New Hope for Homeless LGBT Youth

Santa Claus came early to the homeless LGBT youth of New York City in more ways than one. On Christmas Eve, the Metropolitan Community Church of New York will celebrate an unexpected gift of $100,000 from an anonymous member to launch one of the first new 24-hour crisis shelters for homeless youth since the establishment of Covenant

House, an institution not known to be gay-friendly, in 1972.

“We want to express our gratitude to people like our donor who are really stepping up to the plate,” said Reverend Pat Bumgardner, senior pastor of MCC/NY. “This is the heart of the gospel—caring for people in need. These kids are the future of our community and if we’re not helping them, who will?”

She encouraged “a broader base of support” for these young people than just MCC/NY and that seems to be emerging, including help from four churches that will now shelter homeless LGBT youth at night.

MCC/NY Homeless Youth Services already runs Sylvia’s Place, an emergency shelter in their church at 446 West 36th Street, providing food, clothing, and social services as well a place to sleep overnight for up to six, the limit the city sets on churches doing this work.

The anonymous donation is the seed money for what will be the Marsha P. Johnson Crisis Shelter for Homeless LGBT Youth, a transitional living facility for which the search for an off-site space has begun in earnest. Rivera and Johnson were both transgendered street activists who at times were homeless themselves. Johnson was found drowned off the Christopher Street pier in July 1992. Rivera died after a long illness in 2002. Both were veterans of the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969.

The City Department of Youth and Community Development is funding the new Johnson shelter to the tune of $400,000 after an very productive lobbying effort by the Stonewall Democratic Club, City Councilman Alan Gerson, a Lower Manhattan Democrat, and the New York Association of Homeless and Street-Involved Youth Service Organizations that includes groups from Street Works to the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project.

The Ali Forney Center, founded several years ago and which also serves homeless LGBT youth, runs a day center in Chelsea and offers emergency and more long-term transitional housing at scattered sites in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Kate Barnhart, who has run Sylvia’s Place, is the director of the new Marsha P. Johnson facility that will have 12 shelter beds and 24-hour services that include the provision of food, clothing, employment counseling, case management, and mental health care.

“Our goal is to find a space within the next four weeks,” she said. “It’s cold and we need to get these LGBT youth off the streets.”

Barnhart said the number of these kids “is growing daily,” at least half of them from other states and countries. She cited a boy from California who got off a plane here “and didn’t even have a jacket,” noting that the new arrivals believe that New York will be a more hospitable place to be gay than where they are from.

The drop-in services are for young people under 24, the overnight shelters for those under 21.

“We don’t turn anyone away,” Barnhart said. “At least they get a meal.”

At the same time that these services are being expanded, a new effort to get the city’s churches involved in sheltering LGBT youth has emerged.

Peggy Borgstede, a member of MCC/NY, was appalled at the plight of these young people and formed the Greater New York LGBT Homeless Youth Task Force in September.

“We had to do something,” she said.

Forty churches and organizations attended an event sponsored by the task force in the fall to secure church spaces to provide emergency shelters and volunteers to staff them. So far, four churches have agreed to take the overflow from Sylvia’s Place—Trinity Lutheran on the Upper West Side, Our Savior’s Atonement Lutheran in Washington Heights, St. Andrew’s Episcopal in Astoria, and The Village Church, a Methodist community in the East Village.

“Not bad for a volunteer group which started recruiting this past October,” Borgstede said.

She emphasized that the young people must be referred through Sylvia’s Place, not show up directly at the other churches. These new shelters for up to six kids each will start opening up during January.

Borgstede, who now lives with her partner Kathy Green in Westchester, remembers what it was like coming out to her parents on Long Island more than 30 years ago and being told, “If you leave now, do not expect anything from us.” At 20, she ended up staying in flophouses in the city as she adjusted to an independent life.

The task force is co-chaired by Dr. Mina Perry from the Maranatha group at Riverside Church.

All of these programs need volunteers and the best way to do that is to call MCC/NY at 212-629-7440. For information on the Ali Forney Center, visit aliforneycenter.org.

But there is another way you can help these kids at Yuletide and beyond. Barnhart set up a way for volunteers to be Santa Claus. Each wrote down one thing that he or she wanted for Christmas. Volunteers have met all those requests, but if you would like to fulfill their birthday wishes throughout 2006, send an e-mail to manager@sylviasplace.org and they will tell you how.

As Bumgardner said, “If we’re not helping them, who will?” You can help these homeless young people and reduce your income tax at the same time by making a deductible donation to MCC/NY, 446 W. 36th St., New York 10018.

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