In New York City, Queer Homeless Youth Survive at the Bottom of the Barrel
Across the United States, thousands of kids are kicked out of their homes each year for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). In some cases, homophobic families dump them on the streets like litter. In other homes, kids run away in fear of retribution or as a result of ridicule.
They have nowhere to go. And the problem grows worse as American youth are "coming out" at increasingly early ages.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 575,000 to 1.6 million homeless and runaway youth are living on the streets from New York City to Los Angeles. Of these, between 20 and 40 percent are LGBT , according to the 2007 seminal study, "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness" by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF).
The study highlights a particularly dismal fact: Given that between 3 percent and 5 percent of the U.S. population identifies as lesbian, gay or bisexual, it is clear that LGBT youth experience homelessness at a hugely disproportionate rate. LGBT youth homelessness is a hidden reality of 21st-century America. The stories of despair, high HIV rates and street murders continue to be under-reported and unaddressed. I wanted to know who these kids were and how they survived in New York City. That is what took me to Sylvia's Place.
Nestled in the heart of Chelsea is a small safe haven on Eighth Avenue. A rusty iron gate closed behind me as I stepped into Sylvia's Place on a recent Monday evening. Located in the basement of the Metropolitan Community Church of New York, the space was filled with clutter: old mail, hand-me-down clothes, boxes of donated food and cold metal chairs. There were no windows, but harsh lights kept it bright. A single bathroom provided a semblance of privacy. Brazil, a young transgender woman, saw me eyeing it. "If you go in there, don't sit down," she said. The shelter is named for Sylvia Rivera, the legendary transgender woman said to have thrown the high heel that sparked the Stonewall riots 40 years ago.
Sylvia's Place is one of three organizations in New York City that provides overnight shelter exclusively for LGBT homeless youth. Twenty-five to 30 kids sleep on the cold cement floor at Sylvia's Place every night, packed together and exposed to roaches. Still, it is better than shelters for straight kids, where LGBT youth often face verbal and physical abuse. It is better than the street.
Hip-hop music blared from the speakers. A few volunteers were cooking dinner in a makeshift kitchen. Diggy, from the Bronx, danced flamboyantly in the middle of the floor, belting out song lyrics. A chubby teenager with bright purple hair was drunk and sobbing in the corner. "I want to get clean," he cried softly, as his friend stood out on the sidewalk, calling to him through the front door, pressuring him to take another swig. Aqua Starr, the newest kid to take up residence at the shelter, was stoned and eating cold turkey stuffing and pizza by himself, leaning on a row of cabinets and eyeing me from a distance.
I sat down next to Chris Collazo, the 25- year-old drop-in coordinator at Sylvia's.
"If you want the kids to open up, show empathy," Collazo told me. "Then you won't be able to get them to stop talking."
Across the room Damien Corallo slouched in a chair, looking grim. Somebody had stolen his iPod. "Things are always getting stolen here," he said. I sat down next to him and, just as Collazo had said, once I got him talking, he did not want to stop. When he was a kid, his father was sent to jail and his mother sent him and his two siblings from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to New York City to live with his aunt. His brother was gay and Damien, who is transgender, had been dressing like a boy as long as he could remember.
"One day our aunt told us she didn't want any faggots in the house. And we figured out that she had given our rights over to the state. So we left," Corallo said. "I've lived in 32 group homes or foster homes. I've lived in shelters, halfway houses, safety houses. I've been into lock-up, stuck in residentials. I have been in every kind of home. I went to juvie for drugs. I used to inject drugs and snort coke. I was in for about a year. It was not friendly. It was a Missouri state jail and then I went to rehab."
Corallo said he stayed in a group home on Long Island. Three years ago he moved to Sylvia's, where he's been ever since. On three occasions, he's been beaten in what he described as "gay bashings." He's been called a faggot and a freak more times than he would like to remember. Somewhere along the line he contracted HIV, which has since turned into AIDS. He has attempted suicide more than once, and he relapsed, too -- he's got track marks up and down his arms and a chronic twitch. He is using crystal methamphetamines and heroin again. He said he wants to break the habit, but "I could never stay clean in this situation." Corallo is 18 years old.
My first evening at Sylvia's ended with a speech from T.T. Wilson, a 23 year old with purple hair who had just been suspended from the shelter for three days because she had been in a street fight outside. "At the end of the day, y'all can go home to y'all's motherfuckin' houses and y'all can sleep in your own fuckin' bed regardless if y'all strugglin' with your bills or not!" she screamed at the staff. "Y'all have a fuckin' home. I don't. I don't have anywhere to go. So what am I gonna do? What am I gonna do?!"
A Refuge on the River
Pier 45, at the west end of Christopher Street, is the epicenter of LGBT youth life, especially for kids of color who travel from neighborhoods around the city. Tucked in the Hudson River Park on the edge of New York's expensive and trendy Greenwich Village, it is where many youth gather during the day to pass the time, meet friends and organize around issues of gentrification, youth and LGBT rights. It is something like a home.
"This is a place that folks come to feel safe. You can meet other people and start to feel comfortable in your own skin," said Desire Marshall, a 25-year-old organizer with FIERCE , a group that advocates for LGBT youth of color. "There are few places you can go when you're young and there are even fewer places you can go when you're queer." The pier is one of them, but it too is threatened.
In 2001, the Hudson River Park Trust -- a public-private partnership that governs the park -- closed Pier 45 for renovation. The LGBT youth that use the pier were not consulted about the plans and many feared that they would have no place to congregate on a revamped, gentrified pier.
Their fears were well founded. When the pier was re-opened in 2003, it had changed dramatically.
"For two years they had nowhere to go," said Marshall. "Now they reopen it with a curfew that wasn't here before, with a police presence that wasn't here, with park enforcement patrol that wasn't here, and food that LGBTQ youth and low-income people cannot afford. They are pushing out a huge part of the community that utilizes this space." FIERCE's fight to protect Pier 45 from exclusionary development continues today as the Hudson River Park fishes around for more proposals to improve what it calls "quality of life" along the river.
THE RIVERSIDE STROLL
While Pier 45 is safe during the day, at night it turns into something entirely different: a center of commerce where sex workers and drug dealers, many of them homeless and queer, come to make money, to "get coin." They call it "the stroll."
One afternoon Wilson invited me to come with her to see the stroll. She'd been back from her suspension for at least a week and we'd already spent a good deal of time together at Sylvia's Place. She told me that she grew up in a well-off conservative community in North Carolina. When she came out to her family about her transgender identity, however, a conflict developed with her mother. Eventually, she left North Carolina for New York City two years ago.
"I know my mommy likes me, I know she loves me, but I was never peaceful," Wilson said. "My family don't accept me for being gay. They don't accept gay people period."
When Wilson came to New York, she found a new family -- four trusted friends. As the oldest among them, she called them her children and they called her their mother. LGBT homeless youth frequently piece together families for protection and support on the streets. Corallo had one as well. "Me and my friends developed a kind of homeless runaway family," he said. "When we didn't have a place to go we would all sleep together at Union Square at night."
I joined Wilson and her family on the pier one late rainy Saturday night to watch the stroll. Teenagers slowly walked up and down the sidewalks, strutting, making fleeting eye contact to draw in potential customers. Many of them were transgender, most were youth of color.
The occasional catcall and rowdy laughter blended in with the rain spattering the sidewalk and the buzz of cars on the West Side Highway. "If you watch closely, you'll start to see people disappearing into the bathrooms," Wilson said. To our left, a drug dealer in a baggy purple shirt stood on a corner with two others, hollering at people and peddling dime bags and joints for dollars.
Wilson explained that survival sex fuels the stroll. Many of the kids do it to eat or because they need a place to stay for the night and a stranger's bed is better than a cold, wet bench at Union Square. Others do it because they are saving up for a sex change operation or to feed a drug habit. According to the 2007 NGLTF report, LGBT homeless youth are three times more likely to engage in survival sex than their heterosexual homeless peers.
ON THE FRONTLINES
Sylvia's youth live on the frontlines of the battle against homophobia, gender discrimination, racism, class -- and they have the scars to prove it.
Carl Siciliano knows the depths of these wounds. As the executive director of the Ali Forney Center (AFC), an organization that provides emergency and transitional housing to LGBT homeless youth in New York City, he is a witness to this struggle.
"I don't think there is any other situation where so much oppression and persecution and cruelty is happening to people because they're gay," Siciliano said as we drove to Brooklyn to see a pair of AFC apartments. "These kids are bearing the brunt of homophobia in our society." Siciliano has been working with LGTB youth since the mid-1990s. "Every couple of months one of our kids would get murdered on the streets," Siciliano said. "They were just in this ground zero of danger." Ali Forney, a gay and transgender youth and the namesake of Siciliano's organization, was killed in 1997. He was found on Harlem's 135th early one winter morning with a bullet in his head.
With the help of a committed staff, Siciliano has turned a project that began in 2002 into the largest organization of its kind in the nation. His program offers counseling and mentoring services as well as a network of eight apartments that house 48 youth on any given night.
And it works. Every year his organization weans a new cohort of kids off drugs and sends a handful to college. And they receive a little more funding. But the waiting list is long. The program is successful, but it is simply not enough.
As Siciliano himself admits, the gay rights movement and its allies are failing to address the problem. "I don't think there are 200 beds in the country for gay youth," he says. "If there are more than 1,000 gay youth on the streets in New York, there has got to be at least 20,000 in the country. And that is a conservative estimate. So 200 beds for 20,000 kids? Obviously we are not stepping up to the plate."
Siciliano and politicians like New York City Councilmember Lewis Fidler (DBrooklyn) -- who have spearheaded the effort to get city funding for programs that serve LGBT homeless youth -- have ideas on how to solve the crisis. They propose two broad solutions: First, combat homophobia. Second, while homophobia still exists, generate the political will to care for kids who fall prey to it.
A study cited in the NGLTF report found that 50 percent of young gay males experienced a negative reaction from their parents when they came out and 26 percent were told to leave home. In addition, one third of all LGBT youth are assaulted by a parent or another family member after disclosing their sexual orientation.
Along with homophobia, class and poverty are part of the problem. "People from affluent backgrounds have more options and resources," Sicilian said. "They face the same rejection, but when half of your extended family is already living under one roof with you, so close to the street anyway, there is a lot less of a buffer zone."
The confluence of homophobia and poverty puts kids on the streets and keeps them there.
"I have stood on the steps and declared war on homelessness. I have done as much as I can to raise awareness," Fidler said. "And still, Brittany [Spears] can climb into a cab without underwear and get three pages in the paper, but I can't get three columns on kids who are couch surfing, who are selling their bodies to survive, who are exposed to unspeakable horrors."
Fidler believes the only way to truly address the issue is through a mass social movement. "My belief is that if people knew that on the streets of this city in this day there are children by the hundreds who are sleeping on the streets, if this problem were known, then the public would create the political will to solve it."
Meanwhile, however, young people like Damien Corallo will remain on the margins. "A lot of us feel rejected, like there is no place for us," Corallo said. "We're the bottom of the barrel."