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Gay Homeless Youth and their Lives on the Streets of New York City

Much of the recent discussion concerning the gay community is relegated to the topic of gay marriage. Being a complex issue on itself it becomes rather easy to ignore other growing issues related to this minority. One of the increasingly important ones is occurring right on the streets of America’s metropolises like New York City. In the 1990s, the leading cause of  homelessness was the use of crack cocaine. Today, however, is a different story, especially for the youth. The causes for homeless youth are no longer just drugs or alcohol, but it is their sexuality. As the visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) culture and people melt into the fabric of mainstream society through TV shows such as Will and Grace or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, this has influenced people to come out earlier and earlier, at an average age of now 15. This is a striking difference compared to a decade ago when people were embracing their sexuality only in college or once they had established their careers and had a firm support system. These days, however distressingly, 26 percent of those who come out before the age of 18 are kicked out of their home and end up in the streets, as the Report of the Secretary’s Task Force on Youth Suicide revealed. A lot of times they are abandoned because of religious reasons, since in the eyes of many religious devotees being ‘queer’ is clearly a non-acceptable question of choice (Ramafedi 1987). Such data points to the existence of greater and urgent problems for policy makers and governmental officials concerning the gay homeless youth. By looking at existing services today, or better the lack thereof, and by taking the time to actually listen to the stories of just a few of these involuntary street kids it becomes obvious quickly that there is a strong need for awareness and community collaboration surrounding the issue of gay homelessness, in New York City and across the United States. 

One of Many: L.

A representative for an increasing group of left-out kids is the story of L., who is 24 years old and whom we met at one of the Chelsea piers on the west side of Manhattan, a place where young gay homeless youth of mostly African American or Latino descent gather every night from as far as New Jersey to talk, reconnect or dance around. As one of the few gay homeless youth whose parents accepted him for his sexuality, L. still faced problems within his community. Five guys bullied and molested him. In self-defense, L. stabbed one of the individuals and was later convicted and sent to jail for 10 days. After being released from jail L. felt insecure on the streets of his hometown and ran away to New York City.
 
Having not much money he turned to a small food pantry hosted by the Metropolitan Community Church of New York (MCCNY) called Sylvia’s Place that turns into a shelter for homeless LGBT youth at night. There he was able to get dinner, take a shower, wash his clothes and sleep on the floor. “There was only a limited number of beds, all of them in one room, it was sticky and loud, but at least I enjoyed being around others with similar backgrounds and a staff that genuinely cared”, L. remembers. A few months later, L. was able to enroll in the Transitional Housing Program of the Ali Forney Center (AFC), an institution which provides homeless LGBT youths between the ages of 16 and 24 with the support and services they need to escape the streets and live healthy, independent lives. In this two-year program, L. lived with five other LGBT-identified youth along with three staff members in an apartment offering him some stability and case managers who actually made him feel welcome. He spent his nights in the apartment and during the day was involved with the center’s day programs, from group discussions to hands on activities. At the time we met him, he told us that he had worked as a go-go dancer and with the help of the AFC he had his own apartment now that he shared with one person. Currently he is pursuing his dream: “I want to become an actor.” It seems he has his life together, after all.
 
In speaking with L., he emphasized the fact that there is a general lack of awareness in New York City about the growing problem of gay homeless youth. Tourists and other visitors of the docks might identify them as regular kids, because as all teenagers they dress well: “There is usually no way to point us out in the crowd”, L. laughed, “I always made sure I looked well, because I didn’t want anyone to know I was homeless.” With his personal story, L. provides a better framework into understanding the life of a gay homeless teen in the United States today.

The Gap in the Status Quo

According to what he revealed, L. seemed to have managed to avoid having to spend too much time on the streets. At the same time, for many others the problems they have to face after arriving in the city are terrifying. In New York there are only a few public shelters, usually run by Christian organizations. In the case of openly LGBT youth their natural goal is often conversion and one learns quickly of stories of lesbian girls having to take make-up courses. Moreover, these institutions do not always welcome LGBT homeless youth even if more and more faith based institutions open their doors for them. Bill Torres, Director of Community Resources at the AFC needs not to think long to remember the disturbing story of a fifteen-year-old boy from the Bronx who always felt he was born in the wrong body. “Every morning this youngster would leave home as a boy, change into a girl during the day, and return home as a boy”, Torres explains. The boy also practiced ’moning‘, the street term for using hormones bought on the black market. The hormones had eventually given him breasts and one day his mother discovered his secret when she entered the room while he was changing: She got angry and kicked him out of the house. Seeking for help the boy turned to the Covenant House, a catholic institution mainly funded by public tax money providing 60 percent of New York’s beds for the homeless youth.
 
What followed is hard to imagine: Appearing as a girl, he had an intake interview with the shelter staff who assumed by his looks that he indeed was a girl, initially allowing him to stay in the female section. At the end of the interview the assumed girl had to show her ID card, and as the staff member saw the picture of the girl being a boy, the man started screaming at him how sick he was and how he could do this to his body. They forced him to strip off his clothes and put him naked into a closet. Other staff members would randomly pass by and open the closet door to get a glimpse of sensation out of the “chick with a dick”. After a while the staff finally pushed him, still naked, into the male section of the shelter. The male attendants started yelling at her to stay away from the beds because they did not want “AIDS on the sheets.” Still being stunned that such things could happen at a tax-funded institution, Torres continues emotionally: “Eventually, she was brutally beaten, molested and urinated upon and realizing the situation they were in, the shelter staff didn’t hesitate to put her in a cab and force her to leave.” 
 
This is merely another one of many sad stories to be heard. The transgender boy was lucky enough to find his way to the Ali Forney Center. The AFC was started in June 2002 as a response to the lack of safe shelter for gay youth in New York City. The center carries its name in honor of an African-American teenager who dedicated himself to improving the lives of and drew attention to committed crimes on homeless gay teenagers in the city until he himself was murdered in 1997. Forney’s tragic death first called the attention to the horrid conditions homeless LGBT youth face on the streets. Consequently, after the AFC staff learned from the maltreated boy about what he had gone through, and due to the fact that the Covenant House is partly funded by public tax money, the AFC filed a suit against this institution. As a small success, the court found that publicly funded shelters run by faith based institutions now must provide a separate and private section for LGBT youth. However, even with this private section, the provided beds remain empty, because the LGBT youth are afraid to go there due to own past experiences or stories like the one of the young transgender boy. It is necessary for the LGBT youth to have more separate private shelters, since physical and psychological abuse is a common reality in many public facilities. As a result of the current situation, these young people hesitate to take advantage of the existing shelters or flock to already strained services, because they feel safer on the streets. 
 
Meanwhile, the numbers of homeless LGBT youth in New York are increasing, as they come out of the closet at a younger and younger age. Additionally, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force report of 2006 an average of 3 to 5 percent of the U.S. population identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, while the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates the number of homeless and runaway youth ranging from 575,000 to 1.6 million per year, but with a staggering rate of 20 to 40 percent of them identifying themselves as LGBT. Given these numbers it is clear that LGBT youth experience homelessness at a disproportionate rate.

Funding Problems and Capacities 

This rate is not being covered by public institutions at all. Statistics of the National Runaway Switchboard cited in the press release to the report suggest that approximately 8.400 of the estimated 15.000 to 20.000 homeless youth living in New York City are LGBT. This high number is confronted with the reality of only about 300 beds in the current system, according to Bill Torres. 
 
Furthermore, private institutions face the situation of having to close down. Sylvia’s Place, L.’s first source for help servicing the homeless youth and located within MCCNY’s church building, serves as emergency overnight shelter for LGBT youth under the age of 24 and was forced to close down their second shelter in Harlem because of the lack of funding. “We are dependent on donations, since we do not receive any funding from the State or Federal government. We are basically forced to take it month by month”, explains Kate Barnhart, a staff member of the shelter. Unsurprisingly, budget issues are not uncommon at Sylvia’s Place. At the time of the interview, Barnhart expected that she would not receive her paycheck that week because of the lack of money. Moreover, it is not unusual that she and the other staff are not being paid for up to three months. It is due to these scarce financial resources of the supporting institutions that Bill Torres of the AFC even advices his ‘youth help seekers’ generally to not come out of the closet until they can provide a support system of their own to fall back on.
 
Fortunately, at least the Ali Forney Center started receiving public money, since after the scandal of the Covenant House was brought to public attention public institutions are more likely to open up their purses for alternative institutions. It helps the AFC to continue to be able to offer three main programs, with the Ali Forney Day Center being the entry point for the homeless youth to receive a case manager, primary medical care, HIV testing, mental health assessment and treatment, food, employment assistance, and referral to the Emergency Housing Program or the Transitional Housing Program. LGBT youths are allowed to stay in the Emergency Housing Program for up to six months. This staff-supervised temporary housing provides a safe environment with the actual care of a home and people to look out for them. Here they can be the kids they are, facing such tremendous difficulties in the outside world. In the Transitional Housing Program, the youth have more freedom to determine their day-to-day activities. The Center also assists them in maintaining employment or continuing education while helping them find more permanent housing.
 
Like the AFC, another organization called the Green Chimneys has also developed two housing programs for LGBT youth. Their Agency Operated Boarding Home program is designed with the primary goal to provide a safe and structured environment comparable to a home for young people between 12 to 16 years of age who do not fit into other existing child welfare settings. Their other program, the Gramercy Residence at Ungar House, is a group residential program for youth between the ages of 16 and 20. The basic goal for the Gramercy Residence is to enable older adolescents in foster care to function in the urban world independently and successfully.
 
It seems comforting that AFC’s number of apartments is slowly increasing, and thus more and more kids can be helped. However, the slow growth of the Center is far outpaced by the already existing and growing numbers of LGBT homeless youth. With the estimated 8.400 LGBT street kids in mind, as of now, they can only provide the small number of 58 beds, with around 200 people on the waiting list. Placement is given based on seniority and emergency circumstances. As their funding situation has improved, they recently have received a grant to come up with a new facility in Manhattan or the outskirts. Green Chimneys offers another 20 transitional beds in their Triangle Tribe Apartments.
 
At Sylvia’s Place, the situation can only be dealt with night by night: Although the shelter can provide only 6 official beds, they usually end up providing overnight shelter for 20 – 25 youths with people sleeping everywhere from the kitchen floor to the top of the cabinets. When there are more youngsters wanting to stay for the night, choices have to be made. The transsexual youth are accepted first, because, as the Task Force report states, about 20 percent of them would not find their way and need assistance in a regular shelter. The youngest are accepted secondly. Those who appear to be tough enough to fight for themselves on the street or in a mainstream shelter have to be turned down. Sylvia’s Place can only do so much trying to protect the weakest of this minority within the minority. The unlucky ones have to turn elsewhere or stay in the streets. 
 
Nevertheless, with the situation being as tough as it is, the youth in some cases develop a sense of community and camaraderie and it can be assumed that on the streets of New York gay homeless youth have closed ranks mainly due to the efforts of people like Kate Barnhart of Sylvia’s Place and programs like those provided the Ali Forney Center. Yet, apart from a small noticeable degree of fraternalism, it has become clear that with the current existing services far on their limits, with long waiting lists and a growing population of gay homeless that add up to several thousands, the demand for additional shelters that specialize in the needs of LGBT homeless youth is greater than ever. 

Dangerous Trap: Sex Work

For gay youth, mainstream shelters are a source of abuse. Stories like the one of the transgendered boy of Covenant House make it easy to understand why LGBT youth on the streets prefer to stay away from mainstream shelters, and would rather opt to get by on their own. However, escaping the threat of public shelters means entering into another threat: prostitution. For some, selling their bodies becomes a survival strategy in as quickly as two weeks after their arrival into the city. As Bill Torres explains and L. confirms, because gay homeless youth are younger and younger, they are easy targets of elder panders who trick them into prostitution. These older men establish trust with the gay teen by providing food, shelter, physical protection, and eventually introducing highly addictive drugs such as crystal methamphetamine, which heightens sexual desires and appetite. In Minnesota, five separate state-wide studies by the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation found out that 10 to 20 percent of homeless youth are dependent on drugs. Once drugs are introduced, prostitution becomes more likely.
 
Gay homeless youth can be picked up for sex work from a variety of locations. A popular location is an alley near the Chelsea piers. It is being performed directly in the cars, a public park or in one of the peep-show video stores nearby. Also, the Internet with its special interest web portals like craigslist.com or manhunt.com provides a new, quick and easy method to find clients or a shelter in exchange for sex. A study of homeless youth in Canada cited in the Task Force report found that gay homeless youth practice risky ’survival sex‘ with multiple sex-partners as a method to cope with the neglect of basic needs three times more than their heterosexual peers, half of them being likely to test HIV positive eventually, as well as being infected with other Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD). Coupled with the likely chance of being physically or sexually abused beyond what was agreed upon (if one can speak of a fair deal at all) by the customers themselves, the issue of sex work becomes prevalent. 
 
Oftentimes the teenagers have a hard time negotiating condom use with a sex partner, if being aware of the risks at all. Other times they choose not to practice safe sex. Since some do not even expect to become older than 21, they ask themselves: Why should I care? Does it matter? Will it make a difference? “After all the tragedies these individuals have experienced, they resign themselves to the belief that they will go to hell anyway”, Bill Torres explains. According to Kai Wright, Author of the Book 'Drifting towards Love' about three homeless gay kids of colour in NYC, for those of the gay youth infected with HIV under the age of 20, over 90 percent are African-American or Latino. The Task Force report also refers to several studies that indicate that up to one third of all homeless adolescents engage in desperate survival sex. In speaking to J., another 19-year-old homeless teenager on one of the piers, he estimated that 50 percent of homeless youth are involved with sex work and expected also half of them to get HIV. Gaetz’s sample of the Toronto homeless youth prove J.’s first estimation to be correct especially for transgender homeless youth, who were about three times more likely to engage in survival sex than the rest of the sample.  J. is one of the lucky few who after a long journey were able to escape the perverted system. The starting point of his street career is equal to the story of many others: When his Puerto Rican family found out about his sexuality they forced him to leave home. After several suicide attempts and later selling his body on the streets, J. was fortunate to be able to enter into the Green Chimney Program, which provided him with a relatively healthy and stable life. He even has come up with a new vision: “I want to become a pilot. Or go to college one day.” 

Role Models ans Gentrification

Other growing issues for the LBGT homeless population are the lack of gay role models and the need for more safe community spaces. Often enough, the communities the youngsters escape from provide no examples for an accepted and tolerated gay life to live, especially when it comes to black or Latino cultural backgrounds. Generally, the examples of gay people in the media are not manifold and it is also true that there are hardly any references to gay people of colour in pop culture. Kai Wright describes that racial identity and cultural belonging are so important to a lot people of colour, that if there is no space within the community for LGBT youth, homophobia is felt even more acutely. One of the characters in his book “newer saw gay people” in his neighbourhood blocks of one of the eastern boroughs: “There are no boutiques with rainbow flags. We have five gay publications in NYC and none of them circulate in east New York.” Since rural areas lack these important references of gay life examples it is no surprise that many of the LGBT teens come to the cities with nothing more than a bus ticket and a misty dream. 
 
They cannot know that even there, their space for deployment is restricted. In New York City for decades, Christopher Street and the West Village have been an area traditionally used by the LGBT community. Ironically, it has as of recently also become more and more attractive for investors, landlords and condo owners and coupled with neighborhood groups who associate gay homelessness with criminality and fearing the devaluation of their possessions, LGBT homeless teenagers are slowly being pushed out. 
 
This slow gentrification can be seen exemplary at the Chelsea pears, to be specific at Pier 40. A city-working group suggested a massive commercial development of the pier or a new permanent home for the Cirque du Soleil. However, one of the key opponents making a case out of the suggested developments was the organization FIERCE (Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment). Started in 2000, FIERCE is perhaps the only LBGT youth organization in the country fighting against gentrification and displacement and for the right of the people to remain in the public spaces that have a cultural meaning to them. In June 2008, FIERCE started a campaign to develop and install a 24-hour LGBT Youth Center on Pier 40 that would offer HIV testing, job training and assistance, a music studio and an art room as well as a classroom and a medical center. The services listed were the result of a survey of approximately 300 LGBT youth on what they would want to see in their community space. “Active community building is a means of sustaining the power of the LGBT community,” asserts Glo Ross, lead organizer of the campaign.
 
Fighting to sustain community space is one challenge, establishing new space is yet another. As the Ali Forney Center tries to increase the number of its available apartments by one per month, but it is required by law to abide by New York City housing standards, which state that any apartment hosting more than 6 residents must be approved by the community. “It has been increasingly difficult for us to find new apartments, as landlords are weary of housing homeless youth. And no one wants potential sex workers in their neighborhood. As a result, we are trying to spread our places of action. We look into new neighborhoods and often find ourselves with two types of apartments: slum apartments with landlords that do not care; or really elegant, high quality apartments owned by liberal landlords that want to support a good cause and thus help us”, Torres states. Yet, while these apartments offer shelter, they cannot replace public community space to hang out. 

Community Space

Initiatives like those proposed by FIERCE make clear that one way out of isolation from society is raising awareness and integrating gay homeless youth into the larger society, namely more community action and involvement. In this context, Kai Wright points out the other side of the coin: Homophobia is everywhere. It is to be found in the black and Latino population just as well as in evangelical circles and there are even politicians, who trade on homophobia for career reasons. LGBT organizations engaging in the sector of homeless kids encounter a lot of prejudice and thus face the challenge of trying to build up a network of supporters to increase their public visibility. It is important to not only to provide services to the youth, but also to educate the public about issues faced by the gay community. It is also crucial to achieve a change in the society’s fundamental perception that sexuality is a choice instead of a natural condition. Until then, all the services for gay homeless youth will not be much more that a band-aid solution. 
 
Just as much as other organizations like the Empire State Pride Agenda have become influential voices for the LGBT community at large, the community-based Ali Forney Center has managed to establish itself as an “attack dog” in political circles when it comes to dealing with LGBT homeless youth issues in NCY. The center closely works with the immediate neighborhood and has managed to raise a network of more than 220 volunteers, about half of them in family networks. With this association of engaged and supportive individuals, the center is able to effectively and directly advocate on behalf of gay homeless youth issues whenever necessary. Although politicians slowly become more aware of these voices, there is still a long way to go in fighting for acceptance, especially when it comes to dealing with faith-based reasoning.
 
In addition to advocacy, raising the issue is also a necessary step in order for the gay community to become more aware and as a result more involved. However, even gay adult men hesitate to participate in LGBT homeless youth programs, since they have often been stigmatized and stereotyped as pedophiles and generally over-sexualized. Yet, as Bill Torres from the AFC explains: “As long as the government continues to ignore the issue, the LGBT community must come together as both a political and social force and take on responsibility.” The FIERCE initiative can only be one starting point for more empowerment within the gay homeless youth community. Once successful models have been created, they can be used as a template for other cities and neighborhoods throughout the country to appropriately aid homeless LGBT teens. Torres hopes that politics will finally become aware of the necessary changes to be made in the system. Clear recommendations are stressed exemplary by the New York City Association of Homeless and Street-Involved Youth Organizations: More money to improve the shelter and housing conditions of the GLBT youth, a minimum of 100 beds available to them nightly along with available health care services, a GLBT sensitivity training for publicly funded institution’s staff or simply the monitoring of the safety of GLBT youth in shelters. Torres vision is yet a more spirited one: He wishes that “society will see LGBT homeless youth no longer as a non-existing or exceptional group but will support it with the necessary means, self-evidently.”

References

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