Sylvia’s Place: A Homeless Shelter for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth

This is a story about the thousands of homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in New York.  It’s a problem that isn’t being talked about.  It’s a problem that most people don’t even know exists. 

The piece took about  2 1/2 months of research and is complemented by my “Sylvia’s Place” video also posted on the site.  Writing this story was at times emotionally wrenching, but I think it’s an important story that needs to be told.  There are too many gay and straight homeless youth on the streets and something needs to be done.  So please pass this story on, tell your family and friends about the problem and get involved.   

P.S. If you enjoy the piece, keep checking back for the podcasts and pictures to follow.

By Clare Trapasso

Until about eight months ago, Kerrond* lived with his foster family in Jamaica, Queens.   But when his foster sister told him his adopted father had found out he was gay, Kerrond left home in a hurry.

“I’m homeless because I’m gay,” said Kerrond, a skinny 17-year-old with bleached blond hair and a large, toothy grin.  “I left because he’s homophobic.  If he knew I was gay he would try to kill me.” 

Kerrond had reason to be scared.  When he was only three-years-old, he said his biological father broke his right arm and hit him in the left eye for crying too much. His father, now in prison, then drugged his mother and strangled her to death.  Kerrond said he was placed in foster care with his biological brother, who was eventually kicked out of their foster home for fighting with their adopted father.

After Kerrond left, he headed for the gay-friendly Christopher Street Piers in Manhattan’s West Village.  With no place to go, he slept on the grass and benches at the piers and after several uncertain weeks, turned to prostitution. 

“It was scary because I never knew cops drive in undercover cars,” said Kerrond.  “I knew it was wrong, but then again I needed the money.”

It was on the piers that Kerrond learned about Sylvia’s Place, the only emergency shelter for homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in New York City.  He trekked uptown to the Hell’s Kitchen shelter where he stayed until he was moved to a six-bed shelter in the East Village called Sylvia’s Place East.  

“[Without the staff] I probably would have still been on the streets,” said Kerrond, who quit sex work after moving to Sylvia’s.  “I would be arrested for prostitution or had a summons for sleeping on the pier.”

Since he’s been living at the shelter, he’s had problems with the law.  He was arrested for stealing CDs with a friend at Virgin Records and he served four days in Riker’s Island for possession of marijuana.  But the staff at Sylvia’s, including director Kate Barnhart, convinced him to reenroll in 10th grade special education classes and helped him find a job handing out flyers for a hair and makeup accessories store.  He now hopes to go to college for forensic science when he finishes high school. 

Kerrond is one of the lucky ones.

There are only about 300 crisis shelter beds available to the approximately 20,000 to 40,000 homeless youth in New York City, according to a New York City Association of Homeless and Street-Involved Youth Organizations (NYCAHSIYO) report.  About a third of all homeless youth in America are gay or lesbian, although they make up three to three to five percent of the population. 

There are about 7,000 homeless LGBT youth in New York City alone, according to Theresa Nolan, Director of New York City services at Green Chimneys, which runs a transitional housing program for gay youth.  And although there is no definitive data on whether the number of homeless youths in New York City is on the rise, there is an increased demand for shelter and services.

“It’s just been creeping up and up, because there’s no place for them to go,” said Barnhart who laments the shortage of services and facilities for young people in the city.  “There’s a lack of shelter beds, permanent housing, funding for programs to serve these young people and a lack of awareness that they even exist.”

On any given night, Barnhart, a 31-year-old lesbian wearing her trademark Lisa Loeb style glasses, sits at her cluttered desk at Sylvia’s Place in the basement of the gay and lesbian Metropolitan Community Church of New York.  She and the staff are preparing for the opening of the Marsha P. Johnson Center in Harlem.  The center, which cost over $100,000 to build, will be the only 24-hour drop-in facility for gay youth in the country. 

But every few moments, Barnhart stops to issue orders, field requests for toiletries, settle disputes and dispense advice on anything from finding a job to managing a successful relationship.  And there are no shortage of crises inside Sylvia’s Place, an unlicensed last-resort shelter for the most desperate LGBT youth in the city created in April of 2003. 

Most clients, ages 15-24, have graduated from foster care and detention centers with histories of violence, psychological and behavioral disorders.  They are predominantly male and transgender blacks and Hispanics and come from low-income backgrounds.  Only a few have jobs or high school diplomas.  About a third of the residents are H.I.V. positive and are on the streets doing sex work.  But within Sylvia’s Place, a shelter that feels more like a gay slumber party staffed by college professors and ex-convicts, no LGBT youth is turned away. 

“In a lot of cases, we’re a band-aid,” said Sylvia’s volunteer coordinator Geoffrey Ream.  “That’s not a bad thing, because the kids are alive the next day.”

That is no small feat in a city unable to meet an increased demand for youth shelter and services.

Sleeping on the streets makes young people targets for harassment, robbery, violence and even police persecution, since it’s a crime in New York City to sleep or beg in public spaces.  Being gay places them even more at risk.  It is seven times more likely they will become victims of a crime than their straight peers, according to the National Runaway Switchboard.

In New York City, there are only two emergency shelters where young people can wander in off the street and find places to sleep.  Sylvia’s caters exclusively to LGBT youth, whereas Covenant House provides beds for young people of any sexuality. 

Other options include staying in transitional living residences and homes, such as The Ali Forney Center, Green Chimneys, The Streetworks Project or Independence Inn, spread out across the boroughs.  Since there are only a very limited number of available spaces and waiting lists can take months, many LGBT homeless youth stay with friends.  Many more live on the streets. 

Most of the staff at Sylvia’s have been homeless themselves.  Usually very talkative and focused, Barnhart becomes taciturn and uncomfortable when she speaks about her own bout of homelessness.  Growing up, her mother was mentally ill and her father was absent she said.  From the ages of 15 through 18, Barnhart lived in a group home.  But she was always getting in trouble and running away.

“I have strong feelings for people who are outsiders,” said Barnhart, who now shares a Brooklyn apartment with her 14 cats and makes pottery in her spare time. 

Barnhart and the staff try to focus their energies on stabilizing the youth.  A large percentage of them, raised in poverty, were never taught how to resolve disputes without tantrums or perform basic household functions like cooking an egg, according to Ream.  Clients are only supposed to stay a maximum of three to six months, but exceptions are made that can stretch into years.  

At the main shelter, residents receive shelter, lockers to store their things, meals, showers and laundry service between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.  Visiting agencies provide medical services.  There are no beds, residents sleep in sleeping bags, because in the morning the space becomes a church-sponsored community food pantry.  Staff tries to address clients’ needs and help them obtain GEDs, higher education, employment and permanent housing, but they know what they are up against.

Two former residents died this year.  One overdosed on heroin and another died in a train accident.  Last month, a current resident tried to strangle himself in a Sylvia’s Place bathroom, culminating in an overnight counselor breaking down the bathroom door and an ambulance arriving on the scene.

“You’re trying to undo a lifetime of damage,” said Barnhart.  “It takes a good six to eight years to see if things are going to come together for someone.  Some of the young people don’t make it.”

In New York City, it is estimated that between 10 to 30 percent of homeless young people are H.I.V. positive, according to NYCAHSIYO.  The group also claims about a third of the population are sex workers.

Barnhart places the numbers a little higher at Sylvia’s place.  She estimates that about 40 percent of the residents are sex workers and a large percentage of them are H.I.V. positive.  Most are transgender, who usually have the hardest time securing employment.

Jasmine Martinez discovered she was trans a little over a year ago. 

“I had never met a trans person and I never had a positive representation of one,” said Martinez, who claims she became homeless after her grandmother moved to Puerto Rico and she decided to stay in New York. “I thought trannies were all druggies, suicidal and hookers.”

It wasn’t until she befriended several of the transgender clients at Sylvia’s Place, that she began living as a woman and taking female hormones provided by a friend.  But as she bounced between city homeless shelters without a job, Martinez turned to prostitution for an income. She started soliciting johns on the Chelsea Piers and placed ads on Craig’s List.

“I thought because I’m trans, I had to be a hooker,” said Martinez, a six foot tall, slender 20-year-old, wearing heavy makeup and chipped pink nail polish.  “[But] I would feel like shit if I didn’t make any money.”

Martinez, like Kerrond, has fastidiously used condoms and has escaped contracting an STI or HIV/AIDS.  She now promotes parties at a gay club in Chelsea, making anywhere from $6 to $48 a night.  She says she no longer does sex work, but Barnhart and other Sylvia’s Place residents say Martinez still occasionally goes back out on the street.

Martinez, who legally changed her name to Jasmine in October, hopes to sign up with a transgender friendly temp agency and be out of Sylvia’s by November.  “It’s not my favorite place in the world,” said Martinez.  “But it’s better than nothing.”

The increase in demand for homeless youth services is partly due to young people are coming out of the closet earlier.  This can cause friction in families, especially in black and Hispanic communities where being gay is less acceptable than in white communities, and can lead to kids being kicked out their homes.

Gay youths are more likely to be abused, have complications in school, have suicidal thoughts and drug and alcohol abuse problems, according to Nolan.  Foster care can be equally problematic.

“Some of the kids on the streets ran away from us because they weren’t safe in our care,” said Rudy Estrada, LGBT coordinator for the New York City Administration for Children’s Services.  His position was added to the agency in March to address the issues of LGBT clients.

High city rents also make it hard for youth to secure their own housing.  In addition, LGBT youth from around the world move to New York seeking acceptance.

Javed “Magdalena” Lallman, a 25-year-old who suffers from epilepsy, immigrated to America four years ago from Guyana.  He said he was kicked out of his mother’s Queens apartment two years ago, after he ran away with a much older man and tried to return home after the relationship fizzled.  The self-described loner bounced around between shelters and wound up at Sylvia’s Place.

Today he is a liberal arts major at Queensborough Community College.  He works in the school’s language lab and hopes to be offered a permanent job there when he graduates in three years.  He’s thought about having sex for money, but can’t work up the courage to do it.

“My priorities have changed since I became homeless,” said Lallman, who used to dream of becoming a journalist.  “Just getting through the day is a success.”

Lallman, one of the few residents that came from a middle-class family, lays a sleeping bag next to the shelter’s kitchen counter every night.  He hates sleeping on the cold, chipped cement floor, but understands he doesn’t have many options.

The Marsha P. Johnson Center will provide a few more.  The 24-hour center will offer all sorts of services including meals, showers and counseling for LGBT youth.  It will house pilate, yoga and ballet classes as well as anger management and transgender empowerment workshops.  It is scheduled to open next month when the plumbing is completed.

Barnhart believes the center is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. 

“Until there’s permanent housing available it’s very difficult for youth to get out of the shelter system,” said Barnhart.

In the meantime, LGBT youth will continue to flood through the doors of Sylvia’s Place.  There’s simply nowhere else for them to go.

 * Kerrond’s last name was not provided to preserve his privacy.


4 Responses to “Sylvia’s Place: A Homeless Shelter for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth”

  1. 1 james cahill November 11, 2007 at 11:44 pm11

    do you even need anyone to volenteer. I would like to do something to help.

  2. 2 Bobby Austin September 25, 2008 at 11:44 pm09

    I have several large green garbage bags full of clothes and one with shoes. Can someone pick these up from me? Where is your shelter located? I think the kids could use this offer.


  3. 3 David Steele October 5, 2008 at 11:44 am10

    Please let me know what can do / share with me how to do the most for you and all of the people that are with you.
    I watched the program on LOGO, I admire you all, now it is our turn to assist–
    Dave & Lon

  4. 4 David Steele October 5, 2008 at 11:44 am10

    I just walked away from the LOGO special on what you folks do and how you do it. Okay–how can we assist / kindly direct us to what we can do.

    Dave & Lon

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