What happens to homeless LGBTQ+ youth when the shelters are out of beds?

The following is an excerpt from “Making Room” by Carl Siciliano,  founder of the Ali Forney Center, the largest agency dedicated to LGBTQ homeless youth in the country.

In the eighties and nineties, queer people were considered largely untouchable by mainstream politicians. Republicans at their best ignored us, and at their worst scapegoated us to win the conservative Christian vote. Democrats were less inclined to attack us, but kept us at arm’s length, like some embarrassing relative you tolerate at necessary holiday functions. Even as late as 2012, Barack Obama, the champion of “hope and change,” refused to endorse our right to marry until his vice president Joe Biden “gaffed” him into it by admitting his support on Meet the Press

By the 2010s, however, things began to shift. As opinion polls moved in our favor, Democrats and even a few moderate Republicans were more willing to support the civil rights of the LGBTQ community. Yet that newfound support struck me as complicated. Some politicians began to use support for our civil rights to burnish their progressive credentials—often while perpetuating policies that disenfranchised poor people and people of color. Frankly, it enraged me to see such politicians wrap themselves in rainbow flags. Especially when they took actions that hurt the young people in our care. 

Eight years into the Ali Forney Center’s existence, the living conditions of New York City’s homeless youths remained dreadful. Most still had no access to shelter. Between 2005 and 2007 we persuaded the City Council to add 70 beds to the city’s youth shelter portfolio, bringing the total number of city-funded beds to 250. But a census soon revealed that more than three thousand homeless youths lived on our streets, half of whom identified as LGBTQ. When the recession struck in 2008, Mayor Mike Bloomberg refused to add any more youth shelter beds. In fact, each year until 2014, Bloomberg tried to cut beds by at least fifty percent in his annual budget proposals. 

By then, the Ali Forney Center was offering seventy beds a night, but the numbers of queer kids needing our help grew even faster. By 2010, our list of young people waiting for beds had surged to more than two hundred. 

It was heartbreaking. A young person would show up at our drop-in center hoping for a bed, traumatized after having been kicked out of their home. Our case managers would spend the next few hours trying to find someplace they might spend the night. Most often they could find nowhere, and would finally have to advise the petrified young person how to make it out in the streets, telling them which subway lines were the warmest to sleep in, or how to occupy a seat at McDonald’s for hours by taking minuscule sips of a coffee or soda. Often, when they realized safe refuge wasn’t going to come, the young people would break out into tears, before finally pulling themselves together and heading out to face the night. 

Something needed to change. There needed to be an awakening, an opening of eyes to the plight of our young people. 

In 2010, Facebook was a new phenomenon. My staff frequently mocked my ineptitude when confronting such things as fax machines and passwords and apps. But somehow, I had an intuition that social media might provide a remarkable opportunity to make our young people seen, to get their voices heard. 

I met with some of our clients and asked if they would work with me to educate the public. Together we created a social media campaign called Homeless for the Holidays. The kids would take me out into the streets to show me where they slept, describing how they survived without shelter. I’d record their descriptions, photograph where they spent the night, and create Facebook posts throughout the Christmas season with their images and narratives.

Working on that project was grueling. As a “service provider,” I’d usually interacted with our young people in shelters or drop-in centers, spaces where at least some of their most urgent needs were met, thereby buffering me from the harshest aspects of their lives. Being with them where they battled the demons of the night was a different experience altogether. 

A few days before Thanksgiving 2010, the project began with a young transgender woman named Gennifer, who brought me to the pier where she slept. She tore my heart apart before she even opened her mouth; it was enough just seeing her. She wore a sweet little Minnie Mouse T-shirt—and a black eye from a john who’d beaten her up the night before. We sat together on a bench where Gennifer slept, sandwiched between the vastness of the Hudson River and the thousands of cars speeding down the West Side Highway. 

“I try to be bubbly and joke,” she confessed, “but it is really hard when you’re hungry and don’t get any sleep. I remember one night I was trying to sleep in the piers. But I was just crying and crying all night, wishing God could just take me out of this. I need a change; I cannot go on like this much longer.” 

Samba was another who participated. He grew up in Brazil, but fled to the Bronx to stay with his sister after their father was murdered. Samba’s sister was a “good Catholic” and threw him out when she discovered he was gay, telling him he was going to “the inferno.” He took me down into the subways to show where he slept. 

“Now I am staying on the A train,” he said, a brave smile stamped upon his exhausted face. “It is a long ride from the first stop to the last, so you can get more sleep. Sometimes I do sex work to get something to eat, or to get a place to spend the night. I hate doing sex work, but you gotta do it—it’s better than being out in the cold. It’s too hard sleeping on the trains. You feel so alone.” 

Over and again, clients described their anguished loneliness. The isolation of sleeping in the streets only reinforced their parents’ message that being queer rendered them unworthy. Many told me that they felt it would be easier just to die, to bring an end to their despair. 

It took courage for the young people to expose their distress to the public, but we generated attention far beyond what I’d hoped. Facebook was still new, and our stark images of the homeless youths with their wrenching testimonies pierced through the glut of selfies and cute pet photos. Our posts were picked up by The Huffington Post and The Advocate. On Christmas Day they were on the home page of AOL. It felt as if the campaign was helping shake New York’s LGBT community awake. 

Those were some awfully dissonant times for the LGBT community. We’d made “Pride” our governing construct as we grew in influence and power. But how could we possibly be proud of what our young people were enduring?