Interfaith leaders rally to raise awareness of homelessness among LGBTQ youth
When I moved to New York City, I was told that there are a set of rules one should follow in order to ride the subway safely. The one I remember and give the most attention to is, "Don't make eye contact." In the six years I've lived in this city, this rule has extended to, "Don't look at anyone in the subway, ever." Tuesday morning, at the Shelter of Peace Press Breakfast and Briefing at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), Jeremiah Wallace, a young gay man living at the Ali Forney Center in Manhattan, the largest and most comprehensive housing program in the country for homeless LGBT youth, addressed a group of clergy, activists and members of the press about his experience of being homeless in New York City. "I'm from a lot of different couches and beds, and I'm tired. I'm tired of thinking, wondering what I'm going to eat, will my shoes last another day? I just want to be looked at as me. It's taken me a long time to get here, where I can focus, where I'm free to be me. We need to be more compassionate, we need to be thinking about who's on the train, who's been sleeping there all night because they have nowhere to go."
According to a 2008 Homeless Youth Survey, considered representative of of the homeless youth population in New York, out of 3800 homeless youth in the city every night, 42% are LGBTQ. Out of 250 shelter beds in the city, only 42 are designated for LGBTQ youth, a population consisting of 90% people of color. This population is also at a higher risk for suicide and HIV (a result of sex work traded for a place to sleep).
In response, Shelter of Peace, a project of CBST's Koleinu LGBT Rights Team Initiative, and is working to build a coalition of faith leaders to build awareness around the issue of LGBTQ homeless youth and rally religious communities. "Strongly religious parents are three times more likely to reject their kids for being LGBT," said Carl Sciciliano, Executive Director of the Ali Forney Center, who was part of the press briefing. "Compassionate religious people have to acknowledge and take on the responsibility." The briefing also featured perspectives from youth, as well as Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of CBST, and New York City Council Member Lew Fidler.
Ava, a transgender youth from a small town in Ohio, who also goes by "Adrian," came to New York looking for a new start after being kicked out by his family. He also found space at the Ali Forney Center. "Transgender folks feel and are unsafe in regular shelters," he said. "I'm lucky. I found a safe place to start over."
As a coalition, Shelter of Peace will demand 4,000 beds for LGBTQ youth in shelters, as well as challenge budget issues such as the elimination of "essential services," such as street outreach teams. "How else do you find these kids?" said Sciciliano. "They aren't going to come on their own, they don't trust adults anymore."
Clergy must be strategic in their approach to LGBTQ youth. Sciciliano added, " You can say, "We hear you, we want to help you'-as a person, not a clergy member. You teach me about your experience. Put the empowerment on them."
The weekend of January 20-22 is marked for the Shelter of Peace Weekend of Prayer and Learning. "We're encouraging congregation to use their main worship service to focus on one aspect of this," said Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum. How can congregations integrate consciousness raising around this issues in prayer and education? From January through Easter/Passover, clergy are encouraged to give a "Weather Report" consisting of the temperature that night, along with the number of kids who will be out on the street. A commitment card, asking folks to agree to call their senators, become part of a mobilization within their communities, spread awareness, or think of other ways to engage with the issue. "There will be a future," assured Kleinbaum. "Don't give into despair."
New Yorkers: You can also take action by calling Governor Cuomo (518-474-8390), as well as your NY state Assembly member (switchboard 518-455-2800) and Senator (518-455-4100).
The message: I support the Campaign for Youth Shelter. I am calling as a member of my (faith congregation-if affiliated) and a New Yorker to let you know how important it is to us that you add an additional $3 million to the Homeless Youth Services budget, every year, until all our youth have a safe place to sleep every night."