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Homeless for the Holidays

Dear Friend,

Holidays are difficult for us at the Ali Forney Center. When the rest of the world slows down to celebrate the season, the promise of friends, family, and joy, we brace for our darkest days. My optimistic heart struggles with this every year. In fact, for 12 years, as the summer slows down and the fall sets in, shepherding darker days and colder temperatures, I become unsteady with anticipation of what will be. 

It’s during the colder weather that we see the biggest increase in young people seeking safety, shelter, food, and support. The colder streets make it unbearable to sleep outdoors. Even the most reluctant homeless youth turn to us when the chilling cold takes hold and cardboard boxes and layers of clothes can no longer keep them warm.The explosion of holiday cheer on our streets, through billboards, decorations, and holiday celebrations signal another wave of anticipation for me and the 300 staff members of the Ali Forney Center. When the world around us is embracing the holiday, planning celebrations, reuniting with family, and coming together, our kids are reminded that they are not welcome at home, they are not welcome to safety or to be loved because of who they are. 

And who are they? They are courageous, brave, beautiful souls who were born perfectly as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals. Tragically, the young people we see are denied love because of their identity. The irony that they are outcast from their families and denied love because of the love they have. 

Manuel, a 19 year old who has been living at the Ali Forney Center for less than a year, recalls coming to AFC as the fall set in. He fled his hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina after his mother went through his phone and found him texting with another boy. She told him she was disgusted by him and that she would rather die than to have a homosexual living in her home. He went to a friend’s house where he slept on a couch for a few nights. He tried to return home only to find his belongings on the curb and the locks changed.

Staying in North Carolina was painful for him and he was running out of places to sleep. He decided he needed to leave and bought a one way bus ticket to NYC. He arrived a few days before Christmas. He recalls waking up on a train one day to a family of four staring at him. The kids were holding gift bags and the parents had trays of food. They appeared to be going to a celebration. He was struck by how they looked at him. He was then faced with the reality of his hunger and the smell of food he would not be offered. Lastly, he thought about his family. He wondered how they’d be celebrating the holiday, what kind of gifts they would have for each other, what food they would be eating. He wondered if they even thought of him. As the family exited the train, he says he broke down and cried. He says the more he wanted to stop crying the more he cried. In the ensuing days Manuel says he became angry, in a way he says feeling angry shielded his pain. Manny learned about us after he went to a food pantry and told them his story. They offered Manny a referral which he calls a holiday gift that changed his life. 

He’s approaching a year with us, which also marks a year since his mother kicked him out. He’s starting to feel angry again and says he still doesn’t understand how his mother could be disgusted by him. In fact, he says that after all he’s been through, nothing has been more painful than his mother’s rejection. Like Manny, most of our clients experience a host of emotions around the holidays, largely painful ones rooted in being reminded that in a time when the world comes together and pauses, they are not welcome.

Manny’s story is the first of many you’ll be learning about this year. We are once again launching our annual Homeless for the Holidays campaign to give voice to the stories of our youth. Each year, the Ali Forney Center serves over 2,000 LGBTQ+ young people, each with their own stories, each with painful heartbreak and each with a promise for a better tomorrow.

Together, our community can show our youth that there is support. That there is hope. And that they are welcome in our chosen family. While the need is great, together our support is greater. 

While you are imagining gifts for your loved ones, we ask that you consider one more gift to add to your list this year. A generous member of our Advisory Board, Frank Godchaux, is matching gifts to this campaign up to $100,000.00. Your donation will now have twice the impact. Your support ensures that we can continue to serve all of the young people relying on our work, helps put almost 400,000 meals on the table, and helps us provide care and support for youth, like Manny, to help them build a future for themselves so that one day they will be able to host their own holiday parties with their own chosen, beautiful families.

With gratitude,

Alex Roque
President and Executive Director

Ethan's Story

Ethan is a 20-year-old transgender male. He moved around often with his mother while he was growing up. Ethan experienced long-term physical abuse from his mother and sexual abuse from his mother’s boyfriend beginning as early as he can remember. Sadly, school wasn’t a better refuge for Ethan as he experienced bullying in classrooms throughout childhood due to his gender identity and the pervasive transphobia young people face. Tragically, since the start of the pandemic, LGBTQ youth have experienced a significant increase in anxiety, depression, trauma, mental health crisis, and suicidal ideation. In fact, 85% of LGBTQ youth experienced detrimental declines to their mental health and well-being due to being forced to stay in unaffirming and homophobic or transphobic environments. A recent study states that half of LGBTQ youth in our country have contemplated suicide in the past six months. Things quickly worsened for Ethan when his mother took the place of school bullies. During the pandemic, Ethan, like many LGBTQ youth, was forced to further hide his identity, to fear family interaction, to deny who he is, and to be harassed and denied affirmation from his mother and her boyfriend. This led to a rapid decline in his mental health. Ethan woke up daily in a state of panic and crisis. One morning, after another barrage of insults from his mother and her boyfriend, Ethan took to the streets and vowed never to return. He felt safer on the streets. That’s when Ethan found the Ali Forney Center's Street Outreach Program. In a very short period of time, Ethan was connected to AFC’s services, where he slowly began to piece together his life, embracing the fact that there is nothing wrong with him, and that there is a world that accepts and affirms him. Ethan still experiences anxiety related to the abuse he experienced. Due to Ethan’s history, it was very challenging for him to open up in therapy. Art therapy provided an outlet for Ethan to connect to his therapist, which helped build trust and has led to Ethan being able to speak more openly about his history and emotions. He has committed to better understanding himself and has become an incredible advocate for his growth. We applaud Ethan and all that he has accomplished within our program. The journey to becoming your own advocate is essential, and Ethan’s story reminds us all that mental health is absolutely essential.

Vic's Story

Vic is a 19 year old Black gay man, who became homeless after fleeing his family’s home in Louisiana due to emotional and physical abuse. He tells us that he was often made to pray away his sins. He was told he was an abomination and that he needed to repent to be healed of his homosexuality. He came to AFC with very little belongings (a bible, a knapsack with a pair of clothes, and a picture of his family). He also had no knowledge about NYC. Like 40% of the young people we see each year, he fled to New York from his home state with hopes for acceptance, affirmation, and support. Prior to his escape, Vic spent time online planning his move. He saved up a little money for a bus ticket and food to eat while on the road to New York. While Vic was scared, he found comfort in the online photos of AFC and felt he would be safe. Upon arrival, Vic was offered a bed in our Drop In Overnight Program. AFC’s overnight program is a band-aid to a bigger issue. In NYC, there are an estimated 4,000 homeless young people and tragically, there are only about 1,000 beds for homeless youth. Each night, 4,000 youths are competing for 1,000 beds. This overnight program allows us to keep young people safe indoors overnight until a bed in our housing program becomes available. Youth are offered meals, showers, medical and mental health care, and a host of supportive and stabilizing services. Vic recalls his first few weeks in NYC trying to navigate the streets. He tells us he recalls being surrounded by hundreds of people and feeling so lonely. Gradually, the work he was doing with his therapist and case manager helped him overcome some truly dark days. Within a couple of months, Vic was accepted into AFC’s transitional housing program and over time he was able to make friends and begin to explore and learn the city. The Ali Forney Center collects rent from residents of our transitional housing program to help teach important financial management and budgeting practices. The rent payments are set aside into a savings account for each resident for when they graduate out of the program. Vic saved up enough while living in the transitional housing program to pay for first and last month’s rent to get his own apartment. Vic has now been living in his own studio apartment for several months. He continues to meet with his case manager and therapist regularly and is on an inspiring path towards independent living. He says he’s mostly happy and is no longer feeling lonely. With your help we’re able to help Vic and others like him build community when they are forced to flee their homes. We are proud to say that 80% of Ali Forney Center youth graduate from our program and retain self-sufficiency compared to the national average of 20% of homeless youth who are able to do so. Vic’s success is a testament to his power and your support has allowed us to show Vic just how powerful he really is.

Jessica's Story

Jessica is an 18-year-old Black transgender woman, born and raised in New York City. She came to AFC at age 17 after being discharged from a hospital following an attempted suicide. Jessica’s mother refused to pick her up or allow her to return home. In the weeks leading up to this attempt, Jessica experienced increasing violence, rejection, and transphobia from her community and school, though Jessica says her mother’s rejection was the most painful of all. She felt she could survive the abuse and rejection from her siblings, classmates, and community but that she never expected her mother was capable of such hate. Jessica breaks down when she talks about the abuse she experienced from her brothers and distant father. She says that at first the name-calling, beatings, and emotional abuse would pass, and her family would move to accept her, until she overheard her mother and brother discussing how "disgusted" they felt by her. She remembers looking in the mirror and starting to believe them. It was at that moment that she began a devastating decline into self harming behavior and attempts against her own life. Jessica has stabilized tremendously since first coming to AFC. After two months in our emergency shelter, she moved into our Transgender Housing Program. Jessica calls her housemates in that program her sisters. She said having friends and community for the first time in her life has been healing her and shows her that there is nothing wrong with who she is. Jessica is finishing school through our onsite classroom and works part time. She’s proud of herself, and we are too. Jessica still yearns for her mother’s acceptance and love. Through her work in our mental health programs, we’re helping to heal those wounds.

Maria's Story

Maria is an 18 year old transgender woman who grew up with her grandmother in Guatemala and came to AFC at age 17. Maria recalls being very happy living with her grandmother, who was affirming of her identity. She and her grandmother would take long walks dreaming of moving to America. When her grandmother passed away, Maria was forced to live on the streets where gangs and street violence consumed her innocence. Maria was forced into unspeakable gang work, she was drugged, sexually assaulted, beaten, and threatened often. Gang violence against transgender women and gay men is rampant in certain parts of the world. Transgender women are often forced into transporting drugs and used for their bodies. A staggering number of young transgender women were part of the immigrant caravan of 2016. Tragically, upon arrival in the US many were placed in men’s shelters where they were further abused, ostracized, and beaten. Over the years, AFC has been able to partner with a number of refugee service agencies to support LGBTQ refugees. Maria was able to find a small community of transgender young women, like herself, who were planning an escape to the United States. She made it to the United States where she was detained at a men’s shelter. She was kept in isolation for six months before she was released to the Ali Forney Center through our work with asylum seekers. Maria is accessing our Spanish speaking services where she is beginning to rebuild her life and has support from her case manager to navigate the web of bureaucracy to get on her feet in her new home. When she arrived at AFC, her primary goal and motivator was to begin hormones. Due to her age, parental consent would be needed for her to engage in care. Because of how unsafe it would be to contact her family, Maria had to wait a full year before beginning her medical transition. During this time she was able to work closely with AFC’s Trans Services Coordinator to identify and obtain non medical gender affirming items, while making sure everything was prepared for her turning 18 and being able to determine her own care. Since her birthday, Maria has been able to start taking estrogen and feels marked improvement in depression.

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