Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Lessons Learned in New York

The first leg of the Vanguard Speaking tour kicked off in New York City this weekend. Mia Tu Mutch, Joey Plaster and myself (Pastor Megan Rohrer) shared stories, video and experiences from more than two years of research about the Vanguard youth of the 60's and a year of working with and listening to the queer homeless young adults in San Francisco.

Our first presentation kicked off at Trinity Lutheran Church in Manhattan. Home of Trinity Place a shelter for queer youth, despite the locale the audience was almost entirely young adults.

Honoring the sacredness of the stories shared through the multimedia presentation, images were projected onto the altar. See the video being projected here.

Following the talk we celebrated with a Lady Gaga Mass , whose offering went to benefit Trinity Place.
On Sunday morning, I preached at Trinity and learned more from the church members about the origin of their shelter and their commitment to serve vulnerable youth and provide a much needed transition space from the streets to a real home and stable life.
The congregation shared that they would soon be renovating their bathrooms because of a fundraiser that raised $25,000 and was sponsored by the Emperors. Though much of the conversations that I heard from the young adults on this trip is that they felt disconnected to the middle class, mostly white gay community whose primary focus was on spending millions and putting energy into issues they felt were less important than their emergent needs for food, shelter and safety from hate crimes, it was great to hear that the drag and camp that helped a generation live through the darkest moments of the AIDS crisis were still working for justice and raising funds for those most in need.
Our third talk was a youth only event at Sylvia's Place at MCCNY. Here our talk was more of a conversation that compared and contrasted the situation for queer homeless youth in New York and San Francisco.
Given copies of The latest edition of Vanguard Magazine that puts the Vanguard youth of the 60's and today in conversation, we hope to begin the conversation with the youth in New York about how they can identify themselves, their needs and begin to claim their own safe spaces. (see video of Mia reading an excerpt from the magazine)

As young adults connected to Sylvia's Place it wasn't surprising that the New York youth expressed that they felt connected to health services and drop in centers. Yet, one of the biggest concerns they raised was their need for safety in the streets, protection from hate crimes and to feel like they could be welcome somewhere. Just as the youth in San Francisco felt there was no place for them in the Castro, the youth in New York expressed feeling disconnected from a rapidly gentrifying Village.

Kristine and Mia shared some additional thoughts about the difference between trans experiences in New York and San Francisco. Check out the video here.
After the talk we went to have dinner near Times Square and I was struck by the consumeristic culture, the vanity and over the top campiness. It reminded me of all the romantic ideals that cause young adults to flee to the cities after running away or getting thrownaway from their homes. Just one of the stops on our journey through the cities of what the youth describe as the underground queer railroad where they search for acceptance and a sense of home, I learned a lot from this city and the fabulous youth.
One that may last the longest are the ways the caricatures of homeless queer youth, transfolk, and the big city can be all at once beautiful and like the piles and piles of hot smelly trash found in even the ritziest districts of New York. The problems and stories seem so similar in cities so far away and of those who are being remembered from nearly fifty years ago. In this world of social connectedness and through this journey, I sincerely hope that sharing stories and encouraging young adults to speak out, sleep out and act up can rewrite this story.
Location:Times Square, New York

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

In the News: Bay Area Reporter

'Encampment' brings attention to homeless LGBT youth


Homeless youth and their allies staged a "street sweep" in the Castro last Saturday to bring attention to budget cuts for social service programs. Photo: Matt Baume

The May 14 encampment was part of a nationwide demonstration to raise awareness of homelessness among a demographic known as transition-age youth. Homeless and foster youth between 16 and 24 years old can face unique housing challenges, particularly as they age out of the foster care system and learn to navigate services for adults.

"We're here to engage the community on homelessness, and specifically queer homeless youth issues," said organizer Beck, who uses only one name. "We're in kind of a state of emergency, saying, 'hey community, wake up.'"

Saturday's action started at Civic Center with games, an unveiling of protest banners, and hot meals served by Food Not Bombs. A march proceeded to Harvey Milk Plaza, where speakers read poetry and called for improved access to services to get off the street.

Their requests included housing with kitchens, rather than single room occupancy hotels with no facilities for food preparation; employment opportunities for youth who are unable to complete school; and an end to the sit-lie ordinance.

According to local organizers Trans Youth Rise Above, there are 5,700 homeless youth in San Francisco, of which at least 1,000 are queer.

Operation Shine America, which coordinated similar rallies in other cities, estimates that there are 2 million homeless youth in the country. Queers for Economic Equality Now also organized the San Francisco event.

Beck explained that organizations like the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center and Larkin Street Youth Services' Castro Youth Housing Initiative have faced repeated budget cuts, reducing services that can prevent youth from living on the street.

Jodi Schwartz, executive director of LYRIC, agreed that times are tight. "There has been a sizable decrease in investments in LGBTQ youth services," she told the Bay Area Reporter. "Just for LYRIC, if we were to lose the last piece of dollars for transition-age youth workforce, our decrease in funding would be 72 percent over the last four years."

Larkin Street Executive Director Sherilyn Adams told the B.A.R. that the extent of cuts won't be known until Mayor Ed Lee releases a budget later this month.

"There's no proposed cuts to the Castro Youth program," she said, but added, "it does not begin to meet the need."

To address the potential consequences of such cuts, Lee recently convened a stakeholder group consisting of representatives from organizations that advocate for homeless youth. Based on feedback from that group, the mayor asked that the Department of Children, Youth, and Their Families prioritize funding for LGBT and undocumented youth.

While organizations hope to turn around the recent budget cuts, local organizers are seeking ways to demonstrate how the city's rate of youth homelessness could worsen.

After Saturday's protest concluded, about three dozen homeless youth spent parts of the night camped out around the Muni station, according to organizer the Reverend Megan Rohrer, director of the Welcome Ministry, a coalition of 12 churches that seek to provide a faithful response to poverty.

Rohrer is currently working with the GLBT Historical Society to raise visibility by drawing inspiration from past struggles. She incorporated a "street sweep" into Saturday's protest, in which participants swept Castro Street sidewalks with brooms to evoke a similar 1960s-era protest.

In that action, LGBTs protested the city's negligent sanitation and police roundups by pushing brooms through the Tenderloin.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

In the News: Bay Area Reporter

Shining a light on homeless LGBTQ youth

Guest Opinion


It is estimated that nearly 2,300 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in San Francisco are homeless.

In 2007, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Coalition on Homelessness concluded in their joint study, "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness," that 40 percent of homeless youth in this country identify as LGBT. One would have expected a tremendous outcry in the queer community when that study was released. Especially here in San Francisco.

Where was that outcry?

You'd think that a community such as ours, which is capable of raising millions to promote gay marriage and to fight "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," would have poured a lot of effort and money into housing young people by now. But, where are those resources?

Programs that support transitional age homeless youth are usually left out of local and national fundraising strategies that allocate millions of dollars for lobbying efforts in the name of our families and the safety of our community. What about the homeless queer youth who reside on the streets and who are looking for family and safety, but instead often encounter exploitation, violence, and criminalization under laws which make it illegal to sit or lie in public?

They need services, but where are the queer youth services in San Francisco?

An activist group spearheaded three emergency winter shelters, a food program, and a shower project for homeless youth and others in the Castro in the late 1990s after the dot-com boom caused a sharp spike in rents throughout the city, making it impossible to afford an apartment. Those services opened despite unbelievable opposition from merchants, landlords, and residents. When the last of the shelters folded, the Youth Empowerment Team secured $750,000 in city funds for 29 beds for LGBT homeless youth under Larkin Street's Castro Youth program. That program is now down to 22 beds and looking at more cuts this year. Not to mention the devastating cuts to the LGBT Community Center's Transitional Youth program, which packs in over 300 youth a year for food and resources.

Meanwhile, the LGBTQ youth space at the Eureka Valley Recreation Center was shut down in 2010. Advocates have been negotiating with the Recreation and Park Department for nearly a year to have it re-opened, but it is clear that consistent staffing, hours, and overall youth access to the space, will continue to be compromised. The Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center has been forced to reduce its open-door programming for transitional age youth due to lack of city support, and its internship program, which was cut last year, is facing a possible total elimination in the budget of the Department of Children, Youth and Families.

The closure of New Leaf: Services for Our Community's youth substance abuse treatment program was a hard hit for those attempting to access LGBTQ friendly substance abuse counseling and mental health treatment. While the clinicians at Dimensions Clinic do an excellent job, services meant to engage youth in treatment have not been fully restored.

Clearly, the community needs to speak out.

This Saturday, May 14, queer youth and allies are taking part in a national effort to shine a light on homelessness among queer youth. Hosted by Operation Shine America and the AJ Fund, youth organizers will provide makeovers, video and photo booths, art workshops, freeze tag, and a free dinner donated by Food not Bombs. This begins at 6 p.m. at the Civic Center. At 7:30 p.m., youth art from the AJ Fund will be used to decorate a march that will make its way toward Harvey Milk Plaza. Marchers will remember AJ Trasvina, a local youth who spent his last years providing support to homeless queer youth.

At Harvey Milk Plaza, we will illuminate our lanterns and shine a light for a homeless youth open mic. Participants are encouraged to wear purple and bring candles. The event will culminate with a sleep-in at the plaza that is a separate event organized by Welcome Ministry. Later, some plan to perform a peaceful street sweep with handmade brooms and signs, symbolizing the poor being displaced by lack of access to space and support.

Through stories and information, we will illuminate the local and national issues of homelessness among queer youth, much of which is caused by rejection by family and community, the high cost of rent, criminalization, and a lack of employment opportunities and training.

It's time for all LGBT organizations and our community to make homeless queer youth a priority by allocating resources to these vital services. Not from year to year, but for many years to come.

Beck, Adele Carpenter, and Tommi Avicolli Mecca are all members of the newly formed coalition, QUEEN, or Queers for Economic Equality Now.

Saturday, May 7, 2011