Getting Ahead of the Curve: How the Ali Forney Center is Supporting LGBT Youth on the Streets
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Carl Siciliano is the Executive Director of the Ali Forney Center in New York City. The Center serves youth who are homeless and lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). The Ali Forney Center’s Family Acceptance Project is working with LGBT youth and their families to create more positive pathways for communication and to prevent the rejection of youth by their caregivers. Carl talks with HRC’s Wendy Grace Evans about his own journey of responding to the needs of LGBT youth.
“There is a crisis going on. The original gay rights movement was based on an adult paradigm. Now there is so much more visibility and awareness, and it is apparent that it is not just an adult issue. We have thousands of kids coming out. We have said, ‘come out, come out, come out,’ and now, many youth are being thrown into the streets. Nothing is more awful than teens being thrown onto the streets,” explains Carl Siciliano, Executive Director of the Ali Forney Center in New York City.
Carl talks about the need to respond to this crisis. He says we are behind the curve in recognizing how important it is for adults to fight and advocate for youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). Carl believes that we are measured as a society by how well we care for our youth. In the midst of this crisis, we have a long way to go.
Ali Forney, for whom the center was named, was murdered while homeless in 1997. Ali identified as queer and was an advocate for keeping other LGBT youth safe as well as an HIV prevention worker. He was instrumental in encouraging the New York City Police Department to investigate the senseless deaths of his friends - other LGBT youth who were killed on the streets. His death brought significant attention to the horrible realities faced by LGBT homeless youth. He remains an inspiration to all who knew him.
The Ali Forney Center provides housing and services for LGBT youth who are homeless and opened in 2002. Carl’s work with young people through shelters and neighborhood coalitions revealed that there were no safe options for LGBT young people who had been rejected at home. “Eighty percent of the LGBT kids I knew living on the streets were murdered. By the late 1990s I was very focused on the fact that there needed to be safe and appropriate housing.”
Carl opened the Ali Forney Center on a shoestring budget in a space donated by a church with $37,000 from a private donor. Today, with grants from private foundations and HUD’s Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS (HOPWA), the Center operates with a $4.3 million budget to serve a population that now comprises about one quarter of homeless youth.
Anyone can stay in the Ali Forney Center’s emergency housing program for up to six months and in the transitional housing for up to two years. The program requires that young people are working or attending school. All of the youth at The Ali Forney Center work and a majority go to college.
“I had a supervisor once that really made an impression on me. She said that God gave us two ears and one mouth, so that we could listen twice as much as we talk,” says Carl.
Listening is a central component of the center’s Family Acceptance Project, a counseling center developed to serve LGBT youth and their families. When the Ali Forney Center first opened its doors in 2002, they were working with kids on the streets. Now they also work with kids who are saying, “I’m living at home, but I am getting threatened.”
The project aims to open a dialogue between LGBT youth and their family members. “There’s a breakdown in communication. Many times kids assume they are being rejected. A lot of times parents have unrealistic fears. We help families work through their fears and negotiate agreements about how to navigate this stuff. It’s about giving them a space to talk and to listen.”
The Ali Forney Center is better able to engage with families of LGBT youth when they are housed. Often once a young person is housed, the Center will seek out ways to reconnect him with his family. “What I find is that when a kid is abjectly homeless, we do not focus on the family. When a young person is in our housing program, they are better able to engage with families and we ask the question, can you go back to your family?”
Carl considers himself a spiritual man and is motivated by the growth he sees in others. “I do have the sense of this spiritual value and the importance of the work I do. It is moving and rewarding to meet young people. There is a real kind of community that has grown up around us.”
“I was very religious as a youth and I had the sense that I could serve God, by serving the poor. As a teen I volunteered in shelters and soup kitchens. I came out of the closet in 1987 and stopped being so religiously motivated at that point, but had the sense that it was important to respond to the fact that people suffer.”
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