In 2008, the Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services released the results of a census of homeless youth in New York City. They had counted 3,800. Yet, the city and state governments together fund only 250 beds in shelters for them.
Worse yet, the mayor of New York has proposed budget cuts that would reduce the number to 90 beds.
This is a problem that disproportionately affects gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth. It is estimated that they make up 40 – 50 percent of the 3,800 found in the census.
“LGBT youth homelessness is a crisis in the United States and all around the world,” said Carl Siciliano, executive director of the Ali Forney Center, which runs nine shelters with 77 beds.
“I worked with homeless adults for ten years [in the 1990s] before working with homeless youth,” recalled Siciliano. “There were thousands out there but only a few hundred beds.” Conditions for most kids out on the streets were terrible. “Between 1994 and 1999, nine LGBT kids were murdered.”
According to him, in many cities, 20 – 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT. However, under-reporting is likely because some gay youths don’t have the courage to tell others of their sexual orientation. In New York, it’s about 40 – 50 percent. Putting it in perspective, Siciliano says, “This makes a gay youth eight times more likely to experience homelessness than a heterosexual one, and this reality is the most terrible expression of homophobia in our times.”
To have kids thrown out of their homes, cast out from their families, deprived of economic support, have their education cut short is among the most heartless thing we can do. Then there is also the suffering the kids go through as they try to survive on the streets.
Says Siciliano: “Gay youth are more likely to attempt suicide, survive by prostitution and thereby be exposed to HIV.”
“In the US, there is growing awareness about bullying in schools,” he said, referring to recent news stories and the campaigns around the It Gets Better videos. “However, there is not enough awareness as to how dangerous it is when gay teenagers are not accepted in their own homes. Some get kicked out, while others flee to save their own lives.”
Siciliano sounded a little scathing when he referred to Governor Andrew M Cuomo’s pride in passing legislation legalising same-sex marriage in New York State, while at the same time “cutting funding for homeless youth in half.”
Indeed, it calls into question the gay community’s own neglect of this issue.
* * * * *
For Singaporean readers, a worthwhile question would be: How much do we know of a similar problem in our own city? Is it not troubling that we have neither a count of homeless youth (including LGBT youth), nor do we know of any resources to help?
* * * * *
In New York City, many shelters are run by religious organisations. Covenant House, which has about a hundred beds, is run by the Catholic Church. Unsurprisingly, it does not have a welcoming and safe climate for gay teens.
“Gay teens used to get beaten up in there,” said Siciliano. “One kid reported that when he was asleep, fourteen other boys gathered around him and urinated on him. Another kid was forced to sleep on the floor after being called ‘faggot’. Staff also told gay kids they had to repent, otherwise they’d go to hell.”
But rather than tar all religious groups with the same brush, it should also be pointed out that the main shelter (15 beds) run by Ali Forney Center is located in the basement of a decommissioned Episcopal Church (pic at right), which charges the center only a nominal rent. The kids who get to stay there stay free of charge.
* * * * *
Monty, aged 24, is one such resident. Originally from Mississippi state, when he turned 18, “I had to leave,” he said. He seemed not to want to dwell on the reasons why, though his sexual orientation was among them. Putting it diplomatically, he said: “My father basically told me it’s time for me to be myself, and to rely on my own ability.”
He had finished high school, but nonetheless could only get by with menial work. “I had to work with my hands,” was how he put it. He couldn’t afford a place of his own.
“I was homeless for three years,” part of that time sleeping rough. Siciliano ribbed him, saying he was actually living in a swamp.
“No, it was not a swamp,” said Monty. “It was kind of like the woods. There was a cow in the field on the other side of the road.”
He came to New York City one year ago, and connected with the Ali Forney Center. Now he is attending courses, including psychology, and hopes to run a shelter himself one day.
“What I gained from coming here is a lot more peace,” he said, expressing his appreciation for the support he has received at the center.
Unlike most other youths I met in the center, Monty has maintained contact with this parents. “I call my mom about once a month.” His parents also have at least half-accepted the fact that he’s gay.
It seems that the new stability that the center gave him allowed him to pick up the pieces of his life, including repairing his relationships with his family.
* * * * *
Three other youths at the center also told their stories. They will be recounted in parts 2 to 4.