Five years ago, New York City expanded operations for city-funded drop-in centers for homeless and runaway youth to 24 hours, an enlightened policy decision that gives young people a safe place to go amid a growing shortage of shelter beds and long-term housing for them.
But in a sudden shift, the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development in mid-January warned that it will start enforcing an existing directive against youth “resting” in the centers–and ordered providers to remove any cots.
This misguided policy is particularly harmful for LGBTQ+ youth, who are already highly vulnerable to harassment and violence–and at greater risk of contracting HIV. Young people ages 13 to 29 made up fully 37.5% of new HIV diagnoses in New York in 2021, according to the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
“Preventing youth from sleeping in 24-hour drop-in shelters is not a sound public health solution,” warned Kishani Moreno, GMHC’s interim CEO and COO, in our statement decrying the ban earlier this month.
New York’s decades-old Right to Shelter law means it must provide shelter to anyone who does not have a roof over their head. However, many youth do not feel safe staying in adult shelters, and the city’s youth shelters, which offer only 754 beds, have long waiting lists. They are also places where LGBTQ+ youth may not feel safe.
When young people instead are sleeping on subway trains, in parks, and other dangerous places, they are at higher risk of contracting HIV and are far less likely to obtain the health care they need to become virally suppressed.
New York’s status as a city of refuge is attracting an increasing number of homeless and runaway LGBTQ+ youth seeking safety and care services, due to the surge in violence, hate speech and hostile legislation against transgender youth in particular. As this aggressive targeting of transgender and other LGBTQ+ youth continues, we expect more homeless youth to seek shelter in New York.
Last year, 1,700 young people, who are disproportionately Black, Latinx and LGBTQ+, used New York’s drop-in centers, according to The City. From just July to October of fiscal year 2023, there were 1,445 homeless youth who sought them out—a 48% increase—because of the severe shortage of safe shelter beds and long-term housing for the influx of homeless youth to New York, amid rampant transphobia and homophobia nationally.
Ali Forney Defies Ban
Alexander Roque, who runs the Ali Forney Center in Manhattan, has publicly defied the city’s prohibition on allowing youth to sleep there. Last month he told the New York Times “they would have to shut us down and put me in handcuffs” before he would comply with the directive. “If the city threatens us and takes away our funding, I will continue to let our clients sleep, because that’s what’s at stake, their mental health is at stake,” he said.
Ali Forney became the nation’s first 24-hour drop-in center for LGBTQ+ youth when it opened in 2015. Each of New York’s four other boroughs also has a 24-hour drop in center, operated by city-funded nonprofits, for homeless young people between ages 14 and 24.
The drop-in centers aren’t homeless shelters, but access to cots for resting is one of the many critical services that Ali Forney and other centers provide, along with food, clean clothing, hot showers, laundry facilities, medical checkups, and linkage to medical care, mental health, education, and employment services.
Roque and other drop-in center directors say homeless youth have nowhere else to go. New York’s homeless population has hit record levels, with over 72,000 people staying in shelters each night in January, according to the most comprehensive estimate from City Limits. In part, that’s because New York is also struggling to accommodate an unprecedented surge of immigrants seeking refuge.
Instead of banning sleeping at the drop-in centers, Moreno said, “Deeper systemic changes are needed to comprehensively address the needs of homeless LGBTQ+ youth, including support for Housing First programs, mental health and substance use treatment, and protection from violence.”
Housing First programs provide immediate, safe, and supportive housing where youth can connect to care services, including HIV testing, prevention and treatment, as well as employment and education assistance. Lacking that, they’re more likely to resort to behaviors that increase their risk of HIV infection, such as sex work.
GMHC’s Youth Services
New York’s partnerships with community-based organizations like Ali Forney and GMHC are “essential to the health and well-being of youth who are homeless, live in unstable housing, and are experiencing multiple challenges that put them at a high risk for new or untreated HIV infection,” Moreno said.
GMHC’s core HIV testing and prevention services include sexual health and wellness education, with linkage to HIV treatment and other medical care.
The agency also offers supportive programs specifically for LGBTQ+ youth, said Luna Luis Ortiz, GMHC’s point person for youth services. The House of Latex Project serves youth in the House and Ball community, while the Clubhouse is GMHC’s own daytime drop-in center for youth and young adults.
The House of Latex invites other Houses in the city to use GMHC’s dance practice space to get ready for kikis and balls–including GMHC’s storied annual Latex Ball on June 3, which is also a sexual health fair.
From there, Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ youth in the Houses can connect to the agency’s supportive services, like empowerment groups, educational workshops, mental health counseling, and job training. GMHC also does outreach to young people through social media and at LGBTQ+ youth venues.
“Because I’m part of the House and Ball scene, I understand the needs of youth,” said Ortiz, a Ballroom Hall of Fame Icon, who serves as a father in the House of Khan.
The Clubhouse likewise is “about protecting youth and young adults,” he said, by giving them a safe space to hang out. “Sometimes they don’t realize what they need until they are in the space.”
For information about GMHC’s youth services, contact Ortiz at firstname.lastname@example.org or (212) 367-1017.