Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Night at Sylvia’s Place

New York -- Dwayne became homeless last year when his mother and stepfather lost their apartment in Long Island, NY because of their drug addiction. The 22-year-old black man tells his story with a distant look, while playing with his long straightened hair, in his extra-small sleeveless tee shirt and tight flared trousers.

Kerrond started living on the streets after his adoptive father found out about his homosexuality. “He wanted to kill me,” he said. He had no one to turn to: his mother passed away a long time ago and his biological father is in jail. He has tried to find his way back to school in Harlem, but “it’s sometimes hard,” he said. He is only 18.

With her shaven head, 22-year-old Zahra D. has been homeless since she left her native Virginia almost a year ago. For a while, she stayed at her girlfriend’s apartment in New York, but it soon became too complicated to “sneak in and out,” the girl’s mother not being aware of Zahra’s presence.

The three companions in misfortune have found refuge at Sylvia’s Place, a food pantry and emergency shelter for homeless gay youths in Midtown Manhattan. It is housed inside the Metropolitan Community Church—a gay Christian church—and was named after Sylvia Rae Rivera, a civil rights activist and transgender woman. The shelter is a private organization funded by the church, grants and private donations.

At Sylvia’s Place, homeless gay youths can wash their clothes, take a shower and have a warm meal. They can also get counseling, help to find jobs, get back into school or find places of their own.

The center is on the first floor of the church, in a long, narrow room that looks like an old garage. Four big aluminum tables in the middle with big plates of food on them, several metallic chairs… And blaring pop music. Many of the residents spend time dancing together when they get there at night, a way to “take their minds off of their condition,” said Kate Barnhart, the director. The volunteers readily use the word “chaos” to define the place. Barnhart prefers to describe it as a “giant gay slumber party,” as she explained jokingly.

To be admitted, potential residents have to be between 16 and 23 years old and identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT), or “at least somewhere on the LGBT spectrum,” Barnhart said. They can come in between 8 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. and have to be gone by 7:45 a.m.

“The rules are simple: no violence, no homophobia, no stealing and no sex within or around the premises,” explained Geoffrey Ream, a volunteer social worker. Before coming in, if they have weapons, they have to give them to staff members who hold them for the night.

The living conditions are rudimentary: residents sleep in the same room on camp beds or on the floor in sleeping bags. Every once in a while, you can see a mouse scurrying about. But as one of the residents pointed out, “This is the shelter, not the Ritz.”

Sylvia’s Place is one of few shelters for gay youths that have opened in the country in the last decade. There are about thirty of them nationwide today. The number of homeless gay youth currently roaming the streets of American cities is hard to evaluate and there is no official count. One thing is for certain, the 70 beds that are available for them in New York are not enough, as Ream explained.

Barnhart said that gay youths cannot go to “regular” shelters because they get harassed by other residents there, and “sometimes even by social workers.” They usually arrive at Sylvia’ Place “traumatized by the shelter experience,” she added. In theory, they can stay for a maximum of 90 days at Sylvia’s Place but in reality, they remain in the shelter “until they really can go somewhere else,” Barnhart said.

The residents’ backgrounds vary widely. Some of them were thrown out of their homes while others fled abusive parents or caregivers who mistreated them because of their sexual orientation. Others had to leave households torn by poverty, illness (a number of them have parents infected with AIDS), and drug addiction. “Many of them are the children of the crack era,” Ream pointed out.

Meeka is a 21-year-old transgender woman. She left Tennessee in November to escape her abusive boyfriend and her parents, who rejected her. “They don’t associate with me,” she said. She is addicted to crack and prostitutes herself to buy it. “I’ m just my mama’s child [her mother is a prostitute]. It’s the only thing I’m good at,” she added. She gets her hormones on the black market because she does not want to go through the therapeutic process that the law requires for sex change. “I’m a rebel,” she said.

“We’re not going to kick them out for prostituting themselves,” Barnhart said. “We want them to feel like they can talk to us about it. We just provide a path out of it,” Barnhart said. “No matter how they make their money, we try to make sure they budget it,” she added.

The atmosphere sometimes gets tense at the shelter. One night, a fight breaks out between Tiffany, a transgender female, and Anthony, a young man. Very quickly, the volunteer pull them apart, with the help of some residents. “On a scale of 0 to 10, this is not even a 4. There was no real blow, no blood… We’ve had worse,” said Shawn Martella, a volunteer.

“We have learned to predict conflicts in advance and we try to intervene as early as we can to avoid the worst,” Barnhart added.

18-year-old Djia defines as a transgender woman. Her real name is Eric. She ended up at Sylvia’s Place after spending some time at New York St Vincent Hospital to treat her bipolarity. When she was discharged, she quickly ended up living on the streets. She admits that she does not know where she would be if she had not found Sylvia’s Place. “This shelter doesn’t look like much, but it’s a wonderful place,” she said.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Viability of 3rd Party Candidates

It's no secret that I root for the blue side of Washington's divide. But, in truth, I'm a third party candidate kind of guy. In 2000 (my first participation in American democracy), I voted for Ralph Nader. In 2004, assured that Kerry would carry my home state of Illinois, I voted for Green Party candidate David Cobb. My justification was simple; in addition to the inherent attraction of the underdog, I believed that neither the Democrats nor Republicans would bring about the magnitude of change America really needs. I still don't.

But, here in 2008, I cover the Colorado senate race for my website, The Seminal, and in doing so I've focused on Democratic candidate Mark Udall and Republican candidate Bob Schaffer. I've ignored the 3rd party candidates; Buddy Moore (independent) and Bob Kinsey (Green Party),

As you can gather from my voting history, the exclusion is not ideological. In fact, I fall closer to Kinsey and Moore on the political spectrum than I do Udall. Some illustrative quotes:

From Bob Kinsey's website
The major issue of this race is "Respect Life!" Not in the simplistic sense employed by those who use this motto to make abortion the litmus test for their vote. My chief value is about respecting all Life. Government should be about setting policies that insure we have life on this planet to the "7th Generation". Respecting life requires us to exercise judgment and discipline concerning the vehicles we drive, the housing patterns we build, the new jobs we create. Uncontrolled growth is the ideology of a cancer cell.

From Buddy Moore's website
The idea that there will always be a hungry, principled, independent media to watch over and protect our freedoms has been corrupted. While it appears that there is vast and varied media working hard to keep the public informed, the majority of information presented is tainted by commercial interest. Not only do the mega corporations like big oil, the insurance industry, defense industry, pharmaceutical industry and consumer electronics want to influence the media, they have taken over and own the media. Much of the news we receive over the television, in print, over the internet and on radio is fashioned by the mega corporations. They dictate much of the news reporting to their profit and future designs.

In my ideal world, Colorado would choose one of these two candidates, not Democrat Mark Udall. So, why am I not covering them?

The situation is a catch-22; if I focus on my first two choices Buddy Moore and Bob Kinsey, I'll be hurting my second choice, Mark Udall, and strengthening the candidacy of sweatshop-apologist Bob Schaffer. Additionally, I've only so many hours to devote to writing, so when I get around to a Co-Sen post it makes more sense to support the more viable candidate.

But that answer isn't very satisfying -- one of the reasons 3rd party candidates can't win is because they get little media attention, they get little media attention because they have access to fewer resources, they have fewer resources because they get little media attention, and so on and so forth.

Third-party candidates are the butt of jokes here in the United States, but Ross Perot's success in 1992 is nothing to laugh at. He received just under 20 million votes, nearly half Clinton's 44 million. And that 20 million would've been higher, perhaps considerably higher, if Perot hadn't sapped his own momentum by reconsidering his bid. Contrary to popular opinion, there is room for a 3rd, even a 4th, party in the United States. We just have to decide if we're willing to make room for it.

This year, I'm not.

9/11 Effects

by Mike Weiss

“I wasn’t even supposed to be there. I was on hiatus up in Albany at Governor Pataki’s office trying to get funding for breast cancer research. So when I got the call I said I wasn’t going to respond to this,” said Minna Barrett. “Lucky for me on the way home I went through the tunnel, and ran into the deployment center right there.”

At 9/11 Barrett worked for the Red Cross, serving as the night coordinator for the at first 750 mental health workers who were deployed in the first week, a number which would soon swell to 1,500-2,000. Her workers were there at Ground Zero around the clock, at every rescue.

“We had workers falling and tripping over dead bodies at the deployment scene. Bodies with eyes popped out, heads off, arms. We had people who experienced bodies cut in half, heads lopped off and hundreds and hundreds of people falling. One construction worker picked up a steel girder and there was a body twisted up inside the girder.”

When not on duty with the Red Cross, Barrett works as a psychology professor at the SUNY Old Westbury campus. Soon after 9/11 she helped set up the WTC Family Center, a counseling resource for WTC responders, survivors and family members as an adjunct to the South Nassau Communities Hospital. The center works out of a storefront in Baldwin, Long Island.

It was for this work that she won the Sarah Haley Memorial Award from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, presented to her in Toronto in 2005.

“There were thousands of people effected,” Barrett said of 9/11. “It took them eight and a half months to close the place. No one knows how many people worked the site. They estimate somewhere between 45,000, 50,000 to 125,000 people worked that scene.”

Nearly seven years later, Barrett is still seeing new patients coming into her center for the first time. She knows full well the different faces of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with its depression, substance abuse and anxieties. She’s also gotten angrier listening to their stories, hearing again and again how the government failed to warn workers of the health risks, how city agencies often treated their workers as criminals when their only crime was trying to defend their country.

“You don’t know the stress these guys are under,” she said. “Straight-up, blue collar guys, honest hard-workers, like out of the 1950s. All they wanted to do was their jobs and now they feel betrayed – by Giuliani, Bloomberg. They didn’t understand what was happening to them.”

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Whole is Even Worse Than its Parts

Lately, the courageous, hard-hitting anchors at ABC have been criticized for their questions during the Pennsylvania debate.

Even the normally bovine audience turned against Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos and booed them for cutting to yet another commercial. I'm sure they felt the same as me--"Good God, let it end!"--and they couldn't even switch over to sports.

I feel sorry for the anchors, the pair are only cogs in a much larger wheel. A wheel that started rolling in 1980 when Ted Turner founded CNN. Eventually, 24 Hour News would become a central part of American's lives, and the soundbite would evolve into the preferable method for transmitting information.

This is certainly unfortunate, having been in academia for the last seven years I prefer my information spiked with a shot of prolix. But, in the information age everything needs to fit into a search bar.

Type in "Bitter, Obama" "Hilary, sniper fire" or "McCain, 100 years," you'll get all the information you could ever need. Essentially, those eight words sum up the campaign coverage on the 24 hour news networks for the last month.

But, apparently, Gibson and Steph figured we could all use a little more and the all important issue of lapel pins and radical acquaintances reared its ugly head yet again.

To many people these non-issues seem to be just what they are-a total waste of time. But I have actually heard people say "Ah just cain't vote for no man that don't wear a flag" and "I ain't gon vote for no Muslim."

The first rule of TV with high ratings is play to the Lowest Common Denominator, and you know Gibson and Steph had this in mind when they unleashed that barrage of stupidity on Obama.

No vote, no voice, no election coverage

The first two times that Yessica Ramírez tried to cross the border between Mexico and the United States, she and her child ended up in an American holding cell with nothing more than a couple of blankets between them and the frigid floor. Border Patrol guards gave her ugly looks and ignored her requests for food and water. Her baby boy became sick.

On her third try, she walked right in, slipping across the 2,000-mile long border and into the Texas desert. Eventually, Yessica and her son made their way to New York where they joined her husband, a busboy, also undocumented. Her name has been changed to protect her identity.

But for all that she found in this country—a job, an apartment in Staten Island, a new life above the poverty line—Yessica aches for what she left behind: the mild winters, her parents and siblings, a friendlier way of life. Most of all, however, she misses her voice.

Like many undocumented immigrants in the U.S., Yessica is terrified that speaking out or even attending a protest will lead to her deportation. Her life consumed by fear, she is haunted by the possibility that she and her children will be grabbed and taken back to Mexico, away from her husband and six years of hard-earned savings.

Yessica’s story is by no means uncommon. Of the more than 12 million undocumented immigrants estimated to live in the U.S., a majority is Hispanic. Hispanics now make up the largest minority group in the country, edging out blacks at around 15 percent of the total population. New York, a city of roughly eight million, is home to more than half a million undocumented immigrants and three million total immigrants.

Yet, after flaring up in 2006, immigration and immigration reform have once again fallen into the shadows of American politics, obscured from view by the personalities and personal defects of the “big three” presidential candidates: Senators Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain. When the American media does address policy differences among the candidates, the nascent economic recession and the war in Iraq receive top billing. Immigration reform is becoming a problem indefinitely deferred.

For undocumented immigrants like Yessica, already reticent to engage in political debate out of fear of recriminations, this national silence over immigration has left them in a dangerous limbo, unrepresented and afraid.

When asked if she joined the hundreds of thousands of Americans and immigrants who demanded the reform of immigration policies in 2006, Yessica shook her head.

“Just look what happened to Señora Elvira,” she said, alluding to Elvira Arellano, an undocumented immigrant who took refuge in a Chicago church for a year to avoid separation from her U.S.-born son. Arellano, who became a national symbol for the need for reform, was deported in 2006, without her son.

In this sense, Yessica’s story is typical of Mexican immigrants to New York and elsewhere in the U.S. Vulnerable to exploitation by their employers and others, their “illegal” status means that they often have little legal recourse available.

Instead of protesting, Yessica dedicates her life to working and saving money. She stomachs the discrimination towards Hispanics that she sees from time to time—the occasional leer or insult on the bus, a suspicious look—afraid that complaining would only bring attention to her, instead of the problem. She lives “between her job and her house,” afraid that even joining a march for immigrants’ rights will result in her deportation and separation from her family.

Many undocumented immigrants focus on the small things they feel will lead to citizenship: paying taxes, saving money, and raising a family.

“I have two children, I don’t take food stamps, no welfare. I don’t want to depend on the government,” said Sergio P. Sergio grew up in a small town in the state of Puebla, Mexico, before coming to the U.S. at age 15.

“That’s how I am. I don’t want to become a citizen only for them to say, ‘oh, you took this, you took that,’” he said. He takes English and computer skills classes, hoping to leave his job in a pizzeria and become a computer repairman.

In New York, immigrants’ rights organizations are drawing increasing attention, often to the residency status of their members.

José Gutiérrez, a member of one such organization, said that he worries that things will get more dangerous in the months to come, as the organization shifts its criticism from abusive landlords to city officials who fail to regulate them. His name has also been changed to protect his identity.

Unable to vote, life offers undocumented immigrants a choice between silence and controversy. Unless one of the presidential candidates takes up the issue of immigration reform before this fall, the voices of millions of the newest Americans will remain unheard.

Coyotes of the Legal System

Many have heard about the infamous border “coyotes” -- informal guides that bring immigrants illegally across the border for a fee –- yet few know about the malicious “coyote” of the legal system –- the notario publico.

In Mexico and countries in Latin America, a notario publico is a legally recognized lawyer. In the United States, "notario publico" is just a notary public -- a person that can administer oaths and be a witness for signatures. It is simply the literal translation of "notary public" into Spanish.

For a spring break reveler in Mexico with limited Spanish, adding “el” before and “o” after English words is a shortcut to at least poor Spanish as many words are similar in both languages. For the Latino immigrant who arrives at the doorstep of “el notario publico”, these similarities can be catastrophic.

Notary publics masquerading as "notarios publicos" present themselves to Spanish-speaking immigrants as immigration lawyers. They offer their alleged connections and expertise to help guide their unknowing clients in obtaining legal residence for them and their families. Of course this information has a price that is usually in the thousands, according to the Legal Services of New Jersey. But the money is not all immigrants have to lose.

According to Christina Baal of Cabrini Immigration Services, the notario publico may also file an application for legal residency for that person--even if there is no chance of obtaining it. The state creates a file on the applicant and a court date is set up.

“Sometimes the immigrants don't know what the NTA (“notice to appear”) letter means, and they show up in front of the immigration judge and end up barred from the country,” said immigration lawyer Tom Shea.

These notario publicos operate with impunity knowing that, as immigrants, the clients have little legal recourse, even if the victims are brave enough to contact the authorities.

Sometimes the fraud isn't revealed until after the client's application has been rejected.

“Many agencies won't touch them (the applicant's cases) because it is often complicated to re-open a case with a removal order,” said Shea.

Criminal notary publics in the U.S. often have their offices in latino neighborhoods where Spanish dominates the billboards and shop windows. In Texas, it is illegal to literally translate the phrase “notary public” into Spanish because of the widespread fraud resulting from the difference in definition.

“The saddest part is that the notario is usually someone who was an immigrant themselves, and they knowingly deceive people, sometimes from the same area that they come from,” said Shea. For a Latino immigrant in an unknown country without connections, a friendly, Spanish-speaking, immigration lawyer who knows the ropes can be a godsend –- or just a coyote in a lawyer's clothing.