Homelessness and Hope
Building safe housing alternates for queer youth
By Paul Schindler
Christian Vega, a resident, enjoying a lighter moment, and former resident Roy Emerson with resident Ricky Newlin.
(PHOTO BY Gay City News)
Daniel Cintron, a 21-year-old gay man, says that he has spent more than six years of his young life in criminal detention, five years in juvenile facilities in his native St. Croix and in Puerto Rico, and two stints of about eight months each in New York and in one other state.
Alternately talkative and cryptic, Daniel, who goes by the name Dilo, wont share all the details of his troubles. When he was eleven, a schoolteacher with whom had been having sex before he refused to talk to him anymore, told his mother about her sons sexual interest in other males. Dilos mother had been raising him alone for three years, from the time her husband, a fisherman and heroin addict, died. The news that her son was a maricone was more than she could handle, and soon the boy was living on the streets.
|Homelessness and Hope
Ali Forney Centers Carl Siciliano with Residents Taliah Neely and Dilo Cintron
(PHOTO BY Gay City News)
A year later, Dilo said, I became a government child. I was in the system, in a juvenile jail. Asked why he was incarcerated, Dilos response is adamant: I will not say.
But he does say that he was singled out for being gay in prison and was expected to segregate himself from straight inmates when showering, but was also easily able to find sex when he was transferred to a Puerto Rican jail, even if he wasnt able to practice safer sex.
You dont get condoms in prisons, Dilo said, adding proudly that he has tested negative for HIV and never had an STD.
Released from custody at 17, he quickly persuaded a friend to buy him a plane ticket to New York. Dilo said he spent the next week or so living in the Port Authority, learning how to talk American, learning the slang, eating by pleading with or stealing from corner delis, until he found his way to Covenant House, the homeless shelter that serves hundreds of homeless youths nightly in Chelsea.
Dilo spent about six months at Covenant House, both in its crisis shelter and in its Rites of Passage transitional apartments, before seizing the chance to move into his own place in Jamaica, Queens, paid for by his job at a fast food restaurant. He was also attending Harvey Milk High School, but admits that before long, I had too much pride or I thought I did
I started hanging around with the wrong people and started reliving my old days.
Pressed to explain what that meant, Dilo, a sturdily built young man whose face easily dissolves into an innocent smile, mentioned drugs Grass. Coke. I tried dope a few times. I loved to drinkand walk[ing] around beating up people and all kinds of crazy stuff. In time, he was arrested for possession of a loaded firearm, but he now cant say why he was carrying.
I dont even remember right now, he said. I dont know why I was carrying at that specific moment. I dont know. I guess that was a part of the environment that I was in.
Asked if he was in a gang, Dilo was again adamant: Im not in no gang
I am affiliated with a lot of people who were street affiliated. He said that among his tough street friends the fact that he was gay was cool as long as I didnt show them my feminine side, as long as I didnt act flamboyant around them.
Rather than face his gun charges in New York, Dilo fled to another statehe wont say wherebut his past caught up with him. In what he describes as a TV style arrest, he said he was apprehended in a housing project that was placed under police lockdown and taken out with four officers pointing guns at him. He served time in that state for weapons possession and was then extradited to New York, where he also did time and was released this spring.
Given his experiences growing up, Dilo wouldnt seem a likely candidate for turning his life around upon release from prison. But, in the eight months since he won his freedom, he has secured a paid internship as a peer educator at the Neutral Zone, a drop-in center on East 33rd Street open every evening to serve the needs of homeless queer youth, many of them transgendered; has joined the new youth contingent of the New York City Gay Mens Chorus, singing baritone at its debut concert at Carnegie Hall in June; and he has found stable housing at an apartment for queer youth run by the Ali Forney Center just below 125th Street on Broadway.
The turnaround is remarkable, and Dilo credits what he learned about himself during his latest stints in jail
When I was in prison I had a lot of time to reflect on things I could have, should have, or would have been able to do if I would have been out, he said. I had time to reflect that maybe when I get out I am going to be me. I am going to show the side of me that I never let that I was always afraid to let be seen. Like now, I am a little more of a butch slash flamboyant type of guy. I am not feminine, but I am flamboyant.
Of all the odds Dilo has beat in the past eight months, none was more improbable than his ability as a queer homeless young person outside the state foster care systems safety net to find housing established to provide a safe space for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) youth. By all accounts there are thousands of homeless queer kids adrift in New York City, kids who were not rescued from abusive homes by the state but who instead fled unlivable conditions by choice or due to coercion, and are now left to fend for themselves. The beds available for youth trying on their own to get off the streets in facilities specifically serving the LGBT population number less than three dozen. Twelve of those beds are provided by Ali Forney, in two apartments, the one in Harlem, and another in Clinton.
The Ali Forney Center was founded last year by Carl Siciliano, a 38-year-old gay man who has spent his adult life working on the problem of homelessness, first among adults, and for the past decade among youth. In that time, he has become a passionate advocate informed by two guiding principalsthat the needs of homeless youth outside the public social service net in New York City are staggering and that even within the limited opportunities available queer youth often face neglect, and even abuse.
Its estimated that 20 to 40 percent of homeless kids in New York are LGBT, he said. But we are not getting 20 to 40 percent of the funds. We are not getting one percent. In my experience, I see that in mainstream shelters, half of the queer kids are abused.
Sicilianos characterization of the problem is backed up by studies, experts, and homeless advocates across the city. Studies done by the state and city have pegged the number of homeless youth on the citys streets at between 12,000 and 20,000. Marge Hirsch, executive director of the Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services, estimates a homeless youth population of 15,000. She said that LGBT youth are way overrepresented in that number. David Nish, who directs the Safe Horizons Streetworks program for street-involved youtha term that refers to homeless youth as well those on the streets more intermittentlyestimated that 45 percent of 15,000 served each year are queer.
In more than a dozen studies conducted in the past 15 yearsby the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, by the Seattle Commission on Children and Youth, by the FBI, by the Journal of Pediatrics, and by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, among many groupsLGBT youth have been estimated to be anywhere from 20 to 42 percent of the young homeless population nationwide.
Advocates have also emphasized the special and acute needs of LGBT homeless youth. The most comprehensive study comparing queer and straight homeless youth, published last year by a team from the University of Washington psychology department, found that homeless queer youth, compared to their straight peers, were more likely to leave home as the result of physical abuse and alcohol abuse at home and once on the streets were far more likely to be victimized physically and sexually.
A wide range of social service agenciesfrom the Neutral Zone to Streetworks, from the LGBT Community Centers Youth Enrichment Services to the Anti-Violence Center and the Urban Justice Centerinteract with the citys LGBT youth and they all attest to severity of the problems this population faces.
Dilos apartment-mates in Harlem talked about the kinds of crises they experienced earlier in their youths. Ricardo Newlin, who is 19, was raised by his mother who retired from the military when he was seven. During the next five years, the family experienced several periods of homelessness, during which they lived in different shelters. Twice during that period, Ricky says, he was raped, experiences that he never talked about until this fall. In an essay he wrote this year, he said that he first had consensual intimacy with another man when he was 16I was now truly Gay and that was great. But Rickys budding awareness and acceptance of his sexuality proved more difficult for his mother, who he said he had always been very close to, but who now grew very quiet. A year later, Ricky dropped out of school, and has been intermittently homeless since.
Since moving into Ali Forney this summer, Ricky has gone back to high school, at Harvey Milk, which he says has made him feel happy and productive, even as he admits that he is reluctant to get too close to any of his classmates. He said his phone calls with his mother have also grown warmer and more animated since she learned he planned to finish high school.
Siciliano, a former Benedictine monk fastidious in his appearance and intensely engaged when talking about his work, explains that his efforts are part of the unfinished agenda of the gay rights movement.
Our movements message is to come out, but were not thinking about what it takes for gay youth to come out, he said. The gay community is ignoring its own. We need a safety net for our kids who face prostitution, murder, and HIV. There needs to be much more done.
Indeed, the Center is named for a homeless gay youth Siciliano knew who also worked as an HIV prevention peer educator at the time he was murdered on the streets in 1997. Siciliano is clearly angry that casualties like Forneytwo other homeless queer youth were also murdered within months of his slayingare ignored by the gay community, and that the primary contact most homeless queer youth have with gay adults is through prostitution.
Taliah Neely, who is now 20 and also resides at the Ali Forney home in Harlem, has been taking hormone treatments for her transition to living as a female for the past eight months, but began sex work at 13 in the West Village. She says that even though her parents, who live in Washington Heights, accepted me, they didnt really support me, so I was always making money for myself.
Taliah betrays little emotion when recalling her days on the stroll which she says she gave up at 17and the fact that she was kicked out of high school in eleventh grade. The only mishaps she mentioned from her turning tricks were a cop who insisted on getting a blowjob in return for not arresting her and a john who tried to stiff her on the $45 he agreed to pay her.
I was just like choking him, and choking him, and choking him, and choking him, Taliah recalled. It was like I was trying to kill him, because it was hurting me so much that I had to do this to survive.
She also said that she was harassed in high school, not by the boys, but by the girls because I was taking their boyfriends. Taliah was finally expelled for getting into too many fights, even though she doesnt recall her adversaries being punished.
I thought maybe its just because I am transgender, she said. I was causing too much attention or something like that.
Taliah is currently focused on finding permanent work, and is wrestling with how to deal with employers who might be averse to hiring a transgendered worker.
The Empire State Coalitions Hirsch confirmed how rare the sort of housing options provided by Ali Forney are. A number of agencies provide housing specifically designed for LGBT youth who are in the custody of the city Administration for Childrens ServicesGreen Chimneys houses 25 gay, bisexual, and transgendered males who are between 16 and 21 and another six who are 12 to 16, Safe Space houses six youths, and St. Chrispher-Ottitle provides a handful of beds in Brooklyn. But, in terms of crisis housing for youth outside the system, there are the 12 beds at Ali Forney, four beds at Green Chimneys, and a handful at Sylvias Place, a homeless program of the Metropolitan Community Church, according to Hirsch. A transitional living apartment program that Green Chimneys maintains with 10 beds, where LGBT homeless youth outside the system can stay for up to 18 months, has a long waiting list.
According to Hirsch, there is little political will to increase public funding to change this picture, which is why she finds the launch of Ali Forney so promising. The states budget for crisis housing for homeless youth amounts to only $5.3 million per year, of which New York City receives about $2 million and matches it with another $1.35 million. Money available under a federal statute for runaway youth gives New York State only another $2 million each year.
One of the bright spots on the funding horizon, however, is the federal Housing for People With AIDS (HOPWA) program which authorizes spending on programs shown to address the needs of at-risk populations, which includes homeless youth. Ali Forney has received a three-year HOPWA granting of $281,000 per year.
In this environment of scarcity, the hundreds of beds provided each night by Covenant House loom large in everyones thinking, but queer youth who have stayed there and a number of leading homeless advocates agree that abuse is common and not always adequately addressed by the staff. Among Ali Forney residents, Dilo was mild in his criticism, confining his complaints to hygiene, saying that the scabies he encountered there were nasty and hellified. Ricky said that gangs had taken hold among the population and that he kept to himself. Roy Emerson, a 20-year-old who just moved from Ali Forney into an apartment share in Washington Heights, said while he was at Covenant House earlier this year, he witnessed male residents harassing queer youth and even heard staff members call gay males faggot.
Siciliano said that he has youth on his waiting list who are unwilling to resort to Covenant House, and that he met one young man who said he was urinated on there. Kate Barnhart, a case manager at the Neutral Zone, said her group has been documenting complaints of abuse and harassment at Covenant House and may take legal action. Kim Hawkins, who has just taken over the LGBT youth program at the Urban Justice Center, said her agency can confirm reports of the failure of Covenant House staff to protect queer-identified youth.
Hawkins added, however, that the Urban Justice Center is working with Covenant House to improve staff sensitivity to the needs of LGBT clients, which was confirmed by Rachel Forsyth, a Covenant House spokesperson. Forsyth said that with such a large facility, Covenant House must address a myriad of tensions among its clients, and the effort to improve its interaction with LGBT youth has been ongoing for at least three years. She said it was not surprising that many queer youth faced with hostility from their peers will choose to leave Covenant House rather than rat them out.
Siciliano is encouraged by efforts like those that the Urban Justice Center is making to improve conditions in the existing system at Covenant House, but he clearly aims to build an alternative specifically geared to serve queer youth. At the present time, his efforts remain modest. He is working with a $600,000 budget and a staff that includes only a program manager, a client services director, a volunteer coordinator, seven full or part time counselors to oversee the two apartments, and a part time social work consultant. That consultant helps manage a team of social work interns from NYUs graduate school.
During the next year, Siciliano would like to add vocational and substance abuse experts as well as full time social workers, and expand his services into longer term transitional housing as well. If he achieves that plan, his budget would roughly double.
In addition to the HOPWA grant which currently covers nearly half his budget, Siciliano has attracted private support from the Henry van Ameringen Foundation, the Paul Rapoport Foundation, the New York Community Trust, the New York Foundation, and the Union Square Awards. He plans to soon begin pressing city councilmembers about the need for funding homeless programs targeted at LGBT youth.
Siciliano also has ambitions to have Ali Forney play a role in a larger policy discussion he hopes can take place nationwide.
I want to expand mission to educate the broader community and the gay community specifically, he said. I want to educate funders and policy makers, collect data, and create a policy agenda for adequate funding. I think we can create a model here in New York City for duplication elsewhere. There is far too much too much localism.
But Siciliano also takes pride in his day-to-day triumphs. Five years ago, when Roy Emerson, at 15, came out to his father, a Church of the Nazarene minister in Delaware, at a family picnic, the older man began choking him and gave him 15 minutes to leave his home. During the next four years, Roy experienced homelessness, sex work, and depression and suicidal thoughts that had him institutionalized for two years. When he arrived in New York earlier this year, he fell out with a man whom he was living with, and became homeless once again, until he landed at Covenant House. Unhappy there, he jumped when a Neutral Zone staffer mentioned an opening at Ali Forney.
In the months he spent there, Roy put together a plan to finance an 18-month accelerated associate degree program at Katherine Gibbs School studying mens fashion design and merchandising, and recently started work at a theme restaurant in Times Square. His new job has allowed him to rent a room in an apartment in Washington Heights, and he plans to follow up his associate degree by pursuing a bachelors at FIT.
Roy acknowledges how much discipline and resolve his current efforts in school, in work, and in independent living require of him, but he also expresses unqualified relief about the hopefulness he feels today.
I cant believe how much things have turned around for me in a short amount of time this year, he said, in evident wonderment, while returning a call after class this week.
Contact Ali Forney Center at 212 22 3427 or aliforneycenter.org