Felix’s Story: A Philly Tenants Union Co-Founder Looks Back

Felix contacted Philly Socialists after seeing a flyer advertising the worker-tenant solidarity network in 2014. They helped lead Philly Socialists’ first building-wide tenant organizing drive. The Winchester Tenants Association that Felix spearheaded won the firing of abusive property managers, improved extermination services, free mattress encasements to prevent bed bugs for all residents, financial compensation and back rent forgiveness, and the prevention of at least two threatened evictions. Felix was a founding member at the Philadelphia Tenants Union’s 2016 convention. That fall, Felix passed away in their home at the Winchester. David Thompson interviewed Felix in 2015 for the following statement to Philly Socialists.

My name is Felix. I’m a leader of the Winchester Tenants Association. I’ve lived at the Winchester Apartments since 2005. I want to tell you all a little bit about myself.

I grew up in Northeast Philly with five brothers. I graduated high school in 1966. I’m a fashion designer, a singer, and an activist for transgender rights. As of today, I’m also a member of Philly Socialists.

I’ve always known who I was. People ask me when I came out of the closet, but I was never in. I didn’t even know the word “transgender” for most of my life. I just told people that I was gonna be around that when I identify myself I identify as being a male in a female specimen.

I got bullied as a child, but my mom always said you can’t do nothing unless they touch you. In seventh grade, one of them hit me. I was getting ready to play baseball, and I had the bat. Luckily, the coach caught it in midair. After that, no more bullying problems at school. In the neighborhood, I found so many shortcuts to take home so I wouldn’t be harassed and bullied through the neighborhood trying to make it home. I could’ve wrote a map.

I started singing as a child. That’s what saved me. It started when I was maybe six or seven in bible school, they heard me or something. Next thing I know I’m up in the main auditorium, mic’d and everything. They said, “Sing,” and that’s what I did. Singing helped me live. I’d sing inspiration songs, old hymns. No downers. Blues, that’s what I stay away from. I already got the blues!

All through school I did business, so that’s what I wanted to do when I got out. But Philly said, “No, you are not gonna work anywhere, cuz you’re different.” I would get the job, then they would find out about me, and then I’d get fired. I’ve been fired from 28 jobs. In 1976, someone at an employment office called me “unemployable.” I didn’t know what in the world that meant. But it was that year I got a business privilege license and set up Fashions by Felix. I got $6,000 to help me with my business. I had a tutor teach me how to sew, and I made full-length duster coats. I was home-based. I had appointments, did flyers, business cards, word of mouth. I had to fight for my grant. That was my first contact with a lawyer. But I got it.

I opened Fashions by Felix with my romantic and business partner. We were together for 25 years. But then the church caught up with me, and the bishop told her she had to get out of there. She found God, but I always said He wasn’t lost.

She left in 2002. The mortgage on our place was in her name, so I became technically homeless. I coulda took over, but she wouldn’t let me. So I stayed squatting in the empty house. I found help from the Gay and Lesbian Law Project. They directed me to the Mazzoni walk-in clinic, and that’s when I started getting help. Therapy, counseling.

I went to Juniper Street shelter, but I told them I can’t go to a shelter for women. That’s when my traumatic encounters with government workers began. They started asking me, “Why?” I said, “because I’m transgender.” “What does that mean?” Then they got into personal questions like, “Well do you have a—” you know. That was the first part of my shock.

So I became the busiest homeless person they’d ever seen. I went on the warpath, with backup, for transgender homeless. We had hearings, a task force, all to fight to get us our own shelter. What came of that was the head of Juniper Street went home to spend a little more time with his family.

I finally got housing at the Winchester in 2005. At first I was still considered homeless, which meant no rental agreement. Every six months, FRP [Friends Rehabilitation Program] tried to put me out, so I got a lawyer every time. After two years we got it worked out.

The Winchester was a nice place to live for the first six years. Then in 2011 they took all our services away. They took a lift for the disabled. They took maintenance. They took our control over our heat. They took away pest control. They even took away a beautiful chandelier from our lobby. The property manager stopped showing up regularly. A leak opened up in my ceiling, a hole opened in my ceiling. When the manager would be around, they’d be disrespectful or just ignore us. They’d make and break appointments whenever they wanted. Then the bed bugs came.

I worked with my housing counselor. We made calls, sent emails—no one listened. Then we called you. The agency that employed my counselor is connected to the agency I pay rent to, and I think they fired my counselor after we got in touch with you.

When I met y’all, I decided I’d wait and see. The first meeting went well, and then we moved on the situation. Got some good results.

When we brought the demand letter to FRP, I was surprised. It was a good surprise. At first it was just us and two other people in the car, and then they just come from out of anywhere. I said, “Whoa, that’s cool.” We had all those people. We moved the mountain a little bit, and they didn’t expect that.

There’s a saying going round, “You and what army?” 

This one.” It felt good. Support is good.

Now we know each other in the building. We can put a face on these apartment numbers. I think the Tenants Association will make something for the next tenants to get involved in. Even though you live somewhere, you have to work at it. You can’t sit back and say, “So and so will do this for me.” No. You have to make an effort. And I think people are gonna see that. I hope to see some happy people in a building that’s comfortable. You see something wrong, try to fix it.

I call y’all “people who care about people.” I’m the same. That’s where I come from. “What do you need done? How can we help?” That’s how I see y’all.

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