Gay Santa Claus is coming to town.
The team at New Alternatives, a drop-in crisis center serving homeless queer youth and individuals living with HIV in New York City, is busy preparing the organization’s Gay Santa project.
Volunteers are distributing gifts at Metro Baptist Church on Wednesday, December 23 at 6 p.m., though individuals seeking gifts were required to send their requests by December 13. New Alternatives’ holiday party was canceled due to statewide COVID-19 restrictions, but the group is offering a holiday bag along with a boxed Christmas dinner.
The agency saw a record number of letters to Santa in 2020, with 233 queer youth penning their wish lists. The group’s director, Kate Barnhart, told Gay City News the city’s queer homeless community has been hit especially hard by COVID-19.
“People are asking for coats and things that are just a lot more practical,” she said. “And sort of reflect the fact that some of their basic needs are not being met this year.”
LGBTQ youth were already disproportionally affected by homelessness when compared to the cis-straight community, with queer young people making up 43 percent of the nation’s youth homelessness population, according to a 2012 report from UCLA’s William’s Institute.
Those disparities have only been exacerbated during the pandemic. New Alternatives has seen an uptick in requests for gift cards that cover food and clothing and Barnhart said the “somber tone” of the letters appears to reflect the growing toll of COVID-19 on folks’ mental health.
“Almost every client mentions the pandemic one way or the other,” she said. “You can tell it’s really weighing on them.”
New Alternatives has sought to meet the demand brought on by the pandemic. The group opened up submissions to clients at other LGBTQ youth shelters in the city, such as Trinity Place and Sylvia’s Place, and New Alternatives is increasing food services and offering remote and in-person therapy sessions to clients who lack access to a computer or phone.
Notably, the group is seeing an increase in support. While the organization is typically short on Santas, a whopping 300 have signed up to be Santa this year — including actress and singer Lauren Patten, who is known for her role as “Jo” in the Broadway musical “Jagged Little Pill.”
Barnhart ultimately hopes this project can offer some hope during tumultuous times.
“Holidays are a very difficult time for them,” Barnhart said. “The Gay Santa project shows them that there’s someone out there in the world that cares enough to do this, and it makes them feel connected to the community.”
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