As someone whose job it is to protect homeless LGBT youth, I am terrified by the budget agreement that has been reached by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the leaders of the New York State Legislature.
Most profoundly, I am terrified for the lives of the teens who will be discarded onto the streets as youth shelters reduce services or close altogether. The past few years have seen a progressive erosion of State support for youth shelters. In 2007, $6.8 million in state funds supported 70 programs statewide. By 2010 that amount had been reduced to $4.7 million, and the youth shelters were on life support. The current agreement cuts the already reduced amount in half to $2.35 million, a cut that will lead to the loss of hundreds of youth shelter beds, and will lead to thousands more homeless teens being forced to survive alone on the streets.
All homeless youth face terrible risks on the streets, with LGBT youth, who make up 40% of our city's homeless youth, being the most endangered. Back in the 1990's, when I was the director of a drop-in center for homeless teens in Times Square, and there were fewer shelter resources available, I knew seven homeless teens who were murdered on the streets of New York City; five of them were LGBT. Recent studies show that homeless youth are at terrible risk of suicide, with 29% of heterosexual teens admitting suicide attempts and 62% of LGBT youths admitting the same. Other studies document the extraordinary risk homeless LGBT youth face from HIV. With so many forced to resort to prostitution to survive, 20% of the homeless LGBT teens served by the Ali Forney Center come to us HIV-positive. As certain as it is that night follows day, so is it also certain that the closure of hundreds of shelter beds will inflict violence, suicide and HIV infection on scores of the youths soon to be abandoned to the streets by the State.
I am further terrified when I consider this man, Andrew Cuomo, whom we have elected to lead our State. How can he present himself as an ally and supporter of the LGBT community, and simultaneously inflict this deadly harm on our community's most vulnerable children? How can he claim to support our families as he pushes for marriage equality, yet at the same time be so insensitive to the safety and welfare of our teens who have been forced into homelessness after being brutally rejected by their families? How can he disregard our commitment to protect our most vulnerable youth after the terrible rash of suicides that have horrified and galvanized the LGBT community?
Also disturbing is the fact that Governor Cuomo is not only abandoning homeless teens - he is abandoning his own principles. In the early 1990's he served as the Commissioner of Homeless Services under Mayor Dinkins, and in 1997 was appointed by President Clinton to serve as the Secretary of the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. With a decade of his life spent overseeing the protection of the homeless, both on a local and national level, he is uniquely aware of their pain and suffering. It is a terrible spectacle to witness this man undoing so much of his life's work through his budget that will force thousands of New Yorkers into homelessness, both children and adults.
There is widespread speculation that the Governor's budget priorities are being driven by his presidential ambitions. That his efforts to balance the budget by gutting services for the weak and vulnerable without asking anything of the wealthy and privileged, are an attempt to appeal to independent voters by positioning himself as a centrist who stands up to special interests. I don't think homeless children, LGBT or otherwise, are "special interests," but I as I look on the frightened youths who are soon to be turned back to the streets I shudder to think that they may be sacrificed to Governor Cuomo's dreams of occupying the Oval Office.
Finally, I am terrified for the people of New York. What does it say about us if the Governor believes it is politically acceptable to throw helpless children to the streets and force them to fend for themselves? It implies an assumption that we do not care about the safety of youth, and have a reckless disregard for their welfare. For the sake of thousands of homeless youths whose lives are dependent on the mercy and caring of New York State and of its citizens, I pray that he is wrong. Somehow, I hope we can find a way to get these funds restored.
Follow Carl Siciliano on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AliForneyCenter