A social butterfly mixed with a little camera shyness and a genuine spirit creates the essence of Cocoa.  She’s model-esque with a bright smile and a fashion sense straight out of Essence magazine. A participant since January 2019, Cocoa is eternally grateful for the PAD Initiative and credits the program with being one of the best changes Atlanta, her hometown, has seen.

“Atlanta has just been … moving a little faster to me than it usually moved. I think it’s not as dangerous as it used to be… as far as being transgender, the cops don’t harass me as they used to in Midtown. I can actually say that. They really don’t. But like, back in the day… like in 1999 and 2000, it was real bad. But, as far as the girl just walking, they don’t harass me too much.”

Though Atlanta may have changed and the pace of life, faster, one thing that has remained constant for Cocoa is PAD’s support in her recovery. PAD has been able to connect Cocoa with housing, transportation, and food, as well as a solid and caring social support system. It was a goal of Cocoa’s to reduce her drug use, and with the basic services and care navigation provided by PAD, she has abstained from substance use for six months. With a little more stability, she is now completing a GED program.

“My care navigator is Will, and he’s excellent. He cares and makes me feel special…I can say that PAD is some of the first people to genuinely show they care. Whatever you need, as long as you’re doing the right thing, they are there. I can give them 10’s across the board. 20’s across the board if I could, honey! PAD is the best thing to happen to my life.”

Prior to PAD, Cocoa was homeless and relying on sex work for income and sustenance – two scenarios fit with their own complexities in general, but even more for a trans woman like Cocoa.

“The times where I was homeless, I had to actually prostitute and stuff to survive. That’s the worst feeling. Going into bathrooms and doing wash ups. Then you get locked up for prostitution, now you’re stuck in jail. They just see me as that girl that just keeps getting locked up…who is actually a survivor. [Sex work] was the only way I knew how to survive, and it was unsafe and scary…that’s the challenge that [transgender women] face every day.”

Fighting discrimination, seeking shelter, and trying to make a living, the intersectional experiences of Cocoa’s life proved to be challenging.  Even some aspects of those challenges continue to this day. “[Transgender women] will always have that stigma…I don’t see us just walking down the street. [Facing stigma] is just going to be a part of my lifestyle, and I’m going to have to accept that…I don’t have time to be stressing about whatever [others] think or however [others] feel. It’s a waste of energy, honey. It took a lot of years to get like this and accept myself for who I am.”

When asked about what safety meant to her, Cocoa talked about the feeling of being at-ease and the importance of a social safety net.

“Safety is necessary. If you don’t feel safe, then you’ll always be worried about something versus when you feel safe, it means you’re secure…Just like [with] PAD, there’s security. It helps the community be safer because it gives a person a chance to live their life for the first time…and get your life back on your feet.”

And what does Cocoa plan to do once she’s back on her feet? Give back—to herself and her community.

“Yes, my dreams and goals is to get my own place. And probably start going back to school for cosmetology or something. If not that, then I’d love to be a peer counselor and help other girls out.”

This storytelling project was made possible by DeShonna Johnson-Garay, graduate student in public policy at the University of Georgia and PAD communications & advocacy intern. In summer 2019, DeShonna created a platform for participants and community members to share their perspectives on community safety, recovery, and Atlanta.

Participant Perspectives: A survivor, an advocate