Denied Shelter Beds, Many of NYC's Homeless Youth Turn to Prostitution

New York City's homeless youth are frequently faced with no option but to prostitute themselves in order to survive. And Mayor Bloomberg, despite promoting anti-prostitution efforts, perpetuates this situation by failing to provide nearly enough shelter beds for homeless youth.
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New York City's homeless youth are frequently faced with no option but to prostitute themselves in order to survive. That's why we call it "survival sex." And Mayor Bloomberg, despite promoting anti-prostitution efforts, perpetuates this situation by failing to provide nearly enough shelter beds for homeless youth.

Last winter I spoke with one such youth, a Brazilian immigrant who was thrown out of his home for being gay, who described his dilemma. Having spent months waiting to get into a youth shelter, he slept on subway trains. When those nights became too hard, when he became too uncomfortable sitting on the trains, when he became too hungry, he would sell his body. He told me, "Sometimes I do sex work to get something to eat, or to get a place to spend the night. It is bad doing sex work, but you gotta do it; it's better than being out in the cold."

The overwhelming majority of homeless youth want to get out of prostitution if given the chance. But it is disturbing to realize how few those chances are. A recent New York Times article cites a study done by John Jay College that indicates that almost 90 percent of the surveyed minors who engage in survival sex indicated that they would stop if they could, but they cited lack of shelter as a major barrier to doing so.

New York City provides a stark example of why homeless youth turn to survival sex. A 2008 census revealed that there are 3,800 youths without stable housing or parental care, yet the city provides merely 250 youth shelter beds. Every night the vast majority of these youth are forced to ride the subways or try to sleep in parks, on rooftops, or in abandoned buildings while they wait for shelter beds to open up. And given the near impossibility of finding employment while sleeping on the streets, many youth will make the hard choice to sell their bodies for some money to get the basic necessities of survival.

At the Ali Forney Center, the nation's largest organization dedicated to homeless LGBT youth, we see firsthand the destructive toll survival sex takes on the youth who come to us for help. We provide our youth with HIV tests and find that many are infected. We provide mental health treatment and discover that many of these youths are so despondent that they need to be hospitalized for risk of suicide. We provide substance-abuse services and learn just how many of these youths turn to drugs to numb the fear and shame they feel. We see every day how these vulnerable kids are placed in harm's way; Ali Forney, our namesake, was one of seven homeless youths I knew personally who were murdered while engaging in survival sex.

Recently I was on a panel discussion with a young woman who had been homeless for eight years. She described how prostitution damaged the lives of her friends on the streets, how it ravaged both their bodies and their psyches. She described how she would beg her friends not to engage in survival sex; she called it "going to the dark side." But she was not being judgmental; she was simply expressing her fear and compassion for her friends.

Although I hate to see anyone in such conditions, I will not judge the desperate, frightened kids who choose to do sex work in order to survive. We all have a responsibility to ourselves to survive. My frustration is focused on those who have the power and responsibility to protect these kids and fail to do so.

Mayor Bloomberg has a perplexing history when it comes to sheltering homeless youth. In 2009 he created a commission to study the needs of homeless LGBT youth and make recommendations for how the city might better respond to those needs. I was one of 26 members of that commission. We called for additional shelter beds and more support for street outreach efforts and drop-in programs. However, since the commission's report was released in 2010, Mayor Bloomberg has repeatedly attempted to gut the grossly inadequate service infrastructure for homeless youth, proposing cutting shelter beds, drop-in programs, and street outreach efforts by at least 50 percent. Last spring he proposed eliminating 160 of the city's 250 youth shelter beds. Fortunately, the New York City Council has been steadfast in preventing these devastating cuts, but despite their efforts, the mayor refuses to increase the number of youth shelter beds. And despite the efforts of advocates for homeless youth, he will not articulate any plan to protect the thousands of youths stranded on the streets.

New York City Councilman Lew Fidler, who chairs the council's Youth Committee, has repeatedly called Mayor Bloomberg's refusal to pay for the needed youth shelter beds "penny wise and pound foolish," rightly pointing out that NYC bears a far more costly burden when it has to deal with these kids in prisons and hospitals later. For example, a youth shelter bed in compliance with state and federal regulations costs the city about $30,000 per year, while the annual cost of imprisoning a youth costs the city $70,000, and the medical and mental-health costs of responding to HIV-positive and suicidal kids are vastly higher.

Last winter a young transgender woman named Gisele talked to me about how the fear of nights out in the cold drove her to survival sex: "When it started raining and getting colder, I had to do more stuff I didn't want to do just to get a place to sleep for a couple of hours. I've been abused and attacked in the streets. I remember one night I was trying to sleep in the piers, but I was just crying and crying all night, wishing God could just take me out of this."

Mayor Bloomberg could take her out of her desperate situation if he would only agree to provide safe shelter beds for NYC's homeless youth. Instead, the NYPD last year launched "Operation Losing Proposition," an effort to combat prostitution by striking at those who create the demand for prostitution, targeting pimps and johns for arrest. From my vantage point, if the city wants an effective plan to curb prostitution, it would certainly provide shelter to youths who otherwise face sexual exploitation.

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