Advocates Press Cuomo on Homeless Youth

BY PAUL SCHINDLER | In a state operating budget of more than $85 billion, the money at issue might ostensibly be only $1.5 million, but that doesn’t mean a new push by advocates for homeless youth in New York City has no potential for getting under the skin of Cuomo administration officials.

“We want to see the governor’s office exercise leadership,” said Jonathan Lang, director of governmental projects and community development at the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), the state’s LGBT lobby group.

ESPA is helming an Albany lobbying effort on behalf of the Campaign for Youth Shelter, a coalition that seeks to increase total public spending each year for homeless youth shelter beds in the city by $3 million.

New coalition seeks $3 million increase each year until beds match demand

With each bed costing between $35,000 and $42,000 a year to maintain, according to the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), that spending could increase inventory by as many as 87 beds a year. Currently there are only about 250 government-funded youth beds in the city, with the most recent estimate of the number of homeless young people, 24 and younger, on the streets every night — conducted by the Empire State Coalition in 2007 — standing at 3,800.

The 2007 census found that between a third and 40 percent of that shelter-less population identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning.

According to Carl Siciliano, the founder and executive director of the Ali Forney Center, which provides housing to homeless LGBTQ youth, the Campaign currently aims to find half of the $3 million annual commitment in the state budget and the remainder in the city budget. The coalition intends to continue to press to increase the total commitment by $3 million every year “until the need is met.”

“That’s what’s needed,” ESPA’s Lang said.

Precisely when the need for beds is satisfied will certainly be a subjective call, but apparently that goal is nowhere near in sight. In October, Ali Forney said its waiting list for beds had surged by 40 percent from the year before.

In addition to ESPA and Ali Forney, the Campaign includes other youth housing providers such as Green Chimneys, social service agencies serving LGBT youth like the Bronx Community Pride Center, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, New York’s gay synagogue, Brooklyn’s Lambda Independent Democrats, and Queer Rising, a direct action grassroots group.

According to Lang, ESPA has conducted preliminary discussions with Cuomo administration officials about funding the new beds initiative and hopes to set up a bigger meeting between the governor’s staff and advocates, perhaps as early as next week.

Asked if he is encouraged by the feedback ESPA has gotten to date, Lang said, “Yes, there is a willingness to work with the Pride Agenda to see that there is a more effective response.”

Time, however, is already short. The governor must deliver his budget message by January 20, and advocates hope to see support for their effort in that blueprint. There is always the chance to improve on what the administration proposes by lobbying the Legislature in advance of the scheduled budget adoption on April 1, but the Campaign clearly sees enrolling the considerable political clout of the governor as critical to its efforts.

The experience from last year’s budget negotiations suggests the potential pitfalls for both sides in this Albany lobbying push.

In its January budget proposal last year, the Cuomo administration, working to close a $10 billion gap, recommended zeroing out the previous year’s $4.7 million appropriation for runaway and homeless youth (a category termed RHY) in favor of a block grant approach that would bundle nine different areas of youth funding and leave it to municipalities to determine spending priorities.

An Albany insider close to the governor recalls that no dollar amount had yet been attached to that block grant proposal when the Legislature rejected it, though at the time, figures provided to Gay City News by DYCD, which administers RHY programs, showed that the aggregate funding would decline from $85 million to $35 million.

Resisting the governor’s block grant approach, the Legislature instead insisted on handling RHY appropriations as had been done in the past, though the best it could do was preserve 50 percent of the previous year’s appropriation. Statewide, funding fell from $4.7 million to $2.36 million, with the amount going to the city declining from $1.4 million to about $745,000.

Homeless youth advocates were staggered by the cuts, and Ali Forney’s Siciliano was particularly outspoken. In a March open letter to the governor, published as an op-ed in Gay City News, he wrote, “It is inexplicable how you — a longtime ally to the gay community and champion of civil rights for LGBT adults, who has repeatedly made a commitment to marriage equality in New York — can have so little concern for the safety and welfare of these young people.”

It was no secret that administration officials and gay allies of the governor were miffed by the broadside, particularly its suggestion that Cuomo was pushing for equal marriage rights, while otherwise ignoring the LGBT community. Some supporters of the governor pointed out that, despite warnings that beds would be lost, the effort to house homeless youth in the city lost no ground.

That’s true — but only because the City Council stepped in after the state budget was adopted to make up the shortfall in RHY money going to DYCD. Siciliano and other advocates have repeatedly credited Council Youth Services Chair Lew Fidler and Speaker Christine Quinn for being guarantors of stable spending on homeless youth.

In fact, the previous fall, the Council had stepped in to block mid-year cuts proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg that would have reduced RHY funding by $970,000 that year and an additional $700,000 the following year. Almost $200,000 in that first year’s cuts would have reduced street outreach efforts carried out by Ali Forney and the Bronx Community Pride Center.

In both cases, however, the Council’s political capital was exercised to retain the status quo — maintaining total RHY spending at about $12 million, with $9.6 million going to beds — rather than to expand government’s response to a problem that is woefully underfunded.

Advocates now seem determined to step up the fight against homelessness with their aggressive $3 million pitch, and whether or not it’s fair to argue the issue got short shrift last year because marriage equality took precedence, it’s clear that the success of that effort in June has opened up activist energy and resources to focus on youth.

Frank Selvaggi is a board member at ESPA and its former chair. In the past two months, he and his husband, Bill Shea, have donated $100,000 to Ali Forney.

“It’s our obligation to do what we can,” he said. “Especially now that there is not this sucking of money from the community for marriage.”

The Calamus Foundation, which supports HIV and lesbian and gay services, is also stepping up its commitment on homeless youth, recently providing grants totaling $1 million to Ali Forney, Green Chimneys, and two organizations that provide drop-in space and street outreach to homeless youth — the Door and Safe Horizon.

According to Jake Goodman, a member of Queer Rising, his group began focusing on homeless youth issues early last year even as it was in the thick of activism on marriage equality. Like the Siciliano op-ed, Queer Rising’s civil disobedience, some of it staged outside the governor’s Midtown office in the weeks prior to his formal introduction of the marriage legislation, rankled some in the administration.

The group has taken a leadership role in the Campaign for Youth Shelter, and Goodman noted that Queer Rising has a proven track record of pulling out crowds for events like an October 24 Union Square rally where the $3 million additional funding push was first voiced.

Saying he would be happy to sit down with administration officials along with his fellow advocates in the Campaign, Goodman said Queer Rising is also willing to again employ direct action to make their point.

“There is a real fear that people of power have of the grassroots,” he said.

Contrasting the hands-off approach many gay marriage advocates took toward Queer Rising with the group’s key role in the homeless funding coalition, Goodman said he’s gotten no hints that his group is expected to limit the activism it engages in.

Like Lang and Siciliano, however, Goodman was upbeat about the prospects for constructive dialogue with the administration in Albany. Gearing up for that, Siciliano is largely focused on the $1.5 million Albany ask for new funding for beds, rather than on last year’s debate over trimming total RHY dollars by 50 percent.

Others emphasize additional concerns, as well. Dirk McCall, the executive director of the Bronx Community Pride Center, said his organization lost a fifth of its budget — $160,000 — two years ago when state legislative member items were curtailed. This past year, when Republicans took control of the US House of Representatives, the Center lost another $200,000 when the third year of a federal contract was canceled. McCall is eager to see legislative member items restored in Albany and would also like last year’s halving of Albany RHY appropriations reversed.

“It would be great for the state to restore last year’s cuts,” he said.

At this point, however, it’s unknown what approach the Cuomo administration might be willing to take in tackling mushrooming demands about the homeless youth problem. As of press time on January 3, the governor’s office had not responded to several questions posed on December 30.

A November NPR story about homeless youth in New York said a Cuomo spokesperson had repeated the administration’s insistence from last spring that local governments must show the way in prioritizing needs.

It’s also unclear how much political capital Speaker Quinn is willing to exert publicly in pressuring Cuomo to step up. Highly regarded by advocates for her eleventh hour successes in restoring shortfalls created in Albany and by the mayor’s office, she has been by the governor’s side during several victory laps he’s made in the gay community following the enactment of marriage equality.

Asked what Quinn’s role in the Campaign for Youth Shelter would be, a spokesperson for her wrote, “Speaker Quinn understands the importance of funding programs for LGBT youth. The Council has advocated for funding for these programs in the past and will continue to do so in the year ahead.”

Lang and Goodman each seemed to acknowledge the possibility that the administration’s posture might not be equal to their expectations. Both mentioned that working with Cuomo administration officials to craft public-private partnerships might be one fruitful area of discussion.

Jeff Soref, a Calamus Foundation board member who has been a leading gay donor to HIV and LGBT groups in New York and nationwide for more than two decades, emphasized that government must lead the way.

“Clearly, the homeless issue is one that merits government funding and government attention,” he said. Then acknowledging the limitations of what a group like Calamus can do, he added, “It’s very hard for private foundations to fill the need that’s there.”