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.