A tour inside the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ organization helping homeless youth

About seven percent of the total youth population in the United States identifies as LGBTQ+, yet they make up a staggering 40 percent of the total US homeless youth population, aged 13-24. According to estimates by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are around 160,000 individuals aged 24 and under experiencing homelessness. With a 24-hour Drop-in Center located in Harlem and housing programs throughout New York City, the Ali Forney Center hopes to be a part of the solution.

Ali Forney’s Drop-In Center, located in Harlem. | Credit: Gilda McCrann

 

 

Located in New York City, The Ali Forney Center is the nation’s largest organization dedicated to serving LGBTQ+ homeless youth. Easily accessible with its location right by the A, C, B, and D subway lines, its Drop-in Center provides 24-hour resources to LGBTQ+ youth, from hot showers and food to medical checkups, HIV testing, and mental health support. The space also serves as Ali Forney’s central intake location where young people are assessed and put into programs to suit their needs and goals.

The Drop-in Center focuses on providing stability for the youth through assessing each individual’s history and means of survival on the streets, and providing structure and steps for the youth to rebuild and recover. This includes continued medical care, job training, case management, workshops, and other resources. Youth are then transferred into Ali Forney’s housing programs and hopefully off the streets permanently.

A board showing the schedule and programs at the Ali Forney Drop-In Center. | Credit: Gilda McCrann

 

The Needs of LGBTQ+ Youth

LGBTQ+ people have different needs than their cis- and heterosexual counterparts that other non-LGBT specific shelters may not have. The Ali Forney Center provides hormone replacement therapy for transgender clients, as well as simply providing a safe space for LGBTQ+ people. As Carl Siciliano, the Founder and Executive Director of the Ali Forney Center, says:

“Kids still tell me that they get beaten up and harassed at [non-LGBT specific homeless organizations]… A lot of young people that are faced with those kinds of hostilities will choose to stay in the streets rather than to be in a site where they feel like they’re being targeted with violence from other young people and kind of really degrading judgement from the providers.”

Pots and pans in the Drop-In Center’s kitchen. | Credit: Gilda McCrann

 

According to HUD, there are only enough shelter beds open to homeless youth to accommodate 15 percent of the homeless youth population in the United States. This causes a mad dash for resources among homeless youth, with LGBTQ+ young people typically getting left behind.

“When you’ve got those kinds of desperate conditions and it’s sort of like a feeding frenzy to see who can get what, LGBT youth are just going to be tripley victimized,” says Siciliano.

As a result, many LGBTQ+ homeless youth are left on the street, sleeping in subway cars, and engaging in survival sex as a way to get by. Survival sex is the exchange of sex for survival needs like shelter, food, or money.

The Drop-In Center’s medical clinic offers various health services from regular checkups to STI testing. | Credit: Gilda McCrann

“We as a nation are not recognizing the extent to which disenfranchised young people are just being left out to suffer in the streets and it’s gross…  And I worry that there is not nearly enough of a voice that is saying every young person in this country deserves shelter, deserves housing,” says Siciliano. “Nobody deserves to be left out on the street. In a civilized society, we should not be leaving children out on the streets to suffer and to be sexually exploited and to be murdered.”

Remembering Ali

The Ali Forney Center was established in honor of Ali Forney, a gender nonconforming homeless youth whom Carl Siciliano met while working at a drop-in center. Ali relied on survival sex and became addicted to drugs during the crack era of New York City in the 1990s . Despite this, Ali was dedicated to helping people like himself. He educated young people about HIV prevention and safe sex, and during a wave of murders of queer homeless youth, Ali went to police precincts to demand that police investigate the murders. Siciliano explains:

“Ali just exemplified for me a sort of radical goodness and ability in the most horrific of situations to still care about people, to still show love. I found that very inspiring.”

Ali Forney’s logo features the image of Ali Forney, whom the organization was named after. | Credit: Gilda McCrann

 

In December 1997, Ali was murdered on 135th Street and 5th Avenue in Harlem. Devastated by Ali’s death, Siciliano established the Ali Forney Center in 2002 to carry on Ali’s legacy.

“I just couldn’t bear the thought of Ali’s name just vanishing like that…So I got to the point where I was just like, ‘This is an atrocity. Here we are in New York City, the birthplace of the LGBT Rights Movement. Thirty years after Stonewall, which homeless LGBT youth played such a key role in. And here we were 30 years later and it’s like they’re all stranded in the streets and getting killed,'” says Siciliano. “So I just thought that was really profoundly, profoundly unacceptable and shocking and, out of that experience I decided to start the Ali Forney Center.”

The Drop-In Center’s LEAP (Learning, Employment, Advancement, and Placement) program gives job training and education to the homeless youth. | Credit: Gilda McCrann

 

The Issue of LGBTQ+ Homelessness

Siciliano belives LGBTQ+ advocates are not putting a big enough emphasis on LGBTQ+ poverty, and have rather been more focused in the past on civil issues like same-sex marriage:

“I’m not arguing against [the LGBTQ+ community’s advocacy]. Obviously we should not be treated as unequal in our society and the laws should treat us as equal citizens. But I also think that it’s the responsibility of a disenfranchised community to make sure that their tax dollars go to support the most marginalized parts of that community… Homophobia and transphobia have severe economic consequences on young people, and there’s just not, in my view, nearly an aggressive enough advocacy around that. It’s like if we’re not demanding it, it’s never going to happen.”

2011 saw both the passing of the New York same-sex marriage bill as well as a 50 percent budget cut on NYC youth shelters, both signed into effect by Governor Cuomo. Despite this, Siciliano says, only one of these seemed to catch the eye of the LGBTQ+ community:

“Both Cuomo and Bloomberg were really positioning themselves as champions for marriage equality and were being applauded up and down. They were getting rewarded by all of the big gay advocay organizations, and I was just like, ‘Whoa. You’re both [calling for budget cuts] that hurt our most vulnerable and marginalized young people and yet our community is saying your heroes.'”

Hallway in the Ali Forney Drop-In Center, where the Center’s case workers and art therapy program are located. | Credit: Gilda McCrann

 

Religious Intolerance

Among the biggest reasons for the disproportionate amount of LGBTQ+ homeless youth is family rejection. About 78 percent of LGBTQ+ homeless youth and 84 percent of transgender youth cited their main reason for homelessness as running away or being kicked out because of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. A main contributor to this intolerance is parents’ religious views on sexuality and gender.

“About half of the young people that come to us say that it’s the religious beliefs of their families that are kind of the predominant thing that makes them unsafe in their homes…,” says Siciliano. “The crisis of LGBT youth homelessness is, in many, many ways, a crisis of religious intolerance and how it impacts vulnerable young people.”

Siciliano says the way to solve the LGBTQ+ homelessness issue is to, firstly, invest more in housing for homeless youth and, secondly, educate religious communities how intolerance harms LGBTQ+ youth. As a Christian himself, Siciliano has tried to bridge the gap between the LGBTQ+ and religious communities. He has written letters to both Pope Francis and Cardinal Dolan, about religion’s impact on LGBTQ+ youth and invited them to visit the Ali Forney Center. He explains:

“I think that there’s no way that there’s gonna be a real prevention effort around LGBT homelessness that doesn’t kinda center on addressing the religious aspect of why so many young people are being disenfranchised from their homes and dispossessed and don’t have all this support.”

The Atlah World Missionary Church has been displaying offensive messages on its sign for years. | Credit: Gilda McCrann

 

Although the Ali Forney Center provides a safe space for LGBTQ+ youth, a historically homophobic church that is located just three blocks away does not. The World Atlah Missionary Church, headed by Pastor Manning, has repeatedly and explicitly put out offensive and homophobic messages for years—even claiming that Starbucks puts “sodomite semen” in their lattes.

The church’s messaging stands as an example of the type of intolerance that has caused many at the Ali Forney Center to become homeless. However, in 2016, it was announced that the church would be foreclosed, prompting the Ali Forney Center to raise over three-hundred thousand dollars to buy the property. The foreclosure has since been tied up in court, but Siciliano is still confident that the opportunity to buy the church will pull through, allowing for more space to provide resources to the LGBTQ+ homeless youth:

“It’s a few blocks from our Drop-in Center so it’s really convenient for us. And a lot of people feel like it would be sort of cosmic justice.”

Bulletin with announcements and opportunities from Ali Forney’s LEAP program. | Credit: Gilda McCrann

 

The Fight Continues

The Ali Forney Center continues to provide housing, support, and resources to the LGBTQ+ homeless youth. Although the LGBTQ+ homelessness issue is nowhere near solved, the work Ali Forney does makes an incredible difference in the lives of young and queer youth.

“There would not be an Ali Forney Center if there were not thousands of people who were willing to support our work,” says Siciliano. The Ali Forney Center receives funding from both the New York City government and from charitable donations.

Despite the efforts of the Ali Forney Center, there is still a lot of work to be done. According to a survey by The Williams Institute with True Colors Fund of homeless agencies, most agencies do not specifically provide beds for LGBT youth. Siciliano sees this as a failing to the many homeless youth in America:

“We’re just failing these young people in a very dramatic way. And I’ve been able to, with many people’s help, build something wonderful in New York City. But there is a whole country out there of young people that don’t have access to something like the Ali Forney Center.”

Like the Ali Forney Center, other programs around the country are dedicated to fighting LGBTQ+ homelessness. Organizations like the LA LGBT Center in California and Out Youth in Texas provide resources and support to homeless LGBTQ+ youth. On a national level, True Colors United aims to spread awareness about and end LGBTQ+ homelessness with programs like its National Youth Forum on Homelessness and community initiatives.