Executive director Carl Siciliano
all photos courtesy of The Ali Forney Center
Carl Siciliano’s life mission is to advocate for and amplify silenced voices. He’s worked with homeless LGBT youth since the mid-1990s, and founded the Ali Forney Center in 2002 with six beds; now it’s the country’s largest, most inclusive program serving homeless LGBT youth. The White House named him a Champion of Change in 2012. Siciliano spoke to Mission magazine about the Center’s namesake, living in the Trump era, and keeping the resistance alive.
By Sarah Fones.
Sarah Fones: Who was Ali Forney?
Carl Siciliano: Ali Forney was a gender-nonconforming youth I met in 1994, when they were 19 and had been on the streets of New York City for six years. They were very, very effeminate—born male, and would get attacked and gay-bashed. Ali’s mother didn’t know how to deal with it and put Ali out at 13. I think Ali was in 16 different foster homes in three years. There was no shelter in New York City where LGBT youth could feel safe. Ali and the other homeless queer youth I knew were sleeping on the streets. I met Ali when I worked at the Safe Space drop-in center in Times Square. About a third of the young people who came to us were LGBT. It was clear the very meager service infrastructure for homeless kids was not accessible to them. What was really horrifying was that every couple of months one of our young people would get murdered on the streets, and Ali was one of the young people murdered.
I was devastated. Ali was somebody I was close to and really admired. Ali had a great way of showing love and kindness and affection to the other homeless youths, really created a sense of family, was sort of like a mother hen to the other kids—advocated for them, stood up for them.
SF: The statistics surrounding LGBT homelessness are staggering.
CS: Yes, an LGBT young person is eight times more likely to experience homelessness than a heterosexual young person. It’s one of the most terrible disparities our community faces, and much of it is because we don’t have equal access to the love and support of our parents.
We live in a very divided society. If you’re growing up and your parents accept you, that’s great. But if you’re queer and your parents can’t accept you, you’re likely going to be abused and traumatized.
In our country, a very conservative estimate is that there are half million homeless youth. Studies show that up to 40 percent if not more are LGBT. Conservatively, there are 200,000 homeless LGBT youth and only 4,000 youth shelter beds, just 450 of them dedicated to LGBT youth.
SF: And that’s in the U.S.
CS: There’s a broader societal context—here we are, the richest country in the world, and we’re doing a shit job of protecting destitute kids. The vast majority of kids who are homeless have no access to shelter—that’s profoundly disgraceful. I also think the broader LGBT movement has not done enough to stand up for and protect young people who are destitute because they’re not accepted by their families. As a movement, we say, Come out, come out, and thousands of kids come out and get thrown out in the streets. We need to be fighting more to protect them and look at poverty as the connection between that and homophobia or transphobia. I wonder to what extent the fact that we don’t do that very much is influenced by racism and bias. The majority of people who experience devastating poverty who are LGBT are also people of color. There are disturbing patterns in this country around how much people are willing to fight and advocate and pay taxes for people of color.
SF: Are there different strata of LGBT people—those with their family and community’s acceptance, and those who are more often people of color and don’t have that?
CS: I don’t want to make it sound like white people accept their gay kids and people of color don’t. That’s way too simplistic. If your family doesn’t accept you but you come from a privileged background, you’ve more opportunity to not be homeless. My father never spoke to me again when I came out to him. I was 22 and on my own. If I had come out to my father when I was 17, there’s a good chance it wouldn’t have worked for me to stay in the house, but I had extended family and could have easily found a place to stay. For people who are economically disenfranchised, when you layer on homophobia, transphobia, it makes them much more at risk of homelessness.
SF: You’re very unique in your mission and the lengths you’ll go to to really help your clients transition and move on and lead successful lives.
CS: We’re the largest, most comprehensive organization responding to LGBT homelessness and are very proud of our array of services. When I started the Center, I was reeling from the death of Ali and other queer youth who’d been murdered and was very focused on shelter. What we have to do for young people who experience rejection and abandonment is create structures that bring them what they should be getting from families and communities. So yes, we’re sheltering young people, but we’re also offering them longer-term housing. We help them get jobs, get into school. We’ve an intensive job-training and placement program. We’ve a comprehensive medical and mental health program. We offer substance-abuse treatment. We’ve a 24/7 drop-in center where homeless kids can shower, get food, do laundry. We try to bring what they need to survive and succeed.
SF: What feedback have you received as the Center’s grown?
CS: One thing is that the challenges transgender homeless youth face are not the same as LGBT youth’s. There’s more violence directed at them, more harassment and discrimination, and we’ve prioritized creating specialized programs to respond to their needs. We’ve developed an 18-bed residential program. Our medical clinic is the first specifically for homeless youth that is offering hormone replacement therapy.
SF: In New York City, has the administration been an ally?
CS: The de Blasio administration has done a much better job than the Bloomberg and Giuliani administrations. But there’s still a significant issue—all the city’s youth shelter is being offered to those aged 16 to 20. We work with young people up to 24. Right now, if a 20-year-old comes to our drop-in center, we get them in a shelter within 24 hours. If a 21-year-old comes to us, they can stay on the streets for six months waiting for a shelter bed. We’re pushing the de Blasio administration on that.
We’re pushing the Cuomo administration too, and had a big victory recently. The state changed the runaway and homeless youth laws to allow youth shelters and transitional-housing programs to provide housing until young people turn 25. However, it’s up to localities whether they do it, and the state didn’t provide extra funding.
Now our attention is focused on New York City, to say they’ve got to do this because half our young people are in that 21- to 24-year-old age-group. I don’t think huge adult shelters—with hundreds of beds and unfortunately a lot of violence—are great environments for any homeless young person, but LGBT youth are really targeted.
I’m cautiously hopeful. If they don’t do it, [laughs] I plan to occupy City Hall and do civil disobedience or something, because it’s been too long the kids have been on the street. I’m not going to put up with it anymore.
SF: Are a lot of the kids politically active?
CS: We prioritize encouraging young people to find their political voice. We have a youth advocacy program and work closely with Vocal New York. They’re dedicated to advocacy for young people, people impacted by HIV and AIDS, for the homeless population.
They come and do “Queerocracy,” a homeless youth advocacy group.
CS: One of his first terrible things was taking away protections for transgender people in schools. We were horrified by that, and took to the streets when that decision was made. About 15 to 20 percent of the kids who come to the Center are immigrants, many fleeing anti- LGBT violence in other countries. Also, a lot of them come to the U.S. with their families, who don’t know how to deal with an openly LGBT scene and kick their kids out. We work closely with the Urban Justice Center—they do a lot of immigration work.
We’re always going to fight for our rights to be equal and respected in our society. We have a long way to go. We have a binary way of experiencing politics—it’s like, one side is right and one side is wrong.
Look, I’d rather have Obama over Trump any day. But you know, under President Obama, there were half a million homeless kids and 4,000 beds. That’s a disgraceful, disgusting travesty, that the richest nation on earth is
I feel it’s really important to fight for people who are disenfranchised. But it’s really important for people who are disenfranchised to find their own voices and fight themselves.
With this Presidency, for many people—women, people of color, LGBT people—there’s been a lot of fear. But it seems like fear and uncertainty can be great motivators in terms of advocacy.
When the Trump election happened, a lot of our young people and staff were very devastated. [Laughs] I was pretty devastated.
I started fighting and being an advocate when Ronald Reagan was President, so I’ve seen some other terrible times. Somebody of my age, there’s a little bit more perspective. Sometimes there’s an imbalance between our perceptions of what Presidents can do and what Presidents really can do. They can do a lot of harm, but we live in a pretty complicated system with checks and balances. Having said all that, yeah, Trump is horrifying.
willing to leave homeless kids in the streets. While Obama did a better job of responding to youth homelessness than his predecessor, I didn’t think his response was in proportion to the need—by a long shot. You always have to fight, no matter who is in charge, because we represent young people who are disenfranchised. If you’re not fighting, you’re part of the problem.
SF: What can people do?
CS: They can look in their schools or workplaces at how to bring resources to homeless youth and LGBT youth—in some ways that’s the most profound need. But people should also be politically engaged and put the message out that it’s not acceptable that kids are left in the streets without shelter. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is talking about a strategy to try and end youth homelessness by 2020. We’re looking anxiously to see what’s going to happen now.
People can ask their [politicians] to make sure there’s no diminishment to those HUD efforts and no erasure of LGBT youth from them. It’s very disturbing to me that it appears any mention of any initiative to respond to the needs of homeless LGBT youth has been scrubbed from federal websites.
If homeless LGBT youth make up 40 percent of the homeless youth population and suddenly there’s not an ability to acknowledge that and respond to those needs, that’s a massive erasure and a real intellectual disenfranchisement of our community.
Parts of this interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.