NYC Officials Protest "Unconscionable" Cuts to Homeless Youth Programs
Facing budget cuts of nearly 50 percent for LGBT homeless youth shelters, hundreds of gay youth and their advocates gathered in Union Square on Monday, Oct. 24, to raise awareness and support around the growing problem of homelessness. Speakers including actress Ally Sheedy, City Councilmember Lew Fidler, and Carl Siciliano, executive director of the Ali Forney Center, called upon Gov. Andrew Cuomo to provide $3 million annually for 100 new shelter beds until the need is met.
"Responsible adults don't let children sleep on the street at night," Fidler told EDGE. "I can't fathom anyone making a conscious decision to leave 3,800 children sleeping on subway gratings, engaging in survival sex, couch surfing, selling their bodies and their dignity in this city, in this age."
Studies have shown that 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT, and they are at higher risk of physical and sexual assault, substance abuse and mental health disorders, prostitution, HIV infection, depressive disorders and attempted suicide. About 63 percent of LGBT youth have considered or attempted suicide, as opposed to 29 percent of heterosexual youth.
When asked about the annual 50 percent budget cuts to the homeless youth shelter budget that both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the governor propose every year, Fidler called out the "bean counters" at City Hall and in Albany. He noted that the City Council had to step up last year to cover what he called the "unconscionable" $1 million in cuts the state had made to shelter bed programs.
"I don't know how anyone can say the state budget didn't cut critical services when they cut shelter beds for children sleeping on the streets. What the hell is a safety net if it's not a shelter bed for a child sleeping on the street at night?" asked Fidler.
Siciliano noted LGBT youth shelters received $1.5 million in fiscal year 2011, but only $750,000 for FY 2012. He noted that Bloomberg had also proposed cutting this funding every year by 50 or 60 percent, but Fidler and other councilmembers had intervened on their behalf.
"I'm a mother, and the idea that there's a parent who will kick a kid out of the house because of their sexual or gender identification makes me sick. It's immoral," said Sheedy as she and her teenage daughter Rebecca stood in solidarity with the protesters. "If you get kicked out of your home in the South or the middle of the country, New York is the last stop for you. And these are our kids in our great city, and we can't leave them lying on the street. The winter is coming, and we have to figure out how to raise awareness.... and you guys coming out tonight is a really great start."
Cathy Marino-Thomas, board president of Marriage Equality New York and the mother of a 12-year-old daughter, echoed Sheedy. "As a parent, I simply don't understand how someone throws their child into the street, I don't care what the reasoning," she said. "For the last seven years I have worked hard to secure equal marriage rights for all families in New York. It will take much more than marriage equality to make our families and kids equal in the eyes of the law and society. It will take full equality in all 50 states... it will take you and I to stand up and protect these children."
Jonathan Lang, director of governmental affairs for the Empire State Pride Agenda, said that although ESPA had been involved in the struggle for marriage equality and other high-profile issues, his organization remains committed to ending homelessness among LGBT youth.
"Our community recently saw a historic victory this year with a win of marriage equality. But this does not mean that the work is over," said Lang. "Being able to be married today will not address the needs of young people who are hungry and have no place to sleep tonight."
Lang said that ESPA was resolute in working with their partners in city and state government to ensure difficult financial decisions were not balanced on the backs of those most underserved. He also called upon the larger LGBT community to step up and take care of our own. And Jake Goodman, co-founder of Queer Rising, urged participants to share their outrage with the governor.
(Only Some of) The Kids Are Alright
Her voice shaking with fear, Tiffany Coco began reading, "A place to call home. What's that like again? I can barely remember having one." The 23-year-old lesbian from Spanish Harlem said her fear of rejection from her family led her to the streets-she has been homeless for the last seven years.
This fear was nothing next to the perils of living on the streets or riding the A train all night, she said. Coco knew that a shelter was her last resort, and the thought led her into depression. As Coco broke into tears, a great rallying cry went up among the many friends that Coco had met through the Ali Forney Center, Green Chimneys, FIERCE! and other groups.
We need these shelters that give us a place to be free and give us a second chance to live our lives," she said. Sometimes, all we need is this second chance."
Harmony Santana, a transgender Green Chimneys client, has found success as a licensed phlebotomist and actress, most notably in the new film, "Gun Hill Road."
"Without the support and security I get from Green Chimneys, I don't know where I would be. There are so many young people who turn to prostitution for survival," said Santana, who said Green Chimneys gives young people a chance to be themselves and feel safe as they pursue their goals and become more confident. "They put their futures and lives at risk by taking drugs and hormones they get on the street. Some even try to contract HIV as a way to get housing."
Theresa Nolan, director of New York City and LGBT programs at Green Chimneys, said Santana is an example of what LGBT youth can achieve if they remain off the street.
"I'm just so proud of her, and it reminds me of why all of you are here tonight," said Nolan. "One thing I know from working with homeless youth is the longer they stay on the street, the worse it gets-risky behaviors, the more chances they take and the higher the cost to our community."
Nolan said that while it is wonderful that "Glee" and other programs showing parents responding favorably to their children's coming out, this outcome certainly does not reflect the reality of all LGBT youth.
"In the real world, LGBT face the streets when they come out to their parents," said Nolan. "It's vital that our legislators realize that our society is judged by how we treat those that need assistance. How does a civilized society justify leaving children on the street? We need prevention, intervention, and we need to get kids off the street tonight. We won't rest until there's a bed for every young person on the street in New York City who needs it."
Siciliano's voice shook with anger as he spoke about these realities.
"What a disgrace that we have to rally in the street to get shelter beds for kids," he said. "Our community needs to take a strong stand here. I firmly believe that there is no more terrible expression of homophobia in our time than this phenomenon of children being thrown out of their homes into the streets... it's the most terrible expression of cruelty against our community."
Siciliano also took legislators to task for working with LGBT activists to obtain marriage equality while cutting the number of shelter beds for homeless youth in half at the same time.
"There is no community whose children face bigotry, intolerance, and oppression more than our kids do," he said. "It is shameful for us that our kids are left in the streets. Our elected officials fundamentally do what we make them do. The change has to come from us; we have to be the change. Going forward, no one can think it's acceptable to cut beds and throw homeless gay kids in the street without knowing that the LGBT community is going to be loud and outraged about it."
Log onto www.aliforneycenter.org/youthshelter.html for more information.