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NYC's Ali Forney Center Expands Reach to Kentucky, Arkansas, Poland

Nadia Swanson and Carl Siciliano

Through a new program, Ali Forney is advising groups in other cities how to help homeless LGBTQ+ youth.

Pictured: Nadia Swanson and Carl Siciliano are heading the Ali Forney Center's new technical assistance program to help other providers serve homeless LGBTQ+ youth.

Over the past 18 years, the Ali Forney Center has provided shelter and other services to thousands of homeless LGBTQ+ youth in New York City -- but now it's making its influence felt far beyond the five boroughs.

The center's technical assistance program, set up thanks to a grant it received last year, is helping organizations around the country and even overseas better serve these vulnerable young people. Carl Siciliano, who founded the center in 2002 and was its executive director until last March, is directing the program, with Nadia Swanson, a Hunter College social work professor and former center staffer, serving as a consultant.

In 2020, despite the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the program has worked with 15 providers in cities from coast to coast, helping them implement best practices in running shelters, transitional residences, and drop-in centers; develop transgender-supportive and antiracism policies; and create fundraising strategies. The providers are in cities including Buffalo, N.Y.; Louisville, Ky.; Kansas City, Mo.; Little Rock, Ark.; Tacoma, Wash.; and Chicago.

Overseas, the center is assisting LGBTQ+ activists Zuza Glowaka and Gregor Okrent, who are in the process of opening the Warsaw House Foundation in Warsaw, Poland, which will be one of the very few centers for homeless LGBTQ+ youth in continental Europe.

Helping other service providers isn't entirely new to the center, but the technical assistance program represents an expansion of something it was able to do only sporadically before.

"For a number of years while I was running the Ali Forney Center, I would have people contact me from other parts of the country, often asking for advice," Siciliano says. He and other staffers offered it, although there was no funding dedicated to the effort. Then, after Donald Trump became president, the center lost about $1 million in federal funding and had to reduce its staff, so there was little time to provide such assistance. But in 2019 the grant came through, from a funder that wishes to remain anonymous, so the center was able to establish the technical assistance program.

There is certainly a great need for services for homeless LGBTQ+ youth. On any given night, 41,000 people aged 13-25, unaccompanied by a parent or guardian, experience homelessness, according to researchers. Studies indicate that as many as 40 percent of them -- about 16,000 -- identify as LGBTQ+. Yet there are fewer than 6,000 beds available to young people, and fewer than 600 are dedicated to queer youth.

Despite the progress for LGBTQ+ people in the U.S., many young people still experience family rejection when coming out, and that rejection often leads to homelessness. "Sometimes when there are big advances in the LGBTQ community, there's also really strong backlash," Siciliano says, noting that he saw that with the coming of marriage equality.

The number of young people the Ali Forney Center serves has gone up every year, Swanson adds, from about 1,400 annually a few years ago to 2,000 now. "There's definitely still a strong, strong need for this," she says.

LGBTQ+ youth face an even tougher situation in some other countries. In Poland, for instance, some cities have declared themselves "LGBT-free zones," and a homophobic president, Andrzej Duda, was recently reelected. His platform included opposition to marriage equality, and he has called the LGBTQ+ rights movement worse than communism. That atmosphere makes services for LGBTQ+ young people sorely needed.

"We are extremely grateful for the help and guidance that the Ali Forney Center is giving us as we plan to open a shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth in Warsaw, Poland," Glowaka and Okrent said in a statement. "The AFC was our inspiration, and they've been generous enough to share their many years of experience to help us create a similar center to theirs, in an exceptionally difficult time for LGBTQ people in Poland."

Some of the anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment in Poland is fueled by the strict Catholic beliefs of many citizens. But faith-based homophobia is prevalent in other nations as well, Siciliano points out. This is a major factor in family rejection of LGBTQ+ youth -- more than 90 percent of the young people who seek help from the Ali Forney Center say their parents' religious beliefs drove them from their homes, he says.

Siciliano is Catholic himself, and he has seen some progress in the church in the past few years, he says, although it continues to oppose same-sex relationships. Fundamentalist Protestant Christian churches preach homophobic and transphobic dogma as well, but some Protestant denominations and some branches of Judaism are fully accepting of LGBTQ+ people. The center has received significant help from inclusive religious bodies.

The Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, for instance, made a deconsecrated church in Queens available to the center for a shelter 10 years ago. Now the center and the diocese are partnering to build a complex with 22 studio apartments where the church's rectory used to stand. "It's a remarkable act of kindness and generosity" on the part of the diocese, Siciliano says.

"I want to foster dialogue in the religious communities," he says, and one way he plans to do this is through another new program of the Ali Forney Center. In October the center began producing a biweekly podcast, A Long Way From Home, hosted by Siciliano. The podcast examines the ways LGBTQ+ people experience exile and displacement, and explores to create community.

Guests will include activists, artists, journalists, and more, some of whom have experienced homelessness. The first episode, featuring poet Emanuel Xavier, is available on the center's website. The site includes links to subscribe to the program on Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Anchor.

All told, the center is getting its message out to a broad audience, and people are listening, a marked change from when Siciliano started it. He was inspired by a gender-nonconforming homeless youth named Ali Forney, who was murdered just five years after Siciliano met him at a drop-in shelter. The center that bears his name today offers housing and a range of other services, including medical and mental health care, educational and career programs, and life skills training.

When Siciliano founded the center, there was almost no awareness of the epidemic of homelessness among LGBTQ+ youth, he notes. "It is very moving for me now to see so many people across the country responding to their needs," he says.

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