As senior rabbi of what some say is the world’s largest LGBT synagogue, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, Sharon Kleinbaum has seen all the ups and down of her community. Her congregants in Greenwich Village faced countless tragedies during the AIDS epidemic which started in the early 1980s. Then, they experienced their joys of the state legalization of gay marriage in June 2011. Currently, the rabbi is trying to make known what she calls a crisis among runaway and homeless LGBT youth in New York City.
Facing a three billion dollar deficit, city government is cutting the funding of many programs. Smaller programs, like funding for shelters and services for LGBT homeless youth, might get lost in the shuffle.
Kleinbaum has rounded up over 50 leaders in the city as "The Shelter of Peace,” a multi-faith network of faith-based organizations, to lobby New York state and city governments to designate money specifically for LGBT youth homeless shelters.
The rabbi believes that the number of LGBT homeless youth is increasing. The exact numbers are hard to pin down. In January the city government’s annual survey of the streets found 3362 people, mostly adults, sheltering on the streets. A 2007 study by the Empire State Coalition claimed that 28 percent of homeless youth living on the streets identify as LGBT, and 11 percent were either unsure of their sexual orientation or felt uncomfortable with the question. Other studies find that about 6% of homeless adolescents are gay or lesbian.
The city does a daily count of the homeless in shelters. On Tuesday, the Department of Homeless Services counted 17,368 children in city homeless shelters. Since 2008, the number of people in homeless shelters has crept upward. The youth are mainly accompanied by one or both parents. Usually, unaccompanied LGBT youth are runaways from their legal residences and parents. Extrapolating from national surveys of sexuality, LGBT youth in city homeless shelters could number over 500. However, New York City’s unique reputation as gay-friendly may attract quite a few runaways from other parts of the country.
The Ali Forney Center, the city’s only LGBT shelter, accepts youth but is finding that the demand from adults and youth has outstripped its ability. The shelter currently has seventy-seven beds available. At the Ali Forney Center, the cost of one bed in a shelter means the actual physical bed and the services that come along with it, such as food and showers, HIV testing, mental health assessment, and others. LGBT homeless youths are especially vulnerable to substance abuse, psychopathology, and riskier sexual behavior. It estimates that one bed costs $30,000 per year.
In 2011 the center issued a statement that its waiting list for shelter beds had grown to 199, a 40 percent increase over the previous year. They simply did not have enough money to add beds and the services needed.
So, last year Shelter of Peace knew that the number of homeless LGBT youth couldn’t be housed by LGBT only shelters. They also knew that there was going to be a struggle over how to cover the city’s deficit. The coalition organized trips to lobby the governor and the state legislature for an increase in funding of shelters for homeless LGBT youth. Homeless LGBT youth went to recount their stories of survival on the streets.
In March 2012, the pursuit for more money gained ground with the announcement that last minute negotiations resulted in an increase in funding of $215,000 for the Runaway and Homeless Youth (RNY)program of the Department of Youth and Development. The news was especially good because this was the first increase in the budget for RNY since 2008. Shelter of Peace felt vindicated in their efforts.
However, some in the Shelter of Peace coalition warned that the optimism was misplaced. “We were sorely disappointed," observed Carl Siciliano, executive director of the Ali Forney Center. "The state cut over four million dollars over the last few years. To add $215,000 is basically saying there is no interest."
Then, last month, the faith network received a devastating detour to their plans from Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He announced that the city's 69 billion dollar budget would cut funding for RNY from 12 million to 5 million in 2013. Critics claim that his cuts will eliminate 160 of the city’s youth shelter beds. He also cut other youth programs like after school education by about half. It seemed like that RNY got the short end of the wheeling and dealing. So, the coalition for funding LGBT homeless shelters knew that they needed to get louder.
“This is an outrage," Kleinbaum exclaimed. The rabbi painted a sordid picture of the government throwing the LGBT youth overboard. “They [homeless youth] are expendable from the perspective of the state. If [the state] is going to cut something, they’re going to cut something that doesn’t cause an explosion of political backlash.”
With the help of citywide LGBT leaders, like Reverend Heidi Neumark of Trinity Lutheran Church of Manhattan and Joseph Amodeo, who recently resigned from an affiliation with Catholic Charities in protest of Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s opposition to gay sexuality, the network is increasing the volume of its awareness campaign. It argues that the issue of homeless LGBT youth is also one of poverty, powerless and racism. “These kids are disenfranchised,” Kleinbaum said. “They are young and poor. They're mostly kids of color.”
In the days following the announcement, the Shelter of Peace gave a workshop in Albany about the issue in a program sponsored by the Empire State Pride Agenda, a statewide political advocacy group for LGBT rights.
"You just have to keep trying and trying right now," Siciliano said. "It's one thing to give people equal rights, but it's another to allow them to have a fair share of their resources." As an individual who grew up Catholic and briefly studied to become a monk, he says that his own sexuality as a LGBT formed a deep affinity with the marginalization of Christ.
On May 29, the network held their first ever Shelter of Peace Conference attended by over 60 faith leaders from churches and synagogues in the metropolitan area. Reverend Heidi Neumark of Trinity Lutheran Church of Manhattan told the audience that it is difficult to bring LGBT youths back into church, because most had negative experiences with religion. Consequently, religious leaders of New York City, she said, need to promote an environment of embrace—not just tolerance. She announced that her congregation would be opening a shelter for LGBT youth.
At the conference, Kleinbaum invoked Biblical law. Quoting from Leviticus 23:22, she read, “’When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you.” Kleinbaum emphasized that a good society has a moral obligation to aid the most vulnerable.
Early in June, 150 protesters and LGBT advocates traveled to New York City Hall to protest the cuts. Without any response from Mayor Bloomberg or city leaders, Shelter of Peace are laying new plans to catch their ears. They hope that at the Gay Pride Parade and Festival to engage more public support for shelters for homeless LGBT youth.
"If we look at the big picture, people have to be aware of the issue and be engaged," Siciliano said. "Over time government action will happen. I'm grateful that folks like those at CBST are so supportive."
For Kleinbaum, her congregants say that their actions don’t reflect politics but simply comes out of God's love. "Our commitment is fulfilling God's vision for every human being whatever race, sexual orientation, or gender identity," the rabbi said. "It doesn't seem like that should be complicated. We are all about changing that here."