Opening our homes and hearts to our homeless youth (40327)

One rainy autumn evening, a group of about 25 elders gathered in a small meeting room of Harlem’s Riverside Church. Maranatha, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) ministry, was holding a forum on the needs of homeless gay youth. A young African-American man, no more than 18 years old, stood before us in tears. He slowly and carefully recounted his experience of coming out to his religious parents. .

Despite his mother’s support, his father-a pastor at the church that they all had attended-threw the young man out of the only home he had ever known. He now slept in shelters when he was lucky enough to get a bed. At the end of his testimony, we embraced, his warm tears settling on my shoulder and forever in my memory. That was over 10 years ago.

In the beginning of my professional work, I had worked at a Black foster care agency in Philadelphia. It was there that I first encountered children who had been physically abused by a parent. These were babies whose bones had been broken, children who had been burned with cigarettes and others who had been abandoned. As I sat in Riverside Church that day, I knew I was embarking on a new journey working with disenfranchised youth and adults-one that focused on the too-often-overlooked LGBT homeless youth.

Most people have witnessed homelessness in New York City. We see homeless people on the corners or in parks or as we travel in the subways. However, we know less or nothing about our city’s homeless youth. On most days, we don’t recognize them because, like other young people, they like to “fit in.” Often, like adults, they mask their homelessness because they feel ashamed.

Who exactly are these young people? They are youth and young adults between the ages of 13 to 24 years who lack family support and live in shelters, on the streets or other places not intended for human habitation such as cars or subways. Some have left their homes out of their own volition. Others are gay and have been thrown out by parents who do not accept them. Many have biological parents who are unable or unwilling to assume their care. There are those who have aged out of the foster care system. Finally, there are those who have come to the city from other locations throughout the United States and the world expecting to find an abundance of resources but instead find themselves with no place to go. Reports reveal that the majority of these young people are both Black and identify themselves as gay.

It was not only the stories of these youth that touched me. The statistics of how many lived on the streets shattered my own sense of well-being. In a 2007 study, the Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services, an advocacy group in New York, found that on any given night, roughly 3,800 homeless young people were on the streets in New York. In a 2008 City Council census of homeless youth in New York City, census takers found that every night almost 4,000 youth are without stable housing.

According to a 2010 study from the New York City Commission on LGBTQ Runaway and Homeless Youth, “Most of the New York’s homeless youth were born here and share many of the key characteristics of homeless youth in other places. One distinctive feature in New York City is the high representation of Black and Latino homeless youth.” Caribbean and African youth are included in these numbers.

The Department of Youth and Community Services’ study on youth in crisis shelters found that 58 percent of the youth identified as Black and 24 percent identified as Hispanic. More than 40 percent of the estimated 3,800 to 4,000 are believed to be and/or identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning,. These youth are disproportionately represented among runaway and homeless youth in New York City. They are more vulnerable than their counterparts due to factors such as community stigmatization and family rejection resulting in higher rates of attempted suicide and risky and harmful behavior.

An array of services are available: drop-in centers, long-term and transitional housing, health and dental care, mental health services, clothing, meals and counseling services. The problem is that these services do not reach all. Funding from the city and state combined only provides for fewer than 200 beds for all homeless youth.

Service providers exist with the constant fear of losing much-needed funds to support their services. Under the current budget of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, they will see their funding reduced by significant amounts. According to Carl Siciliano, director of the Ali Forney Center, an organization dedicated to homeless LGBT youth, “We understand that the current economic climate presents New York with tough choices, but balancing the budget on the backs of New York’s most vulnerable citizens is an unfair and inadequate response to a growing crisis faced by our youth.”

These youth belong to all of us. They are our responsibility. Those who are left behind reflect on our collective humanity. The growth and strength of the Black community depends upon the well-being of each one of us. It is time for all parents to accept their children, for all community members to get involved and for all bystanders to speak up in the midst of injustice. The time is now.

Join LGBT Faith Leaders of African Descent and other inspiring leaders at the Clergy Breakfast and Briefing on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 9-11 a.m., 57 Bethune St. This interfaith gathering of clergy will introduce you to the real lives and real stories of homeless youth and their advocates. We will equip you and your community to learn more and to take action.

Dr. Wilhelmina Perry has over 20 years of experience in teaching, educational administration and curriculum development. She is currently the convener of the LGBT Faith Leaders of African Descent, which supports pro-LGBT leaders and congregations in Harlem and around New York City.