NYC First Lady Launches $9.5 Million Program to Combat LGBTQ Youth Homelessness

· Updated on June 20, 2018

A new youth shelter for LGBTQ young adults between ages 21 and 24 will open in New York City by the end of 2018.

This shelter is part of First Lady of New York City Chirlane McCray’s “NYC Unity Project,” which initially had a $4.8 million dollar investment from the city. That has now increased to $9.5 million. The project’s overall goal is to deliver services “that address the unique challenges of LGBTQ youth,” according to a press release.

Although the City Council has raised the eligibility age for homeless shelter residents to 24, they want to take measures to ensure that overcrowding won’t occur. So in the meantime, this new shelter will be the only one offering services to that age group.

“Many LGBTQ New Yorkers come from loving, supportive families but many do not,” McCray said at City Hall on Wednesday. “Some are bullied at home, forced to hide where they are. Others are rejected outright. It is also our responsibility to make sure that young people with nowhere else to turn always have a safe, supportive and welcoming place to go.”

LGBTQ youth face extremely high rates of homelessness, with surveys showing that they are 120 percent more likely than cisgender young people to lack stable housing. According to UCLA’s pro-LGBTQ think tank The Williams Institute, around 40 percent of homeless youth identify as queer or transgender.

To meet the needs of this extremely vulnerable population, other expanded services include two new clinical sites in Harlem and Brooklyn that can provide PrEP and extended hours for youth drop-in centers.

New York City will also conduct a new population study interviewing youth in foster care services about their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Local leaders praised the undertaking as a “major step towards progress.”

“It’s no secret that many of these young people are from the LGBTQ community, and we are under a special obligation to help and protect them,” claimed said NYC City Council Speaker Corey Johnson in a statement. “I am so proud of this landmark legislation, and my colleagues in the Council for making this a priority.”

“Every youth deserves a home that welcomes them fully and gives them the support they need to succeed,” added Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives Phil Thompson in a press release.

Thompson claimed the initiative would “improving the lives of youth and [strengthen] our city.”

But McCray said it’s just the beginning.

“Through the Unity Project, we will look for new ways to support LGBTQ youth in any way we can” McCray said, and claimed that work “does not stop” with the launch of this new program. “Not until every LGBTQ young person knows that New York City has your back.”

INTO spoke with the First Lady over the phone after yesterday’s event to discuss the NYC Unity Project, as well as recent criticism of her work on the Mayor’s Fund to Advance the City of New York.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

INTO: What inspired this dramatic increase in resources for LGBTQ homeless youth in New York? Was there a moment where you said, “This needs to happen now.”

CM: There wasn’t a moment. New York City is the birthplace of the gay movement. We pride ourselves on providing many services for our LGBTQ community. When we first launched the Unity Project, it was our intention to broaden our support for members of the community we felt we had not done enough for—which is the young people.

There are many indicators that inspired us to do that, first of which is the homelessness. So many of our urban centers are experiencing an incredible rise in homelessness, and many people think of it just as just old guys, but that’s not the reality. There are many young people, too many young people, and we have to do something about this. Homelessness indicates that there are other problems as well. When we looked at our data and saw that 40 percent of homeless young people identify as LGBTQ and one-third or more of teens in our foster care system identify as LGBTQ, we knew that we had to do something about this.

We know that family rejection is the leading cause of homelessness—either because they’re forced to run away, because of abuse, or because they’re kicked out of their homes for who they are. That family rejection is also an indicator of a range of health and wellness consequences for these young people as well. Those who experience family rejection are more likely to attempt suicide, experience substance abuse, and have worse health outcomes.

We knew we had to expand our drop-in centers. We had one that was 24/7 and others that operate for a limited number of hours, but it’s clear we needed to do much more. We had to expand the drop-in centers so there’s one available in every borough in new York City, so that everyone would be able to get to one. We needed more shelter capacity. But most importantly, we had to prevent family rejection. It’s not just about having a bed; if families don’t embrace, understand, and truly love their young person—no matter who they love or what their gender identity is—then they’re likely to have long-lasting problems. We want to prevent these young people from feeling isolated and alone.

Because of the so-called “leadership” in the White House, we have to do as much we can. We have to be able to show other cities, “This is possible.”

We want them to have that safety net that young people have to have, usually into their 20s. Of course, forever would be nice. I have two young people in my 20s, and there’s no way they’re fully self-sufficient, especially LGBTQ young people who have come from foster homes. They don’t have that sense of security, a shoulder to lean on, or a place to turn if they’ve never really had it.

These are our children. We have to do everything we can do as a city to make sure they are safe, supported, and healthy. We take this responsibility very seriously.

INTO: One of the many unique facets of the programming is that it includes homeless youth resources for those between the ages of 21 and 24. Those are age groups that are often left out of the conversations when we’re talking about LGBTQ homeless youth. A lot of the time it stops at the age of 18 or the age of 20. What do you think that we lose when we don’t offer resources to this age group?

CM: We lose young people. That is such an important transition point to being an adult. If young people are not ready, we lose them to substance abuse and to the criminal justice system. They’re just not able to reach their potential. It’s tragic. They need the support, they really need the support, and it is not customary to provide that kind of support to young people up to that age.

We’re struggling to do it. Here in New York City, you have to get special permission from the state to do it. If we could just do it on our own, that would be one thing. But we have to work with the state and whenever that happens, things get complicated. So we have this waiver for the shelter to be able to do the shelter. And we want to be able to do more. I anticipate that we will be able to provide more going forward, but it is a process that we have to navigate carefully.

INTO: Councilman Corey Johnson described the New York City program as “landmark.” What do you think makes this program different from how other cities tackle the problem of LGBTQ youth homelessness?

CM: Whenever we do something in New York, what always makes it remarkable is the scale. We have a lot of people. (laughs) Whenever we do a program, we have to go big. The other thing is that it’s not just one thing we’re doing or two things—we take a very holistic view. These young people need not just a roof over their heads. Those 24/7 drop-in centers are places where if they go to get out of the rain, for recreation, or for anything else, they’re going to get services and support that can help them get back in school, get employment training, get mental health counseling, or get access to PrEP.

Whatever it is they need, there will be people who are culturally competent to talk to and get them the support they need. That’s so important because so many people don’t really know what they need. What they need is someone to talk to and help guide them as they grow and mature. Having trained people in these drop-in centers to help them figure out what the next steps should be to get to a better place is really important.

We have these services for them. We’re not counting on these young people to find them. We’re helping them connect to them directly. We even have street outreach services—vans that go city-wide to where young people tend to gather and see if they need help. These van can bring them to the drop-in center or wherever they need to get, and that’s important because there should be no wrong door for these young people. Wherever they go, they should be able to get the help they need. We have to go to them as much as we can.

INTO: This program was announced amidst continued rollbacks from the Trump administration when it comes to rights and protections for LGBTQ youth—whether that’s affirming bathroom access in schools or access to medical care. Do you see expanding programs for queer and trans youth in New York as a response to those rollbacks?

CM: I don’t see it as a response, but I do believe it’s even more important at this time. We would be doing this regardless. It is our mission. It’s the mission of the administration. It’s personal for me that we take this on and do as much as possible during the time my husband is in office.

Of course, because of the so-called “leadership” in the White House, we have to do as much we can. We have to be able to show other cities, “This is possible.” We are a model that other cities can copy so that young people have so much to offer—so much talent and smarts—that it’s not wasted. We don’t want to lose these lives. We want to make sure that all that potential gets channeled constructively.

INTO: I think we see a lot of cities right now leading—for lack of a better term—the “resistance,” whether it’s in terms of LGBTQ rights or sanctuary cities. It seems like a lot of that onus and that responsibility is falling on cities like New York.

CM: Yes, in every way, whether it’s housing or health care services. Cities, whether they want to or not, they’re finding that they have to be responsible.

INTO: I know you’ve talked a bit in the past about your own sexual orientation—including your decision to reject labels like “bisexual.” How does the issue of LGBTQ youth homelessness resonate with you personally?

CM: LGBTQ issues have been central to me and my life for decades now. This isn’t just homelessness that’s a concern to me. It’s everything. It’s the fact that our young people are more likely to be bullied, harassed, and to suffer discrimination in many forms. Homelessness is just one of the worst things that can happen to [LGBTQ young people].

If we want to address any of the other things, we have to address this. How can we connect someone to other services if they don’t have a place to live?

INTO: Absolutely, so much of this gets down to a root cause of stigma, which resonates in a lot of communities—as well as queer and trans communities.

We’ve about five minutes left, so I wanted to ask about a New York Times article published yesterday that critiqued your work with the Mayor’s Fund to Advance the City of New York, claiming that contributions are stagnant and that you have attended less than half of the fund’s board meetings. How do you respond to those claims and how do you hope to apply any lessons learned from those critiques to the homeless youth initiative?

CM: I’m really proud of the work that we’ve been doing with the Mayor’s Fund. We actually had an advisory board meeting this morning with our advisory board members, which was fantastic. We raised thousands and thousands of dollars, an average of $20 million a year. We’ve partnered with more than 50 city agencies to advance more than 80 different programs through 100 community service providers. That’s a lot to be proud of.

The Hetrick-Martin Institute and our Connections to Care is one of them. The Hetrick-Martin Institute serves the LGBTQ community. The measure of success of the Mayor’s Fund, for me, is not in the dollars and cents. No, I am not a billionaire but I don’t have to be to be good. I work very hard. And the Mayor’s Fund as a not-for-profit has performed superbly compared to other nonprofits of its size. The money it’s raised is comparable, if not better in many cases, when compared to other not-for-profits of its size.

I am the chair. I am not the executive director. There is a very big difference in what the chair does versus the executive director, who runs the fund in terms of its day-to-day operations. I have a very large portfolio. But I do pride myself on a portfolio that is very well integrated and connected. Mental health is not separate from what I do for the LGBTQ community. It is not separate from what I do on domestic violence or the incarcerated. It is part of everything I do.

Therefore, I think it’s hard for anyone to tell whether I’m working for Unity or for Mayor’s Fund. So often the work I do overlaps. It is difficult to make that distinction.

I’m so sorry that those reporters did not ask one question about the achievements of the Mayor’s Fund. They were clearly looking for what was wrong. They did not find that thing, but they made a big to-do about what they found. They managed to craft something that is not journalism.

INTO: I just have one last question. You talked about this before, you said that New York has been the epicenter for a really long time of different LGBTQ movements—from Stonewall and ACT UP to today’s Gays Against Guns protests for gun reform. Why do you think it’s important for New York City to remain at the forefront of LGBTQ rights in the United States?

Because we’re loud and we’re proud of that history. It’s important for us to keep on fighting, because the fight is never over.

We learned tragically in 2016 how quickly things can get turned around if we are not vigilant. Even now, as I speak, there are folks all over the country who are trying to push us back in the closet. They’re relentless in terms of the policies that are being crafted. We cannot take our freedom for granted. We just can’t. So everything we can do here in New York City to push the needle forward is really important.

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