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Last May, the Reciprocity Foundation, a nonprofit that helps runaway, homeless, and foster care youth in NYC, staged a photography exhibition called See Me: Picturing New York City's Homeless Youth. The featured images came from a book of the same name, a collaboration between Reciprocity and photographer Alex Fradkin. The portraits, which reveal a group of young people as diverse and dynamic as they are vulnerable, included shots of a young man named Derrick Cobb. In one image, he sits on a New York City subway, staring into the lens with an unblinking gaze. His dignified bearing doesn't reveal the suffering he went through after being kicked out of his home by his stepfather for being gay, but his personal history is detailed in an essay in The Advocate, and many of the details are harrowing.
As the piece chronicles, after leaving home, Cobb thought he had found a safe haven with an older gay man who took him in—but instead the man and a group of his friends viciously assaulted the homeless youth, which led to his contracting HIV. When Cobb tried to involve the police, they implied that he had brought the abuse on himself. He later attempted suicide.
Though Cobb has since received help and encouragement from professionals and relatives, and has enjoyed professional success as a dancer and model, he still struggles with the memories of his time on the streets and his HIV-positive status. He currently lives at the True Colors Residence, which provides affordable housing and support services to formerly homeless LGBTQ youth.
Nightmarish as Cobb's story is, the nonprofits that serve homeless LGBTQ young people in New York City say that it is not unusual: They're especially vulnerable, and more services and shelters for them are desperately needed.
The plight of LGBTQ homeless youth in NYC
According to the Ali Forney Center, which aims to protect LGBTQ youth from homelessness, 40 percent of New York City’s homeless youth identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning their gender or sexual identity. (A 2014 study found that there were 77,915 school-age homeless children in the city.) The center currently offers a number of support options to LGBTQ young people in crisis, including four emergency shelters with 47 beds, transitional housing with 42 beds for residents working toward independence, as well as a drop-in center. But its executive director, Carl Siciliano, says there's an urgent need for more. (It also may be poised to serve up a bit of poetic justice: The nonprofit recently raised $200,000 to purchase a foreclosed church in Harlem that was notorious for posting anti-gay messages on its outdoor bulletin board.)
In addition to the center, there are a few other shelters specifically for LGBTQ youth, including True Colors Residence and the Trinity Place Shelter, but the number of available beds throughout the city is dwarfed by the amount of young people in need, says Siciliano: “Right now there's this terrible gap in the city's response to youth homelessness, leaving a significant amount without access to shelter or supportive housing.”
Though on a macro level, attitudes toward gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people have become more tolerant in the United States, the LGBTQ community is still eight times more likely to experience homelessness than heterosexuals. “So many families are still hostile, especially in conservative religious communities,” notes Siciliano, which is what leads to many young people running away from home.
And according to Colleen K. Jackson, executive director of West End Residences, which operates the True Colors Residence, for many of the young people who flee to the city, the situation isn’t as simple as finding affordable housing or a spot in an apartment with LGBTQ-friendly roommates. She has found that the vast majority of applicants seeking a space in the residence have been rejected by their families and traumatized by life on the streets. For young people like Cobb, the stress of homelessness is compounded by the pain of estrangement from family, as well as victimization at the hands of predators who seek out the most vulnerable populations. A report by Covenant House, another shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth, found that sex traffickers often wait outside shelters for young people who have been turned away due to lack of space.
Due to such abuses, "they also have high rates of substance abuse and mental illness, particularly depression, and many suffer from PTSD,” Jackson says. “As a result, our applicants have special needs and are referred to us by organizations working with homeless LGBT youth.”
According to a 2013 report by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), the state appropriated $2,610,256 to residential and non-residential services for homeless youth across New York. And during his first year in office, Mayor Bill de Blasio added 100 beds to homeless youth shelters, as well as helped fund services at the Ali Forney Center, which also relies on foundation and corporate support.
Taking over the Harlem church would allow the center to expand the number of beds available, but the process will take some time as they researches the building’s conditions. If the property has multiple debts and violations, the ownership transfer could end up snarled in court for months. “With all these kids on the waiting list for housing, it wouldn’t be ethical to just sit and wait,” Siciliano says, “so we're going to begin to explore other options.”
Why adult shelters aren't a safe option
Particularly urgent, Siciliano says, is finding safe housing for young people ages 21 to 24. This demographic is frozen out of the resources provided by the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), which offers a crisis shelter, transitional living, and other support services to LGBT youth ages 16 to 21. Currently, the Ali Forney Center alone has a waiting list of 200 LGBTQ youth over 21. According to a spokesperson from OCFS, the agency “oversees shelters that serve LGBTQ homeless youth under the age of 21. Adults—including those ages 21 to 24—may receive housing through other state agencies or private programs.”
But those a little bit older have found the adult shelter system available to them “violent and terrifying,” says Siciliano. “They are targets for harassment there, and have been bullied and robbed.” As the New York Times reported last year, many young people "feel preyed upon in adult shelters and have special needs for services youth shelters provide, like counseling and family intervention to get them back to school, work or a safe home as quickly as possible." One homeless youth interviewed for the story recalls, for instance, overhearing repeated, violent fighting between her neighbors at an adult shelter.
Like the Ali Forney Center, the True Colors Residence also aims to support this underserved demographic. The residence offers permanent supportive housing; tenants are between 18 and 24 when they move in, but can stay as long as they like in the space’s 30 studio apartments. They pay rent in accordance with their income and have access to on-site services, which Jackson says is essential: “We believe that the development of independent living skills is an organic process unique to each individual. A young person who has been severely traumatized not only needs to develop the typical skills we all need to attain and maintain self-sufficiency; they also need to develop coping mechanisms and skills to work through the trauma they have endured.”
To further combat the crisis of youth homelessness, Mayor de Blasio has pledged to add 300 beds to homeless youth shelters in the city, but these would be reserved for young people up to 21 years old. And as is often the case with affordable housing and emergency shelter in the city, the amount of people in need outnumbers what is available. This leaves slightly older LGBT youth in crisis in a dangerous situation, Siciliano says, with many of them resorting to survival sex. “And now they’re saying they’re going to arrest people sleeping on the subway,” he adds. “I don’t know what these kids are supposed to do.”
As precarious as the plight is for LGBT youth, according to Siciliano, a lack of support for 21- to 24-year-olds could also have a negative impact on public health. “If you look at HIV infection, young people of color are where HIV is spreading the fastest,” Siciliano says. “This is also a population that is very homeless. The state and city are investing money in ending AIDS by 2020, but you have to give that population access to shelter that’s safe and accessible in order to accomplish that.”
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