Advocates for homeless LGBT youth reacted with a mixture of dismay and anger to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s January 17 budget address in which he proposed no increase in funding for runaway and homeless youth (RHY).
“The Pride Agenda is concerned that the governor’s office has failed to adequately address the crisis of LGBT runaway and homeless youth,” Ross Levi, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), the state’s LGBT lobby, said in a written statement. “The need for support for runaway and homeless youth has only grown as the options for safe and supportive housing have diminished.”
George Hermann, a member of the Koleinu/ Social Justice Group at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), noting that he and other advocates discussed the needs of homeless queer youth with senior Cuomo administration officials for 45 minutes on January 13, said, “All I can conclude is that the governor does not care. He cannot say he was unaware.”
In last year’s budget, state funding for homeless youth programs in New York City declined from $1.4 million to about $745,000. The Campaign for Youth Shelter, a coalition of advocacy groups including ESPA and CBST, is calling on the state and the city combined to increase RHY funding each year by $3 million until the unmet demand for youth beds in the city is satisfied.
With each bed costing between $35,000 and $42,000 a year to maintain, according to the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), that spending could increase inventory by as many as 87 beds a year. Currently, there are only about 250 government-funded youth beds in the city, with the most recent estimate of the number of homeless young people, 24 and younger, on the streets every night — conducted by the Empire State Coalition in 2007 — standing at 3,800. As many as 40 percent of that population identifies as LGBT or questioning.
Advocates had hoped the state would commit half of the $3 million, leaving the remainder up to the city budget. Instead, Cuomo proposed the $745,000 spent over the past year. The shortfall in funding that last year’s cut created was made up by the City Council. That make-whole, however, did nothing to add to the inventory in the way advocates are seeking.
Carl Siciliano, who runs the Ali Forney Center, which provides housing and services to homeless queer youth, said, “Governor Cuomo’s budget proposal is bad news for the 1,600 homeless LGBT youth stranded on the streets of New York each night without access to a shelter bed. These youth, who suffer horribly and whose lives are in danger, deserve the attention and concern of their governor no less than the other members of our community.”
Siciliano made note of estimates that gay marriages could generate as much $100 million in economic activity and tax revenues annually, and said “the LGBT community has a moral obligation to demand that our tax dollars protect the most vulnerable and desperate members.”
About two-dozen activists affiliated with Queer Rising demonstrated outside Cuomo’s Midtown office hours after the budget speech. The protesters held cardboard boxes, inscribed with the first names, ages, and hobbies of anonymous homeless youth printed over the statements, “I am homeless” and “I am a real person.”
Four demonstrators — Natasha Dillon, Jake Goodman, Melissa Kleckner, and Ted McGuire — were arrested after blocking the revolving door exit from the building for about five minutes. At press time, they were expected to be released with desk appearance tickets requiring them to appear before a judge at a later date.
During the weekend of January 20-22, CBST is launching a new interfaith campaign called Shelter of Peace. More than 100 members of the clergy have committed to speaking out on the obligation society has to protect youth, especially those who are homeless, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. That campaign will run through the Passover and Easter holidays. For more information, visit shelterofpeace.org.
In its release, the Pride Agenda, which called the budget message “a mixed bag,” lauded the governor for maintaining funding for a network of 46 social service agencies serving LGBT communities statewide at $5.26 million. Levi also said the group “looked forward” to continue working with the governor’s staff and the Legislature on addressing homeless youth needs, a nod to the fact that the governor’s budget proposal is the first word, not the last.
The office of Speaker Christine Quinn, who has played a pivotal role in ensuring that homeless youth funding shortfalls from the state budget and from those proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg are restored through City Council action, told Gay City News two weeks ago in an email message that she "understands the importance of funding programs for LGBT youth. The Council has advocated for funding for these programs in the past and will continue to do so in the year ahead."
In the wake of Cuomo's budget speech, she released a statement saying, ”I strongly commend Governor Cuomo for this budget. I am confident that working with the governor and the State Legislature, we can ensure New York's prosperous future.”
The governor’s office had not responded to a request for comment at press time.