When Picasso Moore moved to New York City, he thought he’d be the next Carrie Bradshaw.
And whether or not he’d be living on the Upper East Side, he didn’t really care – it was just time for a change. Moore grew up in a Catholic household near Gainesville, Georgia, a conservative Bible Belt city. Since boyhood, his mother was uncomfortable with the way he dressed, the way he talked, and especially his “friends” that he brought over (romantic and sexual partners being passed off as “one of the guys”) – so she tried sending him to summer camps geared to make effeminate boys, in the fear that they would grow up to be gay, more masculine. When Moore remained the same gay boy he had always been, his mother had him attend conversion therapy sessions with a priest, who told him to place a finger down his throat to make himself vomit while listening to Bible verses about homosexuality. When none of that worked and he came out to his mother at 15, she told him to pack his things and leave.
For nearly three years after that he lived out of his car in the parking lot of a local Wal-Mart. He managed to graduate from high school after transferring to an online home-school program, using public WiFi for school and working retail and service jobs to make enough money to buy premade grocery store food. He showered at a friend’s house.
After graduating, he sold the car, packed his bags and bought a plane ticket to New York. He had $2,000 in his pocket from selling the car and was ready to make a new life for himself.
“I pictured everything being really romantic and idyllic, and I’d walk down the street and find a job in some kind of gallery,” said Moore. “I thought my problems were because I was in this hick town that was super racist and homophobic and that once I got to this place (New York), things were going to be different. But my circumstance kind of followed me.”
At first, everything worked out well – he rented a cheap hotel room on the Bowery while he looked for apartments, working at a luxury-brand women’s consignment store in SoHo. But when someone stole an expensive purse and the store had to pay back the woman who consigned it, they could no longer afford their most recent hire and Moore was out of job. Then, when he couldn’t afford the deposits on the apartments he saw on Craigslist, his funds dried up and he began sleeping outside in ATM vestibules and on the subway.
Moore’s story may be heart-wrenching, but it’s not unique. Exact numbers of how many homeless gay youths are in New York City are difficult to pinpoint due to shifting living situations (they often crash on friends’ couches) but the Urban Institute, a DC-based think tank, estimate that 43 percent of homeless youths in New York City identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Many of them are like Moore – not born or raised in New York – but rather, came here searching for a more accepting community only to find themselves living on the street.
Lending a HandSeveral organizations have taken it upon themselves to get these kids back on their feet, with varying degrees of success. The most well-known is the Ali Forney Center (AFC), which provides a vast array of services for youths like Moore. On 125th Street at St. Nicholas Avenue, the “center” itself is an 8,000 square-foot facility that looks like a cross between a high school and a hostel; in one section is a hallway, lined with orange and white linoleum floors and an array of offices on both sides where clients can see case managers, social workers, nurses, and doctors. On the other side is a common room, a computer lab, and a space for classes and workshops. Down another hallway are bathrooms, shower, and laundry facilities. At night, the open space is cleared out to make way for cots for LGBT youths to sleep.
In addition, AFC rents apartments in several buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn as “transitional housing,” providing a place for AFC’s clients to sleep and get back on their feet. Each apartment is usually a three- to four-bedroom unit with two beds in each room, although some people get lucky and snag a single. Residents must be enrolled in school or have a job (or both). They have household chores and a 10 p.m. curfew. AFC counselors make sure they’re seeing the doctors they need, help high school students apply to college, and college students find internships and prepare for the workplace. The staff in the transitional housing apartments also encourage residents to pay “rent,” a monthly deposit into a savings account to clients have a financial cushion when they leave.
Moore now lives in one of these apartments in Harlem, where he sleeps on a bunk bed in a bedroom facing Broadway. Through AFC, he’s had internships at the Museum of Modern Art and the TriBeCa Film Institute, and on the day we met, he had an interview at H&M, which he was confident he would nail. The apartment supervisor advised him to make our meeting brief so he wouldn’t be late. “The MTA is not our friend!” she said.
Skye Adrian came to New York from Jamaica to study aerospace technology at Vaugh College in Queens, but when his parents found out he was gay just one semester into school, they stopped supporting him. When he could no longer live in the dorms, he started exchanging sex for shelter, food, and money.
Adrian lives in the same apartment as Moore in an adjacent room, but because he’s not a U.S. citizen, he’s not able to work and doesn’t yet qualify for most student aid. He is, however, in the process of applying for asylum status through an organization AFC clients have access to called the Urban Justice Center, a legal assistance organization for groups of vulnerable New York City residents. In the meantime, he volunteers at ACT UP, a long-standing advocacy group for victims of HIV/AIDS. When his paperwork comes through, he wants to go back to school part-time to become an airline pilot.
Besides the Ali Forney Center, several other organizations do a share of the work. Sylvia’s Place, a charity at Metropolitan Community Church on West 36th Street between Dyer and 10th Avenues, provides 14 emergency beds on a first-come, first-serve basis, plus case work services and a medical clinic provided by Columbia University residents on Wednesday evenings.
On Christopher Street, Kate Barnhart, a long-time activist for the LGBT community with an arrest record to prove it (she has been part of a multitude of LGBT-rights-oriented protests in the 80’s and 90’s) runs a drop-in center for LGBT youths called New Alternatives, where she, an intern, and a few volunteers provide case work, meals, clothing, and toiletries to her clients out of the rectory of St. John’s Lutheran Church.
No Good Deed Goes UnpunishedAll of these organizations are plagued with problems. St. John’s church has asked Barnhart to vacate the space by the end of June because the church needs it for its own program. Barnhart doesn’t pay rent for the space, so she’ll have to find somewhere else that will allow her to do the work in a similar low-cost way. Even when she does, she laments that once her organization is gone, there will be nearly no services for LGBT youths near where many of the more street-involved clients choose to spend time and sleep at the Christopher Street pier.
Sylvia’s Place, too, has struggled; in 2011, The New York Times reported that it was overcrowded and lacked proper licensing, with clients sleeping on the floor. “I spent one night there and then got the hell out,” said Michael Polo, a homeless gay youth from Queens. When asked to elaborate, he said, “Let’s just say the subway is a lot safer place to sleep.”
William Moran-Berberena, the executive director of the church’s charity programs, agreed to an interview but would not allow a viewing of the space, and said they are still wary of media attention after the Times article.
At Ali Forney, there is almost always a waiting list to get a place to sleep that’s not a cot in the common room; if you’re 16–20 years old, the wait is about two weeks; if you’re 21–24, the wait can be as long as six months. On the day I first spoke with Carl Siciliano, AFC’s executive director, there were 230 people on the waiting list.
The problem is three-fold: first, the NYC Department of Youth and Community Development doesn’t provide the Ali Forney Center (or any other organization) enough funding to get all homeless LGBT youths an immediate bed. In 2011, Siciliano and a group of LGBT advocates pushed the Bloomberg administration to commit to funding 100 additional beds per year for LGBT homeless youths until there were no more waiting lists, which fell on deaf ears. “Their response was to tell us who we should take money away from to give to homeless kids,” Siciliano said. “It was like talking to a brick wall.”
When Mayor de Blasio took office in January 2014, he committed to fund 100 new beds that year, and did so the following year as well. Since then he has also committed to add an additional 300 beds, bringing his total to an additional 500 since the Bloomberg administration, and bringing the grand total to 750 LGBT-dedicated beds.
But of the 300 beds added thus far, 110 of them have gone to Covenant House, a seven-floor complex spanning the distance of 10th Avenue between West 40th and 41st Streets that is not LGBT-exclusive and is known for being dangerous.
Before finding the Ali Forney Center, Moore said he went to Covenant House and began filling out an intake form when he heard screaming in the vicinity. Eventually a fight broke out and a young man brandished a knife, at which point Moore abandoned the intake form and slept on the street.
The federal Runaway Youth Act requires that shelter for people under the age of 18 be in units with 20 beds or less, but in an effort to get young people off the street, Covenant House has a waiver from the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, the licensing body for shelters for minors, that allows them to operate a youth shelter with many more beds per room than what is normally allowed.
And although he is pleased that youths are getting a bed, Siciliano is critical of the state giving the funding to facilities like Covenant House that can house people immediately, rather than taking the time to look for providers who can house clients in a smaller, more home-like and nurturing way. “When you have 350 people in a facility, it’s just nothing like what it is when you’ve got 20 beds or less. It’s wildly divergent from what was intended and defined as safe and protective for young people. My concern is not so much with Covenant House, per se, but rather the city and state for being able to overlook that protective measure,” he said.
Covenant House also recently came under fire from a New York Times article on May 17 reporting on complaints that Covenant House was inflating the number of people it serves in order to secure a development deal with the city. Nancy Downing, the general counsel for Covenant House, was unavailable for comment, despite repeated requests.
There is a particular dearth of beds for young adults aged 21–24. Though technically adults and essentially treated as such by the system, many are not developmentally equipped for adult shelters, which are part of an entirely different program run by the NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS).
Moran-Berberena said that while they technically are adults, many LGBT homeless people aged 21–24 still need youth services. “A lot of our clients are not ready to survive and fend for themselves. Many suffer from drug addiction, have been involved in sex work, and just don’t have the daily life skills that we take for granted.”
The beds that are available for young people in the 21–24 age range are usually funded instead by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), but they only make up a small fraction of the total beds available, with the majority going to younger people.
Barnhart called the city’s funding for 21–24-year-olds “anemic” and added, “Over the years there hasn’t been an investment in our homelessness infrastructure … It’s a reflection of the problem that people just don’t care about the [LGBT homeless youth] population.”
Moving ForwardMark Zustovich, a representative for DYCD wrote in an email that a change in state law would be necessary for DYCD funding to go to beds designated for youths aged 21–24. In the meantime, he said, “The de Blasio administration is committed to expanding services to support this population in the DHS system.”
The Ali Forney Center did, in fact, honor de Blasio at an event on April 27 for his work in expanding funding for LGBT homeless youth, to the extent that the law currently allows, but also pressed him to do more for those in the 21–24 age group. Adrian, who is nearing his 21st birthday, told the mayor that he wasn’t sure where he’ll go when he turns 21 and ages out of the DYCD-funded 16–20-year-old housing. The mayor later said at the event, “I really appreciate the focus today on young people in the 21 to 24-year-old range … You have also now gotten my full attention that there is more work to do … So, now I have a new mission – to go farther on that front.”
A bill recently introduced in the New York legislature would raise the state’s definition of “homeless youth” to include persons under the age of 25. A group of seven senators from the Children and Families Committee will need to review the bill before allowing it be voted on in the Senate.
While things may be looking up for some of those who are already homeless, the problem is larger than simply providing services for them. It rests, rather, in the fact that children from conservative backgrounds are being thrown out in the first place.
“Lately I’ve heard a lot of talk about ending LGBT youth homelessness,” Siciliano said. “I would love to end it too, but given how the numbers just keep going up, I think there are some basic trends in our society that are going to make this a tough problem to solve … I think the conservative religious communities feel more isolated from the mainstream and feel angrier, more disenfranchised and more likely to have hostile responses to their LGBT children. I don’t see that dynamic ending anytime soon.
“As long as we see these very-often religious-driven hostilities, this is going to continue to be a serious problem.”