Sylvia's Place shelter uses fashion to remind folks about queer homeless youth.
Thu May 19 2005
Poised at the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel is an unassuming space that serves as both the Sylvia Rivera Food Pantry and Sylvia's Place shelter. Its interior, just about the length of two cars, features a red cement floor, black metal cabinets, steel industrial refrigerators and a grim chain-link-fence security wall at its entrance. But every night, when the cots are rolled out and nearly a dozen homeless gay or trans young adults show up seeking emergency shelter, the place pulses with energy, warmth and caring.
"Don't make it sound like it's the Hilton!" 23-year-old lesbian client Bridget snaps, during a group interview about Sylvia's Place. "Well, it is for me," says Misty, 22, a transgender woman who has been in and out of foster homes, group residences and hospitals (on suicide watch) ever since her mother died 12 years ago. "In one residence, people put nasty pictures on my door and lotion on my doorknob, trying to get me to go off. Here it's more comfortable because everybody's gay."
In an attempt to ensure that Sylvia's Place is able to keep bringing comfort to all who seek it, the organizers are making a push for support this week through "Fashion on Gender," a runway show starring a handful of spotlight-loving clients. It's been choreographed by Moshay Moses, a transgender advocate, who will have models sashaying down the aisle of the LGBT Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), located one flight up from the shelter. "It's a self-esteem boost," night counselor Lucky Michaels, 25, explains. "It gives them a moment to shine."
Sylvia's Place is always trying to give homeless gay teens a dose of self-worth. While the on-site pantry serves to all who need sustenance, the shelter has a focus on LGBT young people. A ministry of MCC that's funded by a combination of state grants and private donations, the facility is named for transgender Stonewall activist Sylvia Rae Rivera, who died of cancer in 2002. She had dedicated much of her life to mothering queer youths, founding Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in the 1970s and later volunteering at the MCC food pantry. In 2002, MCC began housing Safe Space, a shelter for teens, on its ground floor; the latter eventually became the Ali Forney Center, a provider of queer-youth transitional housing, and moved to a new location. But right before Rivera died, she asked MCC's Rev. Pat Bumgardner to continue helping queer homeless teens. "She said to me, 'Are you going to do this, or what?' And I gave her my word that I would," Bumgardner recalls.
Queer youths are a disproportionately underserved population: City statistics say nearly 50 percent of NYC's 37,000 homeless youth identify as queer, but city programs provide only about 30 beds specifically catering to this population. Sylvia's Place provides six of those beds to folks who have nowhere else to turn (for up to 90 days), and usually winds up housing ten individuals on an overflow basis, allowing folks to curl up on floors, chairs or anywhere they can find room. "We don't turn anyone away," says Tanino Minneci, 26, a night counselor who, along with Lucky Michaels, forms a tag team of support for the teens who show up. "All the shelter systems that are out there can be really hostile for these kids. We provide a safe, welcoming space."
Since about a week after Sylvia's Place opened in 2003, its beds have been full every night. And while many of the referrals come from queer youth organizations, the power of word of mouth has been the real force. "The homeless youth community is really tight," says Michaels, who spent much of his own formative years in and out of the shelter system. Issues surrounding sexuality send most of the clients Sylvia's way. "They end up lacking the initial development skills that they need to survive—parents, mental health, good schooling—and everything else falls apart," Michaels says. "Many run away or are kicked out by families because of their identity."
The sassy Bridget has been sleeping here for three weeks, ever since her two-year jail stint for assault with a car ended and a reunion with her mother and child in the Bronx just didn't work out. She knows that as a "felon with attitude and a temper," as she puts it, it's not easy for any place to welcome her with open arms. "To be comfortable somewhere is a lot more difficult for people like me," she says. "But at Sylvia's Place, you can tell they're here because they actually care.