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Shelter for Homeless LGBT Youth Opens in Sugar Hill

by Cody Lyon

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday December 5, 2007

On the Monday night after Thanksgiving, a freshly painted pink walled basement room within the impressive Church of the Intercession on West 155th Street in Sugar Hill is busy with activity. Large cots with pillows and a puffy sleeping bag and a small storage chest lay in the middle of the floor.

Three young people are sitting, watching and talking in a distant corner with suitcases in tow. After everyone else has gone home, they will each take a cot at Sylvia's Sugar Hill - New York's newest emergency shelter for homeless LGBT youth.

Peggy Borgstede, president of the Interfaith Task Force, and her partner Kathy Green were the driving forces behind this upper Manhattan facility. It is an extension of Sylvia's Place, a shelter for homeless LGBT youth the Metropolitan Community Church of New York opened inside its Hell's Kitchen congregation in 2002. The Sugar Hill facility, which cost $4,500 to set up, can accommodate six people each night.

Borgstede said congregations around the city remain an important part of her organization's mission.

"We go to churches and say, hey, open your doors and take in some of our youth," he said.

A disproportionate number of these youth are of color or come from poor or working class families. Carmen, 24, is a homeless transgender woman who sought shelter at Sylvia's Sugar Hill. She told EDGE many homeless LGBT youth she knows have been kicked out by their parents.

"Being homeless is not some musical like "Rent" where everyone can sing along and be happy about it," she said. "They [LGBT youth] are afraid to go to any place for help because they've been taught their whole lives that the way they are is wrong. They are afraid someone will hurt them; kill them."

Joey, a 24-year-old student who currently attends the Fashion Institute of Technology, said he hasn't spoken to his father since he was 17. He further described him as an abusive man who eventually beat him.

"Yeah, it got physical," Joey said.

Kate Barnhart, director of homeless youth services at Metropolitan Community Church of New York, confirmed the prevalence of these accounts among those who seek refuge at Sylvia's Place on West 36th Street.

"The most common types of issues we see among our youth is... they come out and got kicked out," she said.

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

"If there are kids coming out, and their parents can't accept them, there has to be a sense that they are our kids," he said. "The fact that thousands of young people are being tossed to the street because they are gay is one of the worst crises happening in the gay community."

The Ali Forney Center opened its doors in 2002 and is named in honor of Ali Forney, a homeless gay teen murdered in 1997. It operates emergency shelter and transitional housing facilities in Manhattan and Brooklyn where residents must attend high school or work towards their GED and demonstrate a will to work. Ali Forney also maintains a drop-in center in West 27th Street in Chelsea where psychologists and social workers are available.

"Being homeless is not some musical like "Rent" where everyone can sing along and be happy about it."

It currently houses 43 homeless LGBT youth but 120 remain on a waiting list. Siciliano conceded resources are scarce and bureaucratic obstacles remain a problem.

"For any system to be humane, there has to be more supply than demand," he said. "If you have an effective program - that gets kids off the street and connected to social service and programs - that helps them move into adulthood in a healthy way."

The U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services estimates there are between 575,000 and 1.6 million homeless and runaway youth between 12 and 24 in the United States. The National Lesbian & Gay Task Force further concluded in a 2006 report titled "LGBT Youth; Epidemic of Homelessness" that between 20 and 40 percent of these youth self-define as LGBT.

An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 homeless LGBT youth are on the streets in New York on any given night. And the National Alliance to End Homelessness maintains these youth remain more vulnerable to violence. They suffer higher rates of mental illness and are more likely to engage in sex work. The Washington-based advocacy coalition further estimates sexual violence rates are more than seven percent higher among homeless LGBT youth than their straight peers and are more likely to attempt suicide.

Siciliano and other activists maintain the broader movement for LGBT rights must do a better job to address the plight of homeless LGBT youth. He pointed to the movement's focus on coming out in recent years but conceded many young people - especially those whose parents are socially conservative or even homophobic - often do not take into account the possible consequences.

"If you come out in an accepting environment, certainly that's more healthy than hiding your sexual orientation," Siciliano said. "If you come out [of an] area [where] you are like spawn, and you are thrown out of the house that night with your belongings in garbage bags and have no way to support yourself except through prostitution, that is a catastrophe."

Another concern remains the lack of services the majority of homeless shelters and health care systems provide to homeless LGBT youth. NGLTF senior policy analyst Nicholas Ray, who authored "LGBT Youth; Epidemic of Homelessness," maintained this absence of basic services mandates the need for Sylvia's Sugar Hill, Sylvia's Place, Ali Forney and other LGBT-specific organizations whose mission remains to help homeless LGBT youth.

"Until we can guarantee that LGBT youth seeking help and support will receive the care they need for mainstream agencies, then there will be an ongoing demand for LGBT specific service providers to support our community," he said.

Carmen agreed.

"What if you had to eat from dumpsters, had to sleep on the train [or] had to turn to sex work to survive," she asked. "That's not something people want for themselves - or for their children - even if they can't stand what that child does."

Ali Forney Center
(www.aliforneycenter.org)

"LGBT Youth; Epidemic of Homelessness" (www.thetaskforce.org/reports_and_research/homeless_youth)

Sylvia's Place
(www.homelessyouthservices.org/sylviasplace.html)

Sylvia's Sugar Hill
(www.homelessyouthservices.org/sylviassugarhill.html)

Cody Lyon is a New York freelance writer whose work has appeared in a number of national daily newspapers and New York weeklies. Lyon also writes a political opinion blog at http://codylyonblogolater.blogspot.com