NYC to slash homeless LGBT youth funding

by Winnie McCroy

EDGE Editor

Wednesday December 8, 2010

Advocates for homeless LGBT youth are outraged over New York City's decision to slash funding for drop-in shelters and street outreach by 50 percent next year.

Citing high rates of homeless LGBT teenager suicide, drug addiction and prostitution; representatives from the Ali Forney Center and the Bronx Community Pride House attended a City Council Finance Committee hearing on Monday, Dec. 6, to emphasize the need for these programs, which the City Council's discretionary funds currently provide.

"The main program facing cuts is the shelter bed program, which disproportionately affects LGBT youth, who comprise one-third of homeless kids sleeping on the street tonight" said City Councilmember Lew Fidler [D-Brooklyn]. "We have to keep hope as we go into the holiday season that no one would do anything that cruel..., but it is not going to be an easy fight."

City spokesperson Andrew R. Doba said the cuts will not have a significant impact on the number of shelter beds. "Services for runaway and homeless youth have been held harmless from budget cuts over the eight most recent budget reductions," he said. "However, due to a combination of city and state reductions for FY11 and FY12, DYCD [Department of Youth and Community Development] has made the difficult decision to reduce Runaway and Homeless Youth Services funding. This reduction was proportionally less than other reductions in the DYCD portfolio-less than seven percent of the total RHY funding, and will not impact our crisis shelters or transitional independent living programs at all."

Fidler pointed to the recent Commission on LGBTQ Runaway and Homeless Youth report that confirmed the need to expand street outreach, noting teens driven from their homes due to emotional, physical, and sexual abuse were often not trusting of adults in drop-in centers. Because the same people who provide drop-in services and street outreach are the ones who provide shelter beds, Fidler said both programs need to be maintained.

"If you're gonna talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk," he added. "They are doing the opposite, and that is going to have an enormous impact on these shelter beds."

Carl Siciliano, executive director of the Ali Forney Center, agreed.

"They are talking about how Cyndi Lauper recently lit up the Empire State Building to announce the campaign..., but that doesn't mean a hill of beans to a kid who can't have a sandwich at a drop-in center, or see a doctor, or take a shower, a kid who is stranded on the street with nothing," he said.

Ali Forney faced a $500,000 budget gap last year, which Siciliano filled by reducing his staff's health care coverage and education as opposed to cutting money from youth programs. According to Siciliano, 25 percent of the youth at the drop-in center test positive for HIV-more than all 10 homeless drop-in centers in the city. Sixty percent of these young people have also attempted suicide. "And that's with support," noted Siciliano. "What will that mean if they are just out there on their own?"

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has also spoken out against the cuts.

"While I recognize the need to balance the budget, I absolutely oppose doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable youth," she said. "We can-and must-do better than this for our children. I have called on the city to look harder to find alternative savings, and I have presented a number of alternative measures that I urge the city to adopt in lieu of these cuts. My colleagues and I will fight to prevent these cuts from taking place."

Dirk McCall, executive director of the Bronx Community Pride Center, said the current proposal would slash his organization's budget by 90 percent.

"These are the most vulnerable youth on the streets; it's appalling," said McCall. "We have youth who need referrals to shelter beds, anger management, HIV medication referrals, emotional support. For the LGBT kids of the Bronx and Northern Manhattan, this is where they go. It's really difficult to see this happen, but I have full faith it will be overturned."

In light of the proposed budget cuts, youth advocates also trained a gimlet eye on the Commission for LGBTQ Runaway and Homeless Youth that Mayor Michael Bloomberg established in Oct. 2009.

"When the mayor announced this commission, two weeks before election last year, I thought, 'Is this the same guy I fight with every June to put half this money back?' How interesting that he found God at end of October," said Fidler. "So they held all of these wonderful forums on LGBT youth, and right of the middle of that they announce this cut. Does anyone see anything hypocritical in that?"

Siciliano agreed.

"They announced the formation of the commission two weeks before the election...and then is going to turn around and endanger them by reducing what's already available," he said "If they drop those programs, these kids have nothing but... total abject suffering on the streets, prostitution, and drug dealing. The people who are responsible for protecting children have to take that responsibility seriously. I really question the competence of anyone who would make a decision like this."

McCall was more sanguine about the outcome.

"I don't think the mayor started this commission knowing he would have to make these budget cuts I think he started the commission with the best of intentions, and definitely put a lot of energy into it, spoke up for it, circulated the report, and coordinated work with other city agencies," he said. "But these are the most vulnerable youth on street; it's appalling. There have to be other funds utilized to protect homeless LGBT youth."

He said he would like to see the mayor baseline funds for these programs to avoid annual budget battles. Siciliano also called upon LGBT New Yorkers to stand up for homeless youth, saying he would pitch tents at City Hall Park and camp out "to show these kids their lives mean something to us" if necessary. On Monday, Dec. 6, a dozen additional members of the LGBTQ Runaway and Homeless Youth Commission had signed on to a letter to Bloomberg and Commissioner Jeanne Mullgrav urging them to not to cut funding.

"I am not one of these guys to say we should spend money we don't have, nor can we raise the property tax any more," said Fidler. "I get that we need to cut spending, but is this seriously what a civilized society does: cut the funding of kids sleeping on subway grates? That is truly outrageous."

Doba stressed the city acknowledges the importance of these funds, but Siciliano, who spoke with EDGE on the anniversary of the death of the gay teenager after which his organization is named, remained adamant.

"I fought and fought to make New York City safer for gay kids," he said. "I didn't sit on this commission and do all that work as co-chair to see it go back to how it was."

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.