NEW YORK -- Despite a slew of recent gay rights victories, advocates estimate that hundreds of thousands of LGBT teens around the country are still rejected by their families. A lot of these kids end up homeless in New York City, which has only about 100 beds dedicated to LGBT youth.
At the Ali Forney Center, the largest agency dedicated to LGBT homeless youth in the country, about 1400 adolescents walk in looking for shelter every year, and there are about 150 young people on the center's waiting list.
But this week, the problem got a little bit smaller. On Monday, the center held a ground-breaking ceremony for the 18-bed Bea Arthur Residence in Manhattan. Several dozen advocates, community leaders and LGBT youth gathered in the heat to eat cheesecake and celebrate the unlikely donor for whom the building will be named.
Back in 2005, when the Ali Forney Center could only shelter 12 kids a time, "Golden Girls" star Bea Arthur had flown to New York to lend the organization her support. Her one-woman show, "Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends,” raised more than $40,000 for the center, and Arthur contributed a personal donation as well.
But when Arthur passed away in 2009, the center was struggling to keep up with rent, food and payroll payments. Carl Siciliano, the center's director, was driving to work when he got a call from a landlord threatening to bring eviction proceedings against the center. A Roman Catholic and former Benedictine monk, Siciliano pulled his car to the side of the road and prayed for help.
"I prayed to all my favorite saints, and everyone I could think of in heaven that cared about me or our kids. I included Bea in those prayers, knowing how good she had been to us," Siciliano told the Huffington Post.
When Siciliano arrived at work that day, one of Arthur's closest friends called to tell him that the Ali Forney Center was at the top of Arthur’s list of charities in her will. Several weeks later, a check for $300,000 arrived from her estate.
“At the time, it was the height of the recession, and I don’t know how we would have survived without that great gift and that support,” Siciliano told the crowd gathered on Monday.
Renovations on the building that will become the Bea Arthur Residence are expected to begin later this month, using funds from the city and private donors. Corey Johnson, a New York City councilman and a member of the LGBT Caucus who was present at the ground-breaking ceremony, summed up the day’s sentiments: “This is more than just bricks and mortar. This is, I think, a beacon of hope across the city, that our city wants to take care of our most vulnerable,” he said.
Like most of the speakers, Johnson said he had a particular connection with Bea Arthur. “It shouldn’t have been a surprise to my family that I was gay," he said, “because I was a major 'Golden Girls' fan in high school.”
LGBT youth in New York City have far more resources to draw on today, said Steve Ashkinazy, who opened the first shelter for LGBT homeless youth in the city in 1992 and also attended Monday's ceremony. “But what hasn’t changed too much is what happens in individual families, individual neighborhoods, individual streets, when these kids come out,” he said.
“Young people are very dependent on their immediate surroundings," Ashkinazy added. "They can’t move to a different neighborhood, a new apartment. If the people they depend on aren’t going to support them, then all of the great advances that we’ve seen around us don’t quite affect them. When their immediate world is so unwelcoming and so unsafe, it feels as if the whole world is like that.”
Many LGBT homeless youth say that few environments are less welcoming and more unsafe than homeless shelters that aren't specifically set up for young LGBT people. Manny Collazo, a 23-year-old intern for the Ali Forney Center, said that he was “constantly harassed” at other shelters because he was gay. “I’d rather sleep on the subway,” he said.
After he started staying at the Ali Forney Center, Collazo got a target tattooed on his left forearm. “There were so many times I was so close to giving up, and everybody at the Ali Forney Center would tell me, ‘No, man, keep your eye on the target.’”