LGBT homeless in their twenties find few support options



Jeremy Heinerich, president of the board of directors of New Alternatives for LGBT Homeless Youth, serves a weekly meal with volunteers for the center’s clients. Many of New Alternatives’ clients are over 20 years old. Photo: Joseph Flaherty.

Kaashif has never stayed in one place for very long.

Born in the Bronx, his struggles with schizoaffective disorder and a troubled family life forced him to leave home at 11. He’s lived in residential nonprofit treatment centers in Boston, Dobbs Ferry, and, mostly recently, the Bronx Psychiatric Center. But two years ago, Kaashif, who declined to give his last name to maintain his privacy, chose to become homeless rather than live with peers and staff at the psychiatric center. He felt they did not accept him for being gay.

“I dealt with a lot of racism, bigotry and homophobia based off my sexuality and I decided to become homeless,” Kaashif said. “I didn’t know if I could survive, because I knew I had book smarts but I didn’t know if I had street smarts. I’ve been surviving so far with the help of my friends.”

Kaashif is grateful for the services that have helped him get by, but said the lack of shelters and programs for older LGBT homeless youth is a critical gap. He is in his 20s, but declined to share an exact age for fear of losing out on these age-restrictive city services.

“There’s a lot of resources out there, I just wish that there were more shelters that were geared toward older people as well,” he said. “What happens when you’re after 25 years of age? Do you go into a regular shelter and get beat up because of your sexuality?”

Staffers at midtown’s programs for LGBT homeless youth grapple with the question of how to house older clients. The Ali Forney Center, which has its headquarters on West 35th Street, offers emergency beds and transitional housing to LGBT youth and operates a drop-in center with on-site medical, legal, and mental health services. The center provides 120 beds in apartments scattered around Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn.

Nicole Giannone, Ali Forney’s director of program evaluation, training, and advocacy, said there is a cruel irony to the rules governing who can stay in youth shelters.

“For someone who’s LGBT and homeless, turning 21 can be kind of a dreadful birthday,” Giannone said, “whereas if you have everything you need in life it can be a celebratory birthday.”

Ali Forney’s deputy executive director of programs, Heather Gay, said that even though the center serves all LGBT youth ages 16-24, younger clients get served first.

“There’s a huge divide in terms of how quickly someone can get a bed based on their age, because the city defines youth as being under age 21,” Gay said. “So we have a lot of funding for beds for our 16-20 year-olds.”

These clients can usually receive an Ali Forney bed in a few days, in contrast to clients ages 21-24, who often wait about six months for one of the center’s 15 crisis beds in a church basement in Queens. Gay said these older youth end up sleeping on the street, on trains, or couch-surfing in the interim.

To make headway against this gap, two years ago Ali Forney opened a new 24/7 drop-in center in Harlem that offers a place for 20 youth to rest overnight.

“These are not considered permanent placements – it’s a first come, first serve basis – but it gives them an alternative to being out on the streets while they’re waiting to get into our crisis housing,” Gay said.

The worst-case scenario is a client who hasn’t found a job, secured other housing, or entered college with the help of Ali Forney’s case managers by the time they turn 25.

“Often, if they aren’t able to live on their own and afford their own apartment or a shared apartment, then their options are the city shelters,” Gay said. “And the reason why we exist is those are unsafe environments, especially for LGBTQ young people.”

New York City’s 2015 Youth Count Report found there are approximately 1,700 unaccompanied homeless youth under 25 in the city. Studies also show that LGBT individuals comprise a disproportionate percentage of the youth homeless population. Up to 40 percent of homeless youth served by organizations nationwide identify as LGBT, according to a 2012 report by the Williams Institute at UCLA. In New York City, a similar percentage of homeless youth identify as LGBT, from the most recent survey, a 2008 Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services report.

Caroline Dorsen, assistant professor at New York University’s College of Nursing and family nurse practitioner, researches health disparities for homeless people and the LGBT community. She said homeless youth often experience increased rates of violence, sexual assault, and mental health issues, not to mention less support when they become adults.

“I think about kids who have had none of the advantages of a stable home environment, who don’t have the advantage of having gone off to the relative safety of a college environment, and at age 21 are cut off in this guillotine kind of way [from youth services],” Dorsen said. “So I am concerned about that.”

Kaashif says another center, New Alternatives for LGBT Homeless Youth on West 40th Street, has been crucial to his survival. New Alternatives assists LGBT homeless youth ages 16-24 with housing, jobs, and legal problems at a drop-in case management center, but is not an overnight shelter.

Kate Barnhart, the founder and executive director of the center, said their clients often struggle with mental health or behavioral issues because New Alternatives is not a highly structured youth shelter environment.

“We get a lot of clients who are slipping through the cracks of the more mainstream programs,” Barnhart said. “To call any homeless LGBT youth agency mainstream is kind of odd, but some of them are.”

Some of New Alternatives’ clients have left the Ali Forney Center or grew too old to stay in its transitional housing. On Oct. 2, there were about 21 attendees at New Alternatives’ weekly Sunday night dinner, with an average age of 24.

“I’ve been here when there were 60-some clients coming in,” volunteer Ernesto Pedroso said. “When the weather gets colder, attendance increases.”

Barnhart said the “tremendous” discrimination and violence in city homeless shelters against members of the LGBT community, especially transgender people, persists despite incremental improvements, such as allowing transgender individuals to self-identify a gender on a municipal ID card.

“It’s beyond a crisis at this point,” Barnhart said.

Closing the gap in services for older homeless youth is on the agenda for both politicians and advocates for New York’s homeless. A bill to amend New York State’s 1978 Runaway and Homeless Youth Act to change the definition of “youth” to include everyone under 25 passed the State Assembly in June.

“The advocacy world has not let this go,” Giannone said. “We’re making progress in that lots of people are talking about it, but there hasn’t been concrete progress yet.”

Progress can’t come soon enough for Kaashif and his friends, who are making plans for when the temperature drops.

“I think for the winter I’ll be sleeping at Penn Station,” he said. “I heard it’s very warm down there.”