As Carl Siciliano can tell you, an endorsement from a "Golden Girl" can go a long way.
The Ali Forney Center's executive director gushes about his 2005 experience with Bea Arthur, best known to audiences as Dorothy Zbornak on the iconic 1980s sitcom. When she was first introduced to the center -- dedicated to providing a "safe, dignified, nurturing" environment for homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth -- the actress was so impressed, she agreed to reprise her one-woman Broadway show, raising more than $40,000 for the organization along with a personal donation.
It turned out to be a particularly fortuitous moment, as the actress quickly became too ill to continue her tour. "For me, Bea wasn't just an icon, she was a voice of progressive thinking," Siciliano recalled. "To have someone of her prominence and cultural significance care about us and our organization meant so much to me."
These days, Siciliano is certainly worthy of more than just celebrity praise. Since the organization's 2002 founding (done, he says, on a mere $37,000), the Ali Forney Center has grown into the nation's largest organization dedicated to LGBT homeless youth. The New York-based organization now takes in about 1,000 children and teens each year from all over the country through both its emergency housing and transitional housing programs.
As Siciliano notes, the statistics for homeless LGBT youth are indeed staggering: In New York City, for example, a gay teen is eight times more likely to experience homelessness than a heterosexual teen, and nationally, 25 percent of all LGBT teens do not live at home. In his own words, Siciliano said his organization aims to "provide the structure, guidance and support" that LGBT kids need from their families and their communities, not just through housing, but also through medical and mental health care.
The 46-year-old Connecticut native said he conceived of the Ali Forney Center after years of humanitarian work in local soup kitchens and homeless shelters. With many organizations run by religious or other faith-based institutions, LGBT youths -- many of whom had already been thrown out of their homes by parents -- were then subject to additional bullying and physical assault at standard shelters.
Siciliano said the mental turning point in his conception of the organization was when Ali Forney -- a homeless gay teen he had befriended and for whom the center is now named -- was killed on the streets in 1997. To this day, Forney's murderer has never been identified.
"I was devastated when he died, but ultimately, I felt that the gay community had failed, because no one was doing anything about it," he said. "Here we were as a movement, encouraging kids to come out … and kids were doing so and being treated like garbage. It was the most terrible expression of homophobia imaginable, and I still don't think it's recognized as one of the most terrible afflictions in either the gay or the broader communities."
The increasing visibility of the gay rights movement has also contributed to a higher number of LGBT youths who end up homeless -- a fact not far from the Ali Forney Center team it begins negotiations with New York City for a revised contract that would include enough room for 20 more beds.
Fortunately, many Ali Forney Center clients have since gone on to impressive careers -- among them Isis King, best known as the first transgender contestant on "America's Next Top Model," who was once a member of the center's transitional housing program, which provides living and work support.
And Siciliano even has an extra special thank you in mind for that "Golden Girls" star who touched his heart six years ago, with plans for a new Lower East Side location to be named the Bea Arthur Residence after the late actress, whose ultimate act of beneficence came with a $300,000 posthumous donation from her estate.
"She really was one of the first people who got it," he said. "I think it's a core value of humanity for us to protect our kids … it's our job to provide them with an environment that affirms them for who they are."
For more information on the Ali Forney Center, click here.