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‘These kids are invisible’: An LGBT youth shelter in words and pictures
By Dan Allen, Special to 365gay.com
Photos by Lucky S. Michaels
It’s a gorgeous mid-September Tuesday evening in New York City and the setting sun warmly glows over the streets of Midtown. Chelsea, New York’s gayest enclave, shifts into party mode just a few blocks south. To the northeast, the world is starting to queue up for Broadway hits. Meanwhile, commuters rush to the comforts of home.
But for thousands of gay youth in Gotham, there will be no partying, no theater, no playing tonight.
And once again, no home.
Estimates say that a staggering 20,000 young people are homeless every night in the city, - anywhere from a quarter to a third of those are LGBTQ kids. A lucky fraction of that number has found its way to Sylvia’s Place, tucked here on the city’s far west side, so near and so far from so much wealth.
Sylvia’s Place is the subject of Queer Streets, a new Logo documentary shot in 2006 which followed seven LGBT teens who frequented the shelter. To see what Sylvia’s place is like now, I step into this surreal and humbling world to meet with Kate Barnhart, director of Sylvia’s Place since 2004.
Tonight, like every Tuesday evening, dinner is being served by a small team of volunteers from the adjacent Metropolitan Community Church of New York. I take a seat on a metal folding chair next to Kate’s desk, not quite sure where to put my manpurse amidst the overflowing boxes, plastic bags, and just plain stuff that’s everywhere. She motions for me to throw it into the area behind her, with a dozen other backpacks and handbags.
“Behind my body is the safest place, so everyone stashes their stuff back here,” she says.
Sylvia’s takes its name from Sylvia Mae Rivera, a veteran of the 1969 Stonewall uprising who just a year later co-founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), an assistance group for the city’s young homeless trans community.
In the late 1990s Rev. Pat Bumgardner, senior pastor of the MCC, hired Rivera to run the church’s food pantry, only to be amazed by the crowds of young queer folk in need drawn by the charismatic activist. On Rivera’s deathbed (from liver cancer in 2002), Bumgardner promised that the church would create a safe space and night shelter for desperate LGBTQ youth who had nowhere else to go.
And so Sylvia’s Place was born in early 2003, and has ever since provided disenfranchised young gay people aged 16 to 23 with such simple necessities as dinner, bathroom facilities, somewhere to sleep for the night, breakfast in the morning, and - perhaps most important - a listening ear and an encouraging voice.
They do all this on a ridiculously small budget, with a shoestring staff of mostly volunteers, in one 2,500-square foot room, despite the (quite understandable) unpredictability of the clientele.
NEXT PAGE: ‘We take people until we can’t fit anymore.’
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Hey Lucky - Sorry I could'nt call you last night. After getting to my hotel room in Cape Town around 11:00 p.m. I realized there was'nt a phone in my room, go figure!! I've gotta figure out how to us this old computer to download my picture's and post some. Hope your doing OK.... Miss my baby terribly xoxo