Homeless for the holidays

A new photo book looks at life inside Sylvia's Place, a shelter for LGBT youth.

 TREE AT LAST Photos in Shelter document some difficult LGBT lives.

TREE AT LAST Photos in Shelter document some difficult LGBT lives.

At Sylvia's Place—an emergency shelter for queer homeless youth, most of whom have been pushed into the streets after being rejected by their families—the holidays can be a particularly heart-wrenching time. But there can also be times of great bonding and joy, both now and throughout the year. Lucky Michaels, a Sylvia's Place outreach director who is also a talented photographer and Parsons BFA grad, spent a year at work capturing many of these moments on film. They are now the subject of his new photo book, Shelter, which will be welcomed into the world this week with a celebration at Exit Art.

"I wanted to give voice and image to youth who are otherwise unknown," explains Michaels, 27, who said his own experience with homelessness and shelter life as a child growing up in Michigan has influenced his work. He hopes to bring more awareness to the reality of LGBT folks who have been thrown out of their homes, both through his powerful images and the book's accompanying text, culled from many hours of interviews with the clients. "I think, currently, there is a lack of talking about this issue—and it's an issue that needs to be talked about to get people to rally around it," he says.

Sylvia's Place, which shares space with the gay Metropolitan Community Church in Hell's Kitchen, opened in 2003 and is the namesake of trans activist Sylvia Rivera. For many LGBT youths ages 16 to 23, it's the only place to find a hot meal and a warm bed with no strings attached. Its interior is cramped and spare, but every night from 8pm to 8am, when its six cots are occupied and up to 40 other folks pop in only to be sent elsewhere, the shelter comes alive.It was during these hours that Michaels shot more than 100 rolls of film while working as an overnight counselor, sometimes struggling to balance his role of therapist with that of photographer.

But the biggest challenge, he says, "was finding a way to find times that were most natural, and not ruining the moment by having them turn and pose for the camera. For the most part, they absolutely loved it—plus they really wanted to get their stories out there."

The images in Shelter capture intimate, intense moments that range from endearing—a transwoman parading around in her bra, a girl sleeping with tea bags on her eyes, one young man getting his hair cut by another—to haunting, like that of a woman crying on her cot, or another of a young man with a busted nose.

Still, the book's well-timed release, says Michaels, is injecting a bit of excitement into the shelter. "Some of the kids have a really difficult time with the holidays," he says. "But at the same time, they also realize that they have a warm, safe place to go."

The Shelter release party is Sat 15 at Exit Art.