For homeless LGBTQ youth, a rough pandemic year promises an even harder winter

When August Forest’s mother kicked him out of her house in 2016 after he came out as a transgender man, the 24-year-old moved in with his grandmother and uncle, who were more accepting of his gender identity. Still, he found himself homeless at the beginning of the pandemic because of his uncle’s worsening alcoholism and physical abuse.

For several months, Forest moved around Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, occasionally sleeping on friends’ couches and shelters that allowed him in. He began tutoring after he graduated from the Borough of Manhattan Community College and hopes to enroll into an EMT training program. 

August Forest, a young transgender man experiencing homelessness, has had a difficult time finding shelter during the pandemic. (Photo/Hani Albarghouthi)

Still, the pandemic has left Forest with fewer options for housing. Several LGBTQ shelters where he would feel safe have closed their doors to new residents because of the outbreak.

His experience with homelessness has been made worse because he currently presents as a young woman, Forest says. He does not feel safe in a men’s shelter yet, due to his physical appearance.

“I had someone try to film me using the bathroom outside, so I couldn’t even use it because this guy was being a pervert,” says Forest, who is staying at an assessment shelter for women and people assigned female at birth. “Last month, someone tried to kidnap me in the middle of the f***ing street at 11 p.m.”

For LGBTQ youth who, like Forest, became homeless during the pandemic, and for those who were already experiencing homelessness, a difficult situation became even more untenable in March. 

After the pandemic hit New York, homeless shelters, nonprofits and medical providers had to stop or severely limit the services they offered to clients, including LGBTQ youth who are more likely to experience homelessness than their counterparts who are straight and those who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth. Some are still unable to provide the same level of help as before, sacrificing some vital services for the community. 

One program that severely curtailed its services was The Ali Forney Center, which runs homeless shelters and drop-in centers for LGBTQ youth. In March, drop-in services stopped so the staff could support the shelter program while limiting exposure to Covid-19, according to Bill Torres, the director of drop-in support services. This meant that for months the center could no longer allow homeless youth to spend the night, nor could it offer meals, showers, HIV support, mental health services or case management. 

Ali Forney is not the only program with drop-in centers that had to do that, says Jamie Powlovitch. She is the executive director of the New York State Coalition for Homeless Youth, an advocacy group representing 67 homeless shelter agencies, 29 of which are in New York City. 

Out of eight city-funded drop-in centers across the five boroughs, only one continued to provide all the services it is contracted to offer with the city, while the rest restricted or shut down services entirely. 

“Countless young people that received basic support, either because they were unstably housed or street homeless, lost their lifeline,” said Powlovitch. 

Homeless shelters and drop-in centers were not considered essential service providers when the state and city began distributing personal protective equipment in March and were unable to receive surgical masks until July. To make up for the deficit, the coalition teamed up with a group of drag artists around the city to produce cloth masks for its clients who experience homelessness. 

Clinics that offered services to the demographic also had to shut down or move their work online, limiting access to crucial healthcare needs. HIV positivity rates within the coalition’s community are high compared to the general population and correlate with sex work. This also makes them more susceptible to severe symptoms of Covid-19. 

The pandemic also left homeless shelters with a record number of vacant beds since many opted not to accept new residents out of fear of Covid-19 exposure, especially during the first wave, Powlovitch said. This includes some of the youth shelters her coalition represents.

Advocates are concerned that this may affect future funding for these agencies. They also know that having empty beds means there are youth on the streets who are not sleeping in them. 

“The city is going to use this as a way of saying, ‘We told you all these kids could go home anyway.’ Because that’s always the narrative, that young people can go home but they just don’t want to,” she says.

Powlovich works with the volunteers from Youth Action Board, who during the pandemic began calling every city shelter that they know is accepting new residents every night to compile a list of vacant beds and send it out to a mailing list of people they know are experiencing homelessness. 

The Youth Action Board is a makeshift support group for LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness. One of its organizers is Elizabeth Sutter, who lives at the Bea Arthur residence of the Ali Forney Center in the East Village but found herself stuck outside the shelter for the first few months of the pandemic.

When Sutter started experiencing unexplained pressure in her chest and head in March, the shelter’s management told her she had to find somewhere else to sleep after she left repeatedly for doctor appointments. The center allowed residents to leave for only 90 minutes per day as a safety precaution during the pandemic, and that was not enough time for her to get to Brooklyn and back, she says. 

Elizabeth Sutter, 22, could not return to her shelter in the early months of the pandemic. (Photo/Hani Albarghouthi)

The 22-year-old found herself forced to live with her family again, almost two years after she was kicked out of their Brooklyn home. She had not spoken to them during those two years, following a fight with her family that was a culmination of years of verbal and physical altercations between them. 

“It was definitely a challenge, especially since I had not really been in communication with her,” said Sutter, who, in her volunteer work with the Youth Action Board, encounters many people who did not have the option of returning to their homes, even toxic ones.

Sutter stayed with her family in those initial months to avoid potential write-ups against her for failing to follow the center’s procedures, despite what she describes as a very toxic relationship with her family. During those months, the pandemic’s worst to date, she delivered groceries for an online shop and found relief in the work because it offered her a temporary escape from her home. 

Sutter returned to the shelter in mid-June, and the restrictions on overnight passes and curfew exemptions have been temporarily lifted. But she fears they will be reinstated now that the second wave of infections is in full swing.  Repeated write-ups  can lead to suspension or even expulsion.

In addition to the second wave of infections, the winter season brings with it another slew of problems for LGBTQ people experiencing homelessness. 

Pandemic safety measures will exacerbate the usual challenges this community faces in the winter, says Kate Barnhart, founder and executive director of Manhattan-based New Alternatives for LGBTQ+ Homeless Youth. 

“For instance, normally, people would hang out in the Port Authority, but they’ve closed their bathrooms. Some would sleep on the subways, but now they’re kicking everybody out at 1 a.m, during the coldest hours of the night,” says Barnhart, whose nonprofit provides case management and various services to LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness. “That’s a real problem.” 

Barnhart also fears that her clients may not have coats this winter. Shelters depend on the New York Cares coat drive, but this year, the effort is relying on volunteers to become “virtual coat collectors,” which she thinks will significantly reduce the supply of coats.

What’s more, flu season is a concern because many clinics are no longer offering on-the-spot flu vaccines to their clients. 

These changes are only the latest hurdles New Alternatives has had to contend with. The nonprofit had to radically change the way it operated when the pandemic began. Its in-person case management had to stop, for the most part, and Barnhart noticed that food insecurity had become a much bigger problem than before. So, New Alternatives started a daily hot meal program which was previously offered only on Sundays. Since it needed less security protection on the premises, one of the security guards began cooking the meals the group handed out.

As a result of reduced healthcare services, Barnhart says recent HIV testing of her clients showed an increased spread linked to the halt in HIV testing and outreach in the pandemic. 

Some 30% of her clients are HIV positive, and a few are in advanced stages of AIDS. Telemedicine does not help keep track of their medical needs, she says, with many of her clients unable to maintain appointments and a consistent schedule because of their living circumstances. 

Mental health, already an issue in the community, has deteriorated as well.

“We’ve had a lot of folks in crisis, a lot more suicidal people. There’s a period there where I was doing a suicide assessment pretty much every day,” she said. 

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