There is reality, and then there are people who deny reality, especially the parts of reality that are painful or horrifying.
We have climate change deniers, those who refuse to accept the overwhelming scientific evidence for human-driven climate change. And there is a small fringe group that denies that the Holocaust occurred, despite the terrible evidence of the concentration camps and the testimony of survivors. And now we have Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, who this week denied that homeless people sleep on the streets of his city.
Mayor Bloomberg's recent comment that "no one is sleeping on the streets," which he said after he was asked about a report that the city shelter system is turning away families during cold winter days, shocked the city's homeless advocates and anyone who has walked the streets of New York City.
I sometimes wonder how people who are immersed in the hard realities that are being denied cope when confronted by a denier. How does a scientist studying the massive environmental destruction resulting from our overheating planet react when their evidence is denied? How would a veteran who helped liberate Auschwitz and saw the emaciated survivors and the incinerators react if confronted by someone who denied it existed?
Now I wonder less, because I am a person deeply immersed in the lives of homeless New Yorkers. I run the Ali Forney Center, the nation's largest organization for homeless LGBT youth, and I am therefore confronted on a daily basis with the brutal reality that Mayor Bloomberg denies. New York City provides only 250 youth shelter beds for its estimated 3,800 homeless youth. At the Ali Forney Center we work with hundreds of kids who cannot access shelter beds and are forced to wait for weeks and even months on the streets.
For the past two years I have worked on a project called "Homeless for the Holidays," interviewing and photographing homeless LGBT youth during the winter months as they endure inhumane conditions while sleeping on the streets of New York City. I have gone with them to see the subway trains and park benches where they sleep. I have listened to them describe the pain, terror and despair they experience during those cold and lonely nights. And frankly, it infuriates me that our mayor would deny what these kids are suffering.
It is understandable that the realities that are denied are often those that are most difficult to cope with. The youth we work with certainly have a hard time coping with the reality of having to sleep on the streets. Many turn to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain. A great number turn to "survival sex" so that they might simply afford a room for a few nights. More than half of New York City's homeless LGBT youth admit to having considered or attempted suicide, so utterly overwhelmed are they by the reality of being forced to sleep on the streets after being rejected by their families.
Denying the suffering of NYC's homeless won't make them go away. Mayor Bloomberg's denial only perpetuates that suffering and degrades our city. To help him confront this reality that he has denied, I would invite him to meet with some of our kids and hear directly from them how they must wait for shelter beds, and about the terrible hardships that they endure while sleeping on the streets. The homeless youth of New York City need a mayor who recognizes their existence and understands their plight.
I am one of a number of LGBT advocates and providers working on the Campaign for Youth Shelter, which calls upon the mayor to commit to a plan to provide enough shelter beds for the homeless youth of New York City and put an end to this disgraceful situation where they must wait in the streets. We hope that he will stop denying their plight and instead face up to their desperate need for shelter, and face up to his moral and legal obligation as our mayor to respond.