By Michelle Garcia
Originally published on Advocate.com November 18 2009 4:15 PM ET
A converted church in Queens, N.Y., may look like a pleasant youth hostel, but many of its residents made a tough journey to find this new place to call home.
The Ali Forney Center, New York City's top service organization for homeless youth, found a partner in the local Episcopal diocese, which also took interest in the hardships that many LGBT homeless youths face. The partnership resulted in a $200,000 renovation of St. Andrew's Church in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, where 16 young people can now sleep soundly.
Carl Siciliano, executive director of the center, says he's grateful for the church's philanthropic outreach.
"So many of these young people are rejected by their families because of religion," he says. "Kids come in who have been put through exorcisms, and we've had kids whose parents make them go see priests who tell them they're evil and hateful and that they're going to hell. It's a really upsetting and unfortunate situation that so many young people are put through this kind of trauma by their parents' religious beliefs, so it's very moving to see a religious organization that's able to say that these youth should be affirmed and cared for, so I'm very grateful to the Episcopal diocese of Long Island for their support."
Housing that addresses the specific needs of homeless gay young adults is crucial to their survival, Siciliano says, because they're "actively affirming that the kids are gay, not just tolerating it." When gay young adults and teenagers are left to live on the street or go to a shelter, Siciliano said, they would probably not choose a 200-bed shelter or, even worse, one where everyone has to sleep on a concrete floor.
By contrast, the center's shelters are smaller facilities for its 16-to-24-year-old clients. While there are approximately 3,000 to 8,000 homeless LGBT young adults on the streets in New York, the center is doing what it can to help them live healthy, safe, independent lives by finding education and job opportunities. Over the course of a year, the Ali Forney Center is able to help about 1,000 young people. Still, Siciliano says, there are 150 young people waiting each night to get into a bed in the center's network of homes.
The initial wave of young people coming into the shelters was from the New York City area, but more started coming from far-off red states and small towns. Now, he says, as many as 15% of the center's clients come from as far away as the Caribbean and parts of Africa in search of a safe haven. One young woman who came to the center traveled from the island of Jamaica, known for its blatant and sometimes violent homophobia. She fled her home country because two of her friends were murdered and she felt as though she was next.
"We used to think of [homosexuality] as an adult issue," Siciliano says, "but now there's a lot of anxiety out there about homosexuality and youth. In a lot of countries it's deadly for kids to be out."
Established in 2002 with just 6 beds, the center now runs seven housing sites and two emergency drop-in centers in Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. The site in Astoria was an Episcopal church for about 50 years before it was decommissioned. Siciliano says the Episcopal Charities of Long Island (which serves Queens, Brooklyn, and Long Island) wanted to use the space specifically for housing LGBT homeless youths, so it contacted the Forney Center. Next week the new site will be unveiled for the Episcopal diocese's incoming bishop and several LGBT activists.
The reason for the Episcopal Church's involvement? A letter asking for donations to support the site simply says that protecting those who are the most vulnerable is within the context of the Anglican tradition. With more churches like that, maybe there wouldn't be a need for too many more shelters.