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U.S.: Budget Cuts Threaten Handful of Beds for Homeless Youth

NEW YORK, Mar 30 2011 (IPS) - When Malika, 21, fled her parents’ house in the U.S. state of Virginia three years ago to escape a forced marriage in Iran, she did not expect to end up homeless and living in shelters.

“When I came to New York City, I had contact with a lady who used to live in Queens,” she told IPS.

The woman promised to take care of her, but kicked her out after three weeks and kept all the money Malika had given her. “That’s how I came to be on the streets,” she told IPS in a choked-up voice.

Malika went from shelter to shelter. She stayed two and a half months at Covenant House, then spent a short time at Sylvia’s Place, before coming to the Ali Forney Centre for four months. From there, she applied to get a bed at Green Chimney, which has housed her since 2009.

Meanwhile, she also went to Callen-Lorde, a community health centre for LGBT people, which helped her with hormone treatment. As “a woman of transgender experience,” Malika is statistically more likely to become homeless and faces greater dangers than other homeless youth.

Fighting homelessness with a "strong mind"

One of the Ali Forney Centre's rescued youth, Raciel Castillo, is a 19- year-old fashion student full of ambition. Last year, he led the advocacy campaign to keep shelter beds in New York City when Mayor Michael Bloomberg threatened to cut funding.

So when Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled the same frightening idea earlier this year, he naturally fought against it.

In addition to being part of the activists who went to Albany on Mar. 15, he wrote a letter to the governor, asking him to "understand that this will put lives (of homeless youth) at risk."

"It is hard to be a homeless kid, having nowhere to stay and feeling alone and unwanted. For me the worst part was feeling hopeless," he said in his letter.

Notwithstanding, Castillo told IPS he is not giving in to despair, and thanks to his "strong mind", he can affirm that homelessness "doesn't ruin (his) life."

"I have a job, I'm in school, I may even have an internship," he said. "Everything is working well."

But he acknowledged he has been "lucky," never experiencing literally living on the streets thanks to the shelters.

He told IPS he left his father in New Jersey to put an end to their fighting over his homosexuality. Once in New York, he stayed at Covenant House and applied for a bed at the Ali Forney Centre, which he obtained after 45 days of waiting. "I don't think that's a very long time, but when living on the streets, it is," he said.

Castillo recalled the story of one friend who had been thrown out of a place he was renting in the Bronx, and who only saw one option left: engaging in unsafe sex with a man who would provide him shelter in return. Fortunately, Costillo persuaded his friend to apply instead to social services.

Now, Castillo is waiting for Ellen DeGeneres, an openly gay celebrity, to answer his call to discuss the issue of homeless youth on her popular television talk and raise awareness on a wider scale.

Carl Siciliano has dedicated his life to helping homeless youth in New York City. He founded the Ali Forney Centre in 2002, named after a homeless young man from the queer community who was murdered in 1997.

The LGBT youth community has “extraordinarily high rates of attempting to commit suicide,” he said, adding that while 29 percent of heterosexual homeless youth attempt suicide, the rate is 62 percent in the LGBT homeless community.

“Most of them have no way to support themselves other than prostitution, and that puts them at very high risk of HIV infection,” Siciliano said. “Twenty percent of the young people that come to the Ali Forney Centre for help are HIV- positive.”

Malika is one of the relatively lucky ones, since she benefits from one of the 300 beds for youth on offer in the city.

There are nearly 4,000 young people living on the streets in the Big Apple, according to a 2008 report by the Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services.

Despite this tiny number of shelter beds, Governor Andrew Cuomo reached an agreement on Sunday with state legislators to cut funding to the State’s Runaway and Homeless Youth Programme, as part of a plan to reduce the deficit in the 2011-2012 budget agreement.

The budget cuts, which will be voted on Thursday, are “reckless and irresponsible”, according to Siciliano.

“We need more beds and more support, [but] the support for the runaways and homeless youth shelters [would be slashed] from the current amount of 4.7 million dollars to 2.35 million dollars – and it has to be understood that in 2007 this amount was actually 6.7 million dollars,” he pointed out.

Rachel Lloyd, executive director and founder of GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services), told IPS that “Young people who were vulnerable before this law came into effect are going to be 10-fold more vulnerable upon this.”

Under the new law, GEMS would be forced to abandon some of its 13 beds. Green Chimney, a national non-profit organisation that provides care to children, fears that the law would likewise affect some of its 22 transitional living beds.

Teresa Nolan, the group’s division director of New York City programmes, explained to IPS that state funding is relatively indirect. “We don’t get funding directly from the state. It goes through the NYC Department for Youth and Community Development,” she said. But the cuts would still trickle down, she said.

Lloyd, a former homeless youth herself, recalled “sleeping on people’s couches and at the train stations.”

“Having a home, having somewhere to live, is the most basic of all your foundation to live,” she told IPS.

“It’s very easy to forget how awful it is to be homeless,” she said. “I have to remind myself sometimes how incredibly blessed I am to have somewhere to live.”

She acknowledged that homelessness is self-perpetuating, since no address and no shower hamper the ability to find a job, and no job means no way to pay rent.

The budget law is “scary for anybody who’s working with young people, and frankly for young people who are aware of what’s about to happen,” she said.

GEMS is currently working in an advocacy coalition that includes the Ali Forney Centre, Green Chimneys, The Door, Covenant House, Inwood House, Safe Space, Good Shepherd’s Chelsea Foyer and the Empire State Coalition of Runaway and Homeless Youth.

Together, they demonstrated in the state capital of Albany on Mar. 15 to convince legislators to drop the cuts, since the only result would be more young people on the streets.

“The people of New York State [need to put pressure on the governor to make him understand] that this is not something humane, it’s not something that reflects our values as a people,” Siciliano said.

“I don’t think that people want to see homeless kids turned away from the shelters and thrown into the streets,” he said, adding he is nevertheless optimistic given the high mobilisation of people who signed petitions on the website – over 20,000 people – and Care2 – almost 10,000.

“Even if they approve … the budget, I’m still going to fight to get this funding source,” he told IPS. “I’m not going to give up.”

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