LGBT Youth Service a Casualty of Chelsea Rents



The commercial 125th Street of Harlem provides better protection to homeless LGBT young people. Photo: Mei-Yu Liu

At the far west end of 22nd Street, the Ali Forney Center’s tiny but cozy day center provides basic services for homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) teens, and encourages them to get involved in educational and clinical programs.

Joly Star-Marshé, a 19-year-old who received shelter and support from the center’s housing program, said he is very grateful that it exists.

Now living in Jersey City, Star-Marshé recently returned to the center for job assistance.  He hopes to find work as an office assistant or in retail, save some money and then pursue a college education.

The Ali Forney Center, the largest non-profit organization serving homeless LGBT youth in the U.S., receives funding from government grants, independent donors and corporate donors, according to Bill Torres, director of community resources for the organization. Unlike many non-profit LGBT agencies forced to close their programs because of lack of funds, the Ali Forney Center is expanding its services.

But to do so, the center has to move. In January 2013, the Midtown-based homeless LGBT youth shelter organization plans to move its services to Harlem. The lack of affordable rental space in Chelsea, where prices have doubled since the center was established seven years ago, has forced it out of the neighborhood.

“A 9,000 square feet place here is not affordable. It’s impossible,” said Steven Gordon, director of the day center, and future director of the drop-in center in Harlem.

Seven years ago, when the Ali Forney Center originally searched for their first service site, the staff had two main criteria: a non-residential neighborhood, where LGBT youths would attract less attention, and proximity to Christopher Street, where many LGBT people hang out. The traditional gay neighborhoods of the West Village and Chelsea were the top choices. But since then, Chelsea has become more expensive, and  more neighborhoods in New York have become gay friendly.

“Because of the gentrification, this part of Chelsea has become very residential,” said Gordon. “Being [homeless] young people in the city…when it’s busier, they become less conspicuous.”

Two years ago, the Ali Forney Center worked on establishing a second day center. “The Midtown neighborhoods were gentrified, so we couldn’t find a good space. We were worried,” said Torres. They finally established the site in downtown Brooklyn instead.

The third service center in Harlem will take over the functions of the existing day centers in Chelsea and Brooklyn, which will close. The future site of the drop-in center, located on 125th Street near Morningside Park, is in a more commercial neighborhood. This site will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with daily services for 80 to 90 homeless LGBT young people, including a full kitchen, several showers and more available medical care.

The current day centers operate from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and are unable to provide temporary safe spaces late at night for youths who are not in the housing programs. The 24-hour drop-in center, on the other hand, will have the facilities and space to let them take a nap there safely.

Gordon said that Harlem, once regarded as a high-crime community, is now gay-friendly. “The Community Board 10 of West Harlem is very friendly and accepted us,” he said.

According to a 2008 census report released by the City Council, there are at least 1,000 openly LGBT homeless youth on the street on any given day, about one fourth of the total number of homeless youth in New York, often driven from their homes by family tensions over their sexual orientation. LGBT youth can also be targets of assault, rape and murder, according to Torres, and  some of them maintain their lives by engaging in what he calls “survival sex,” or prostitution.

Torres said the young people who go to the Chelsea day center currently don’t hang out in Harlem. “But our kids are from all over the five boroughs of New York City.” Still, the large homeless population that lingers in the Midtown neighborhoods will need to take subways to the new service location.

“We will provide them with MetroCards,” said Gordon.

When asked how they would publicize the new Harlem location, Gordon said word of mouth is strong on the street. The center also has staff to reach out to these young people.

A homeless young man who goes by the stage name “Psychic Master” expressed confidence that news would travel fast.

“We [homeless LGBT youth on the street] all know the Ali Forney Center,” he said.