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New York Homeless Youth Budget Restored But Worries Linger

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Young people who frequent the Ali Forney Center raise awareness about homeless gay teens.
Young people who frequent the Ali Forney Center raise awareness about homeless gay teens.

NEW YORK -- On Tuesday afternoon, a dozen or so young people milled around a crowded reception room at the Ali Forney Center, an organization that provides housing for the city's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender homeless youth.

They waited for a shower, a sandwich, an HIV test or an art therapy session. Most of all, they waited for a bed.

Paris Perez, 21, a transgender woman who has been homeless for about two and a half years, could barely conceal her excitement. On Tuesday morning she learned that after a six's month wait, she had moved off the waiting list. For the next six months, she would be able to sleep in one of the center's 77 beds. "I'm trying to be normal now, but when I get out of here I'm going to be running in the streets screaming," Perez said.

Also on Tuesday, City Councilman Lewis Fidler told The Huffington Post that $7 million in cuts to homeless youth services will be restored to next year's budget to match the previous year's funding. The mayor's initial proposed budget would have cut 60 percent from the current funding for homeless youth services, eliminating about 160 of 259 shelter beds. The budget will be voted on later this week by the City Council.

Homeless youth advocates, who protested the cuts last month in front of City Hall, breathed a partial sigh of relief.

"In terms of my terror that we would lose beds, I'm grateful that that's not the case," said Carl Siciliano, executive director of the Ali Forney Center. "But on a deeper level, you know, I'm turning away kids every day who have nowhere to stay. Most of them turn to prostitution; enormous numbers are being infected with AIDS."

The city has 4,000 homeless youth, according to the latest estimate, and funds shelter beds for just 10 percent of them, Siciliano said. Waiting lists are growing, especially at centers like Ali Forney that cater to LGBT youth, who make up about 40 percent of New York City's homeless young people. At the Ali Forney Center, the waiting list increased by 199 individuals last year, a 40 percent increase over the previous year's.

Siciliano is the leader of the Campaign for Youth Shelter, a coalition of LGBT providers and advocates that called on the city last month to restore $7 million sliced from the 2013 budget proposal, plus add an additional $3 million in funds to finance 100 new shelter beds. Fidler, who chairs the Council's Youth Services Committee, said he pushed for the additional funds, to no avail. "To the last breath I told them, if there's any money lying on the table someplace, that's where they should put it," he said.

One of the few budget areas in the city slated to receive additional funding were child care and after-school programs, according to Fidler.

"I'm satisfied at least that we didn't take a step backwards," Fidler said. Ultimately, strong after-school and child-care programs can reduce the need for homeless services, by catching family problems early on and by providing kids with more structured lives after classes end, Fidler said.

Many of the young people at Ali Forney became homeless after coming out to their parents. When Perez told her mom she was transgender, her mother left their Brooklyn apartment and moved with her younger sister to Pennsylvania, leaving behind Perez to fend for herself. "She couldn't deal with it," said Perez, shrugging.

Afterward, Perez couch surfed for a couple of months. When she couldn't find a couch, she slept on the A train, the roof of a friend's building or in city parks. Recently she has been staying at a shelter that doesn't specialize in gay youth, where staffers referred to her by her "government-issued name and 'he,'" Perez said.

At Ali Forney, it's a different world, Perez said, pointing to the art covering the walls of one room. During an art therapy class, participants in programs -- even those who don't have a shelter bed -- can work on art projects to "vent it out," as Perez put it. Colorful abstract drawings, cardboard cutouts and a paper totem pole lined the walls. "It's just so good to see that the staff actually takes the time to keep your stuff," Perez said.

When asked about the city's budget, Perez raised her arms in exasperation. "You see a problem, and we know how it's going to be fixed: beds," she said. Perez has recently begun classes at a beauty school and hopes to graduate so she can find a job and make it on her own. "That bed makes a whole complete difference. When I'm in a bed, I can wake up recharged and go out and apply for a job. Without a bed..." she paused and sunk into silence.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the HIV test as an "AIDS test."

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