Shawn wakes at 6am every morning, performs his chores, and then prepares to leave by 8am--as required by his emergency housing program. Habitually, he visits the Apple Store where he loves to browse through their latest tech gizmos and then takes advantage of the store's free internet access. For hours, uninterrupted, he searches for job listings.
The 19-year-old hopes to get a job soon. It's required before he can get on the waiting list for one of The Ali Forney Center's 28 more permanent temporary transitional housing beds. After his search, he heads over to the Ali Forney Day Center in Chelsea--where he and other glbt homeless young people hang out for the day, attend workshops, get HIV tests, mental health counseling and medical screenings.
At first glance, Shawn looks like the average New York City teen. He's well groomed and well mannered with a glowing smile. It's hard to believe he's one of thousands of homeless gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth living on the streets and in the shelters of New York City. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in collaboration with the National Coalition for the Homeless tags the glbt homeless number at 42 percent of the estimated 1.6 million homeless American youth, with a disproportionate number identifying as bisexual or transgender.
Remarkably, Shawn's story places him amongst the lucky ones. According to the National Runaway Switchboard, the likelihood of being a victim of crime increases sevenfold just by virtue of identifying as GLBT. Many of these kids, some as young as age 11, turn to drugs and prostitution as a means of survival. Carl Siciliano, a homeless youth aide worker and executive director of The Ali Forney Center in New York, recalls some of his darker days assisting kids without homes.
"In the 90's, the homeless kids were living on the piers, in crack houses or with sugar daddies. They were becoming addicted to drugs and getting arrested all the time. They were getting murdered. I knew many of the kids that were murdered in the 90's and almost all of them were gay, especially transgender." Siciliano continues, "The police would call us from the morgue and ask us to identify the bodies."
Siciliano has been working with homeless youth in New York City since 1994, but it was one individual in particular, Ali Forney, that altered Siciliano's life of advocacy. "After Ali was killed I felt like I'd failed in protecting him. I actually have a picture of Ali on my desk to help me feel the compassion and the empathy I need to get these kids off the streets."
Ali Forney was only 13 when his mother kicked him out of her home. Though he preferred to be called "he," Forney was transgender, which proved to be too much for his drug-addicted mother to handle. He was forced to turn to the streets.
Siciliano gets teary-eyed at the mere thought of Forney. He recalls one of his favorite memories when Forney walked the runway with Tyra Banks at a homeless youth fundraising talent show.
"At the close of the show [Ali would] sing a gospel song and then start stomping around the stage in his wig and dress. He would go into these sanctified preacher cadences. [Imitating Ali's voice] 'I know that people have a lot to say about the fact that I'm a man walking in a dress. I know that people have a lot to say about the fact that I walk the streets at night; but don't worry about me, worry about yourselves because God has love and mercy on everybody. God loves me for who I am'"
When Ali was alive, he--as with many of the homeless glbt youth today--seemed to maintain an unexpected resilience despite their circumstances. Siciliano draws some of his inspiration from the young man. "Ali would own his spirituality in front of hundreds of people. Sometimes I look to him when I'm struggling and need inspiration."
The then 22-year-old Ali Forney was killed in December of 1997 at the hands of an unknown assailant. Siciliano was called to identify his body. It was then he took the problem of SGL homelessness into his own hands by opening The Ali Forney Center for GLBT Homeless Youth in 2002 with six cots in the basement of the Metropolitan Community Church. Today, the Center stands alone with a mission to not only provide shelter, but transition kids out of homelessness. They have 5 apartments that house up to 28 kids a night. By the end of the year, they hope to secure 8 housing sites that can hold up to 54 beds.
The Forney apartments aren't your usual cold anonymous shelters. These homes, spread throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan, are ironically the average New Yorker's dream domiciles. They're decorated with gifted art and high-end furnishings. The kids have limited privacy, but enjoy personal spaces to create comfortable living areas--if only temporarily. The esthetic of the Center's apartments are important to Siciliano:
"These kids have been thrown out of their homes, they feel so much shame and rejection that I really want to create home-like, family-like environments. It's healing and therapeutic for them. If you put a kid in a big shelter environment you continue to make them feel cut off from society. So we rent nice apartments in nice buildings."
The plight of many of these homeless kids starts at an early age. Their homes are riddled with violence and homophobia. Kids fear parents who become increasingly distance, even hostile. These parents, mostly impoverished, choose to have no child instead of a queer child... continued