I have been asked to provide a progress report on the state of affairs for homeless LGBT youth in New York City.
The request takes me back to the morning of December 5, 1997. That was a terrible day. Shortly after I arrived at work at a drop-in center for homeless teens I directed in Times Square, Nancy, one of my co-workers, came to my office and told me that Ali Forney had been murdered. Ali was one of the homeless kids who came to us for help. His body had been found in Harlem at 3 a.m. with a bullet in his head. The police found some ID that linked him to us. Two of our staff had just left for Harlem Hospital to identify the body.
Ali was our third client murdered that year. The other two, Kiki and Dion, were also, like Ali, homeless queer kids.
I felt devastated when Ali was killed. I had met him three years earlier, and had been inspired by his talent, warmth, and concern for his friends on the streets. Ali would come into our center every day and fill his knapsack with condoms to give to his transgendered friends who, like him, survived as prostitutes on the streets. He always wanted to protect his friends. I felt awful that I had not been better able to protect Ali.
At that time, homeless LGBT youth had it terrible on the streets. While making up at least 40 percent of the homeless youth in the city, there was no safe shelter for them. The big youth shelter, Catholic-run Covenant House, was––and remains––notorious among queer kids as a dangerous and violent place. I shudder when I recall the numerous horror stories kids have told me about what they endured there. One effeminate boy was hit in his head with batteries rolled up in a sock. A trans girl was forced to sleep on the floor by kids shouting, “Faggots don’t sleep in the beds.” One young man was greeted by an intake worker who indicated that “God hates homosexuals.” Another awoke to find the other boys in his dorm urinating on him to express their disgust at sharing their dorm with a gay kid.
So it was no surprise that most of the homeless LGBT youth I knew refused to go to Covenant House. Instead, they struggled to survive on the streets. Ali used to sleep in a garbage-strewn section of Mount Morris Park in Harlem. Many trans kids used to sleep in a shanty town they built on a pier near 14th Street. I’ve listened to kids tell me which subways are the best to sleep on in the winter––they recommended the A train because it was warmest. Some slept in crack houses.
Without a safety network, I saw kids have their lives destroyed. Destroyed by drugs, AIDS, violence, imprisonment, and murder. Surely New York City, the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement, could do better for its most vulnerable and needy queer youth.
I felt embittered in those days. I was horrified that so many parents threw their children to the streets for being gay. I was frustrated that the city could not provide safe shelter for LGBT youth. And it seemed to me that the broader LGBT community was largely ignoring the brutal suffering of thousands of our kids on the streets.
The situation for our city’s homeless LGBT youth in 2006 is significantly more hopeful. While in 1997 their plight seemed to be very remote from the consciousness of our community, now many are working to improve their conditions.
During the past year, the City Council released $1.2 million to expand housing opportunities for LGBT youth. Lew Fidler, Alan Gerson, Margarita Lopez, Bill Perkins, Robert Jackson, and Christine Quinn were vigorous in their support. The appropriation also became a reality because many groups and individuals worked together on behalf of the kids. Notable for their efforts were the Queers for Economic Justice, the Stonewall Democrats, the Coalition for the Homeless, the LGBT Community Center, the Door, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and Riverside Church.
A handful of organizations have begun to respond to the needs of homeless LGBT youth. Green Chimneys, Sylvia’s Place at the Metropolitan Community Church/ NY, and recently the Church of Saint Andrew in Astoria have begun to offer housing. The Greenwich Village Youth Council and Gay Men of African Descent, or GMAD, offer drop-in and outreach services. The Urban Justice Center has created a unit to offer legal assistance to homeless LGBT youth and has had success in making the foster care system safer for queer youth. FIERCE!, the Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment, has worked hard and effectively to protect LGBT youth from being displaced out of the West Village.
I founded the Ali Forney Center in 2002. At that time there were no emergency housing beds dedicated to LGBT youth in New York City. We started in the basement of the MCC Church with six cots. Now we are about to open our fourth residential apartment. We have become the largest and most comprehensive organization in the United States dedicated to housing homeless LGBT youth, offering emergency and transitional housing, medical and psychiatric care, street outreach, HIV prevention, drop-in services, and job placement assistance.
As tragic as it is that thousands of parents all over the country reject their gay kids, these kids do not have to be condemned to share the fate of Ali Forney. If we as a community can continue to come together to protect our youngest and most vulnerable members, they can have a chance to overcome the pain of the rejection they have suffered, and have the chance to lead decent lives. Much work remains to be done; there are still too few beds to meet the needs of the kids who need them, and beds are especially scarce for queer youth aged 21 – 24. But what makes 2006 so much more hopeful than 1997 is the awareness and will on the part of our community to protect our kids.
And for that I am very grateful.
Carl Siciliano is the founder and executive director of the Ali Forney Center, an advocacy and services group for LGBT youth that offers scattered-site emergency and transitional living programs in Manhattan and Brooklyn and a day center in Chelsea.