When Rebecca Walton arrived in New York City from Milford, Connecticut, five years ago, the transgendered woman was 18 years old and had no intentions of returning to the suburban town where she was raised as a boy. Fleeing a rocky relationship with her stepfather, she had $60 in her pocket and nowhere to go.
After several weeks working as a prostitute, Walton found much-needed shelter at Covenant House, the only city-funded shelter for homeless and runaway youth. But instead of finding a refuge, she found herself in an institution intolerant of differences in sexual orientation and gender identity.
Trouble began immediately. At her intake evaluation, the psychiatrist who examined her suggested she stop dressing as a woman. She was placed with the male residents, despite her requests to room with women.
“Covenant House feels like straight-up prison,” Walton said in a telephone interview.
While the staff was unsupportive, the male clients she shared her room and meals with were downright dangerous. The physical and verbal taunts from her roommates started the first night and escalated. Two months into her stay, six Covenant House residents attempted to rape her. The only person who intervened and thwarted the assault was another homeless teen at the shelter.
“The staff did nothing,” Walton said.
She moved to the shelter’s transitional program shortly thereafter, but found it no safer. Eventually, Walton decided she’d had enough. Knowing of no other youth shelters, she took matters into her own hands and returned to selling her body on the street. When her exploits would land her at Riker’s Island, it was something of a relief—she preferred the jail to Covenant House.
“At least at Riker’s there were several nights I could have a decent night’s sleep,” she said.
Walton’s is just one story of the thousands of homeless young gay, lesbian and transgendered youth living on New York City’s streets. As many as 40 percent of the homeless and runaway youth sleeping on the streets, in shelters and hopping from one good Samaritan’s—or sugar daddy’s—couch to another, identify as LGBT.
For young people too old for the city’s foster-care system, but still young enough to be accounted for by the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), Covenant House is the only city-funded shelter available to them.
DYCD, which funds Covenant House, does not keep track of how many young people wander New York City’s streets without a place to live, but the Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services pegged the figure at a staggering 15,000 to 20,000 in 2003. City Councilmember Lew Fidler, a Brooklyn Democrat, who heads up the Youth Services Committee, estimates the real number is about half that—8,000.
Currently, there are only a handful of shelter beds in the city specifically designated for the estimated 4,000 to 10,000 homeless queer youth—and none at Covenant House, which has beds for minors and young adults at its Midtown shelter.
“Covenant House is notoriously unsafe for gay kids,” said Carl Siciliano, a former Benedictine monk and founder of the Ali Forney Center, a transitional living program for gay and lesbian youth. “Most gay kids would rather choose to prostitute and survive on the street than subject themselves to the violence and the intimidation and the degradation they face at Covenant House.”
Covenant House, a private, Catholic-run organization that receives 15 percent of its funding from the city, told Fidler’s City Council committee that only three percent of the young people who walk through its doors identify as gay or lesbian, and many of their beds remain empty each night.
“If your mission is to bring young people in off the streets and protect and love them and give them a place to sleep at night and you have 60 empty beds and your demographic data says you are completely missing 50 percent of your market, you ought to be doing a little introspection here and saying ‘Why is this?’” said Fidler. “Covenant House has, at the very, very least, gotten fat and lazy about their mission Their response left me seething.”
Advocates for gay, lesbian and transgendered young people say this population is more likely to wind up homeless than straight youth because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
“People are coming out at younger and younger ages, which is a total change from a generation ago,” Siciliano said. “For the first time now, people are coming out when they are still economically dependent on their parents for survival.”
Charlene Artis was another economically dependent teen who identified as a gay boy when she became homeless at the age of 17. Her father died of pancreatic cancer when she was 16 and she and her mother were tossed out of their Staten Island apartment soon after. Her mother went to live with Artis’ sister. Struggling with drug addiction and depression, Artis found herself homeless and spent the next year sleeping on a bus.
“My friends was like, ‘Yo, go to a shelter, they’ll try to help you,’ ” said Artis, now a tall 22-year-old transgendered woman with long braids and thick eyeglasses.
Her first stint at Covenant House was brief. She arrived one evening, while still dressed and identifying as a boy, with a group of friends. One of her friends told the other young male Covenant House residents that Artis was gay. They ganged up on her quickly, pelting her with batteries and calling her a faggot. At dinner, they pushed her to the floor, telling her, “Faggots don’t eat with us.” Security cameras monitored the shelter hallways and cafeteria, said Artis, but no one intervened. When she told a staff member what had happened, the employee told her that if he didn’t see the abuse, he could do nothing to stop it.
Artis left early the next morning. Battling an increasingly severe drug habit, she soon turned to prostitution, working along the Christopher Street pier in the West Village until eight months ago. Her second experience with Covenant House occurred three years after her first, long after she began living as a woman. Having missed curfew at Sylvia’s Place, an emergency shelter for gay and lesbian youth in Midtown, she arrived at Covenant House. Like Walton, she was placed with the males. She spent the night sleeping on the floor—“faggots” don’t sleep on beds, the other clients told her.
“It was scary, it was hard, but I thought positive,” she said. “You know, I have Sylvia’s Place. This is just because I didn’t come home on time. Now I know to get my ass in the place.” She left early in the morning and never returned to Covenant House.
Eric Hartman, a former Covenant House social work intern, said the facility is understaffed with “inconsistent” policies and “no clear protocols.” In one instance, a gay client was discharged for retaliating against repeated violence done to him. One Covenant House psychiatrist told gay clients that their homosexuality was the root of their problems and they should simply stop being gay. Hartman took to sending gay clients to the emergency room at St. Vincent’s Hospital for their psychiatric evaluation instead.
Hartman, who now works at the Ali Forney Center and at the time was an undergraduate at Rutgers University, noticed one of his clients was being regularly beaten by other clients, and informed his supervisors. He moved the client to a probationary area for problem residents.
“It was the only place he could be protected,” Hartman said.
Some staff members were sympathetic to gay clients, Hartman said, but the shelter was helplessly understaffed and, in many ways, out of control. With no staff training available to address the needs of gay clients, Hartman often felt stranded.
“I was told they had sensitivity training, but I never saw it,” he said.
In the current fiscal year, DYCD allocated $5.4 million from its budget for homeless and runaway-youth programs and has consistently funded 15 percent of Covenant House’s budget since 2002.
“It’s important here to put the onus on government,” said Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst for Coalition for the Homeless, a homeless advocacy group. “Government funds and directs the majority of its funding for homeless youth to Covenant House. It does not do that ensuring that Covenant House provides safe housing.”
The city insists that Covenant House has been a good service provider.
“DYCD has not received any formal complaints from LGBT youth residing at Covenant House stating that the facility is not a safe place,” wrote Michael Ognibene, an agency spokesman, in an e-mail message. “As for unofficial claims, our visits have not found evidence to substantiate these reports.”
DYCD Commissioner Jeanne Mullgrav visited the shelter most recently in March.
Covenant House declined to comment for this article explaining that the gay and lesbian population makes up only a fraction of the homeless youth they serve, according to Kevin Starkes, a Covenant House spokesman. The accusations of abuse and mismanagement appear to focus on Covnenant House’s Midtown emergency center, at 460 West 41st Street, as opposed to its much smaller Chelsea transitional facility on West 18th Street at Tenth Avenue.
Fidler and Lower Manhattan City Councilman Alan Gerson hope to secure $2.5 million in the city’s budget next year for homeless youth—money that would be applied to alternative institutions.
“This is a major problem and people are trying to sweep it under the carpet,” said Dirk McCall, Gerson’s chief of staff who is also president of the Stonewall Democrats, an LGBT club.
The current options for homeless young people are slim because they fall into a no-man’s land of city funding. They are too old to be swallowed up into the foster-care system and too young to be considered independent adults.
“When you’re 16, a whole set of options disappears,” said Kate Barnhart, director of Sylvia’s Place, chopping potatoes in the shelter’s kitchen last Friday. “When you’re 21, another whole set of options disappears.”
Each night, Barnhart prepares a hot meal for the 12 or so homeless young people who find shelter on cots in the kitchen of the Metropolitan Community Church on West 36th Street where Sylvia’s Place is located.
Queer-targeted alternatives to Covenant House have emerged, although none of them receive city funding. In addition to Sylvia’s Place, which opened in 2003, Green Chimneys Children’s Services in Manhattan, a youth organization began a program for gay and lesbian youth five years ago with ten transitional beds and three emergency beds.
“[The city] thinks that they’re serving the population by having X amount of beds, but this community is not served by that, they need to have smaller facilities where they have much more attention, much more supervision,” said Theresa Nolan, director of runaway and homeless programs for Green Chimneys.
The Ali Forney Center opened its doors three years ago with no city funding and six cots in the basement of Metropolitan Community Church. Next year, the Ali Forney Center, a collection of apartments in Hells Kitchen and Fort Greene in Brooklyn, will have a $2 million operating budget and offer 42 transitional beds. Named after a homeless gay youth who died on the street in 1997, the Ali Forney Center recently launched a day center in Chelsea. A list of weekly courses hangs at the entrance, including a seminar on safe sex, a creative writing class and “Looking Luscious,” a hair and makeup class that is the most popular among the clients. Black-and-white photographs taken by Ali Forney clients are tacked up on corrugated cardboard mounted on the white walls.
Ali Forney is good news for Walton and Artis—both now live in apartments run by the group in Fort Greene. Artis, clean and sober for eight months and working at the Neutral Zone, a center for gay and lesbian youth, is on a waiting list for more permanent housing. Walton plans to finish a nine-month medical-assistant certificate program at the Sanford-Brown Institute in a month and soon transition to more permanent housing.
“Here, I can have a somewhat normal life,” she said of the Ali Forney Center housing program. “It feels like home.”