staff member who identifies as a trans woman, I never witnessed any of upper management actually encourage the residents at Morris Home. I submitted my resignation on Thursday because I could not only stand by and witness the enabling and disservice to my community. Yes, Morris Home is the only trans specific recovery group in America. And yes, it has a model that could produce not even exemplary results such as what is fictitiously being described in this article. The residents find themselves returning to Morris Home because they were never receiving these services that would give them the tools to re-enter society. I worked there for 3 months and saw sex work being overlooked, where I as a staff member was placed in danger and propositioned by random strange men because of the reputation of Morris Home being a house full of trans women engaging in sex work. The groups and individual counseling sessions were not beneficial to the residents for several reasons. 1. They did arts and crafts as adult black and brown trans women, and nothing even remotely related to recovery. 2. Residents would not attend because it was not recovery-related and the counselor would knock on the resident’s bedroom door in order to collect said resident’s signature on the group roster for the sake of continued funding and job security. Yes, I’m making a claim of falsifying documents by full-time staff. I was privy to residents fighting and injuring each other and I as the recover specialist was left on my own by the executive director and the office manager. I never felt supported in my role as staff, nor as a Black trans woman.