Homeless LGBTQ+ Youth Find Housing and Companionship
In New York's East Village, LGBTQ+ youth can access much-needed housing and supportive services.
Approximately 320,000-400,000 young people in the LGBTQ+ community nationwide face homelessness each year1. LGBTQ+ youth are 120% more likely to go through periods of homelessness than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. In fact, estimates show that nearly 40% of the youth experiencing homelessness in the United States are members of the LGBTQ+ community.
In New York City, the Ali Forney Center, founded in 2002, has worked tirelessly to provide services for LGBTQ+ youth, including food, beds, job readiness training, and even transitional housing.
“As we celebrate Pride Month it’s important to note that this movement, the Stonewall Riots, were started by homeless queer kids with nothing to lose. It wasn’t bankers, lawyers, or doctors who were secretly gay, it was kids who had nothing.” - Alexander Roque, President and Executive Director of the Ali Forney Center
“As we celebrate Pride Month it’s important to note that this movement, the Stonewall Riots, were started by homeless queer kids with nothing to lose. It wasn’t bankers, lawyers, or doctors who were secretly gay, it was kids who had nothing,” said Alexander Roque, President and Executive Director of the Ali Forney Center.
One of Ali Forney Center’s premier services in New York City is the Bea Arthur Residence. Opened in May 2018 in the East Village, the Bea Arthur Residence was designed by Magnusson Architecture and Planning (MAP), a New York-based “purpose-driven” architecture firm.
“We serve this community by providing dignified housing and support services centered around helping them heal. The Bea Arthur Residence is the first building that we fully own and it allows us to invest more money into our programs,” said Roque.
The 18-bed facility is named after Bea Arthur, star of the television show "Golden Girls,” who left $300,000 to the Ali Forney Center in her will when she died in April 2009.
The idea for the Bea Arthur Residence was first conceived in 2011. Steve Herrick, Executive Director of the Cooper Square Committee, an East Village-based organization that works with area residents to preserve and develop affordable housing in the neighborhood, thought of the Ali Forney Center as a possible tenant for this abandoned space on East 13th Street.
“I had read about the Ali Forney Center’s work, and I knew they had been renting apartments from private landlords but were looking to have their own building. They agreed and we started the process of getting community support. We got petitions signed by neighbors and it was very well received. The community board supported us unanimously too,” said Herrick.
The building had been vacant a long time and needed a lot of work. Renovations took more than two years. Julie Chou, AIA, Senior Associate at MAP, took on much of the design work for the structure , including a variety of specific design features to benefit the LGBTQ+ youth who would eventually occupy the building.
“We created three apartments, each with three bedrooms and two beds in each room, so each resident would have a roommate. We wanted to ensure each resident had a companion. The youths were kicked out of their homes and isolation isn’t the best thing for them,” said Chou. “We designed the apartments to ensure there’s a lot of community. There’s a large gathering space, a large kitchen. We just wanted to ensure [that] there’s a lot of interaction.”
Each apartment also has three bathrooms, so residents never felt rushed while using the facilities. “We wanted to make sure they didn’t feel the need to hurry. Some of the residents are transitioning and they need extra time in the bathroom, and we considered that when we laid out the apartment,” said Chou.
Privacy, naturally, was paramount in the design of Residence. The entrance of the building is low and set back from the street, and there’s also a large outdoor terrace in the backyard so residents don’t feel exposed. Additionally, there are large railings on the roof to prevent suicide attempts. In an unnerving statistic, between 5% and 10% of LGBTQ+ youth have attempted suicide, a rate 1.5 to 3 times higher than non-LGBTQ+ youth.
Success of the Bea Arthur Residence
According to Roque, there’s a “great deal of pride” in the Bea Arthur Residence from the young people who are impacted by the Ali Forney Center. “It’s our building, it was designed by us, there’s a lot of thoughtful spaces, the community has really come together around it,” he said.
The young people who live at Bea Arthur are often there for two years, but their program with the Ali Forney Center is longer.
“The first step is low engagement; we want the young person to focus on their mental and physical health. Eventually they’re referred to a conditional living program, like the Bea Arthur Residence,” said Roque. “To qualify for this, they have to be enrolled full-time in school, have full-time employment, or a combination of the two.”
The program is designed to have residents move out and live on their own after two years in conditional living. The first six months of that two years is very hands-on, with the Ali Forney Center helping youth grow finances, establish credit, and manage interpersonal relationships both on and off site.
After that, the program’s structure tries to pull back. “We want to take off the training wheels,” said Roque. “We help them with additional support they need, be it mental health or life skills. We offer all this onsite at the Residence and at our drop-in center that they have access to 24 hours a day.”
The second year sees the Ali Forney Center bringing in life coaches for the youth who live in the Bea Arthur Residence to t help them with a 12-month timeline to move out and figure out what their next steps are. Throughout this process the residents are paying rent based on their income. That money goes into a savings account which they receive back at the end of their stay, so they have some financial stability.
“There are so many beautiful displays of community resilience involving the Bea Arthur Residence,” Roque added. “When young people graduate out of Bea Arthur, they leave letters for the new people who are taking the bed they occupied. They leave hints on how to use the space best, when the best time to use the washing machine might be, or what the garden means to them.”
The residence also hosts many community events and holiday dinners. Young people from other sites across the city often gather there for parties in the backyard where they share food and experiences.
“In many ways the Bea Arthur Residence is the heart of our agency and one of the greatest points of pride at the Ali Forney Center,” said Roque.