HIV Aids

The Guard Is Changing at the Nation’s Biggest LGBTQ Youth Shelter

Eighteen years after its first six-cot shelter opened in a church basement in 2002, it’s hard to imagine New York City without the Ali Forney Center. Named for a homeless gender-nonconforming young person who died on the streets at 22 in 1997, the center now has a $14 million annual budget with a staff of more than 200 and 17 sites that house 156 young people every night. It also offers an array of services, including a 24-hour drop-in center in Harlem, serving up to 1,500 young people a year. The organization has become a darling of the city’s LGBT donor community, with one site both funded by and named for the late Golden Girls legend Bea Arthur, and events that include Thanksgiving visits from Madonna and gift-drops from Lady Gaga.

But it wasn’t always like that. AFC was started with $35,000 by Carl Siciliano, a gay man who worked with homeless youth, at a time when young queer and trans kids were living in cardboard boxes down by the Hudson River piers and were either murdered or contracting HIV at alarming rates. In early January 2019, Siciliano announced that, though he will still play a role in the nonprofit, he is passing the leadership to his longtime development director, Alex Roque, 39, a gay, Miami-raised Cuban-American who himself grew up amid poverty and homophobia. TheBody talked (both separately and together) with Siciliano and Roque about why they’re making the transition, how they took housing for homeless queer and trans kids from a foreign concept to something that’s now widely copied nationwide, and what Roque has in mind for the agency in the coming years.

[Note: Parts of the interviews have been moved around for clarity.]

Tim Murphy: Thank you both for making time to talk to us amid this exciting transition. Carl, why are you leaving?

Carl Siciliano: Eighteen years is a long time for anyone to be running an organization. Frankly, it’s quite rare for a founder to last that long. When I started, I said I’d run it for five years. I had a core goal when I started, to build up a strong organization to house and empower homeless LGBT youth, and I’ve done that.

TM: Was it the first such shelter of its kind?

CS: Technically, the first was started by [the late transgender activist pioneers] Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson in 1973 when they rented an apartment where homeless queer and trans youth could crash. They kept it going for a year. They didn’t have any government or other funding, and they supported it through sex work. Then, in the late ’70s, there was Glass Houses in LA, which wasn’t shelter so much as foster care for youth aging out of foster care, which went under a little over 10 years ago. Green Chimneys in New York was doing foster-care group-home work starting in the mid-’90s. And a guy named Steve Ashkenazi, who later was on our board, started a place in Park Slope in the ’90s called Madrigal House, but he was never able to get any funding and had to shut it down in a year.

There’s never been anything as large, sustained, and comprehensive as the AFC.

TM: Why do you think that is?

CS: It took a long time for the LGBT community to be willing to really look at youth issues and to center poverty issues, even though I don’t think we’re close to being all the way there yet. Queer people often face economic disenfranchisement. In the early years of our movement, when there was no government support, overwhelmingly LGBT organizations were funded by wealthier white male members of our community who maybe didn’t empathize that much with poverty. There’s been a slow process in our community where other people’s realities—and by that I mean Black, Brown, and not-cis people—have been taken seriously. This took a while, and it’s sad that it did.

TM: So why do you think you were able to break through and make AFC a success?

CS: When I started AFC, I had been running a program for homeless youth called Safe Space for seven years and had developed a lot of relationships with government funders. Programs I ran were well thought of by city and state leaders. Safe Space is where I first met Ali. During my time there, I was shocked at how bad things were for homeless youth overall in NYC. There was only one youth shelter, at Covenant House. The city was supporting only 115 beds. We were seeing about 3,000 kids a year at our drop-in center at Safe Space, and the amount of death, addiction, and incarceration I saw happening to young people left out on the streets was staggering and horrifying. I thought, “What do you do to change this? And why is it so bad in the first place?”

TM: Why do you think it was?

CS: We live in a society willing to put a fair amount of money into youth issues, but usually it’s parents who are advocating for that money. Parents who throw their kids out aren’t going to be there advocating for them. So I was like, “Who is going to advocate for them, bring some power to them?” And I thought, “OK, queer people get, in a way most people don’t, what it means not to be supported by your family.” So I always felt there was a potential for queer people to understand this issue and become a voice of advocacy.

Ali, whom I’d grown close to, was murdered in 1997, which shattered my heart. So with Safe Space, I built up a $5 million program for homeless youth that offered overnight housing. There was a period between 1999 and 2001 where none of our kids got murdered in the streets. But then Safe Space’s parent organization misappropriated a lot of those funds. I ended up whistleblowing and got fired as a consequence.

I had wanted to take a year off and write a book, but when I found out that Safe Space was shutting down—I had a picture of Ali on my desk, and I couldn’t look at it because I knew that LGBT youth would have nowhere to sleep but subways or via sex work. I knew they’d start dying again, and I couldn’t look at Ali’s picture. It’s like my conscience was embodied in that photo, saying, “You have to open a program.” I was like, “No, I’m burned out!” But finally after three days, I gave in and said, “OK, dammit, I’ll do this.” And my grandmother had died and left me some money, so I was able to work on starting AFC for two years without a salary. So I was lucky. And we opened AFC six months later.

TM: So tell us about that first year in 2002.

CS: We opened in the basement of Metropolitan Community Church with six cots. It was due to a $35,000 check that [gay philanthropist] Henry van Ameringen wrote me over lunch that spring when I told him about the idea. It was a hot, muggy summer night and we opened at 6 p.m. My husband Raymond cooked the first meal, and most of the staff were from Safe Space. And when I watched the young people walk through the gate, it was like the gate to my heart opening up. They were in a place where they didn’t have to protect themselves against the violence of the streets or the degradation of the mainstream shelters [which were notorious for mistreating LGBTQ people]. It was like watching a thousand pounds come off their shoulders. I was both enraptured and terrified.

TM: What was that first year like?

CS: Frustrating. There’d never been a shelter just for homeless LGBT youth. We’d never even been able to document the need. I sent out faxes and emails to all the LGBT and homeless organizations saying that we were going to open that first day, and I got 20 referrals for those six cots. Within a few weeks of opening, we had to turn away 100 kids. Within a year and a half, we had a waiting list of 1,000 names.

I got infuriated that the city wasn’t doing anything to support LGBT homeless youth. So I took that list to the commissioner of the department of youth and community development, which funds youth shelters. I met with the deputy commissioner of homeless services. But it was like talking to brick walls.

It was [gay, then-City Councilmember and future mayoral candidate] Christine Quinn who first gave me the time of day. Her eyes bugged out when she saw the list. She said, “This is totally unacceptable. Carl, you have a lot of work to do, because the City Council doesn’t even know this is an issue. You better get ready to put on a dog and pony show.” So she had her LGBT liaison start meeting with me to figure out how to make the City Council understand the issue. And that first year, we were able to get $30,000 in City Council discretionary funding, which was a drop in the bucket. But in the following year, when Quinn became Council speaker, we started getting real money. Up to $500,000 and beyond.

TM: So what happened in subsequent years?

CS: For the first three years, [the federal program] Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS (HOPWA) was our only federal government funding. Then in 2005, we were awarded a federal HUD contract to start a transitional housing program. In those days, you couldn’t get federal funding for anything labeled “LGBT,” because it was the George W. Bush administration. But the HUD money flowed down through local decision-making channels.

Then we also started getting money from the [New York State Department of Health] AIDS Institute. But there was also a horrible time starting in 2008 when, every year, Mayor Bloomberg would try to cut funding for homeless youth in half, so we had to do a lot of advocacy.

Another big step was when, after Obama got elected, in 2010, he released a 10-year plan to end homelessness and identified LGBT youth as one of three populations that had been historically disenfranchised. Then in 2011-12, we got funding from SAMHSA, the Administration for Children and Families, the Office of Violence Against Women. For 18 months, we got everything we applied for. Then in 2015-16, we got another million in federal contracts, but post-Trump, when it came time to renew, we lost about a half million. So federal funds are a total rollercoaster, depending on the whims of whoever’s in power.

TM: What about private money? You have had some very fancy, star-studded galas the past many years.

CS: That was a slow and steady build. At first, around 2009 with our Rufus Wainwright fundraiser, we were probably raising around $70,000. The big change for me was when Alex came on in 2011. We’d never had an in-house development department before. Also that same year, the Paul Rapoport Foundation identified us as one of several organizations they thought were doing important work.

TM: Alex, let’s finally bring you into this. Tell us your story.

Alex Roque: Well, I grew up in Miami, basically raised by a nonprofit, Goodlet Park Community Program, which supported kids from broken homes, who had parents with mental health issues—all of which was me and my family. My first job was at 15 for a nonprofit, stuffing envelopes for special events. Then I went on to work for a city program, kids who were abused and neglected by their parents doing after-school theater and photography. Then I started fundraising for a group home for sexually abused girls, making my first development calls when I was ages 18 to 22.

I moved to NYC in 2005 at the age of 25. My mother had passed away, and I was dealing with coming out in a very hostile environment, a very homophobic father. I worked in NYC for the Huntington Disease Society of America for five years before a recruiter for AFC reached out. Carl and I had this three-hour interview, then I started the development department here in 2011.

TM: What was your first year on the job at AFC like?

AR: I’ve had contact with the young people here since the first day. I’d volunteer serving dinner between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. By 2011, there were 60 beds at nine sites in Brooklyn and Queens. That first year was empowering and heartbreaking all at once. That was when we started our “Homeless for the Holidays” series, where we told the story of young people over the holiday season, which was a really unique opportunity to make an impact. I saw my development work as a way to create change. We put together a proposal to the city for funding for our Sunset Park (Brooklyn) residence, a 20-bed program, and were awarded that. I was there the first night we opened in November, just before the holidays. There was a boy of about 16 or 17 in the car, sobbing, with his grandfather, who had tried to “set him straight” but had given up and was basically giving him away because his mother and father didn’t want him.

So that first year, every [development] call I made, I didn’t see as fundraising—but the opportunity to learn about something important and connect with humanity.

TM: Were you ever homeless?

AR: No, but I knew that if I came out to my family, I would be. I’m first-generation Cuban-American, and my father is very homophobic.

TM: Has your work for AFC ever triggered your own emotions?

AR: Not until I became a father myself. My husband and I have a five-year-old son. Until we had him, I’d hear these stories and think, “It’s great that AFC is here,” but since I’ve become a parent myself, they now really enrage and hurt me. When I look at my son, I think, how could my parents have been so hateful? How could any parents? I wonder, with the AFC young people, would their parents take them back if they could see them now?

TM: What would you say has prepared you in the past decade as AFC’s development director to now lead the agency?

AR: Certainly spending so much time with Carl and the funders and understanding, especially since Stonewall 50, the origins of our [LGBT] history and how historically disregarded LGBT kids have been. And having had the opportunity to translate that into the work. I’ve heard from our program kids coming in on Monday mornings who’ve been starving themselves and selling their bodies over the weekend to survive. I’ve been working for the past decade on growing the agency’s footprint, acquiring buildings, working with our programming team to understand where we’re strong and where we need to improve, invest, and enhance. When I started, we had a fraction of the budget and staff we do now.

TM: What’s the single most important thing you’ve learned?

AR: That our work is not about deciding what’s right for our kids. I used to think it was about setting up a path for them. But it’s about letting the community decide for itself. It’s up to us to help them heal so they can lift themselves up.

TM: So Alex, what’s your vision for AFC going forward?

AR: We’ll be starting social enterprises [jobs and career paths] for our young people. About 25% of them don’t do well after they graduate from the AFC program, not able to follow a career or educational pathway or live independently. There are some really dark, awful things our kids go through. And honestly sometimes I look at them and wonder how they move into the world at all. So I really want to focus on enhancing programs for that 25% with job opportunities. We’ve been discussing it for two years and have to set up an advisory committee and build out a business model for two key businesses, one in culinary/catering and the other I need to build out more before discussing it. About 30% of our clients are transgender or gender nonconforming [TGNC], a group that has four times the unemployment rate of the national average. So I’m really going to focus on having TGNC leadership within the agency running those programs.

Another goal going forward is acquiring more buildings. After we opened the Bea Arthur residence in 2018, we recognized that it was a revenue-generating model. If we’re able to buy or be gifted a building and not have to pay rent on it because we receive funding, then we can set up an HDFC [Housing Development Fund Corporation], which allows you to charge yourself rent, which you can pump back into programs.

TM: Does the fact that AFC now has a person of color at the top make a difference?

AR: I think it’s incredibly important that a person in leadership has some of the lived experience of those whom the organization serves. At AFC, 87% of our staff is individuals of color, including the leadership, and now including the executive director.

TM: How will you care for yourself amid your very demanding job?

AR: A lot of my upbringing exposed me to trauma and anxiety, so I have a good sense of how to balance, exercise, and breathe. TV makes me anxious, so I read instead. I’m also a fitness junkie, I run, and I’m on the keto diet. I wake up at 4 a.m., get in my exercise and reading, then wake up my son, get him off to school, then am at work until about 8 p.m. My husband was a creative director for more than 20 years, but now he’s a stay-at-home dad and freelancer.

TM: What’s the last thing you want to say to readers?

AR: There’s an opportunity to make a difference and impact the lives of LGBT kids in very concrete ways, so please look into our work, or similar work in your community, and volunteer to serve a meal, tell a story, help with homework. Just show love and humanity. As awful as this political year is going to be, there’s a chance to break away from it all and make a difference in someone’s life.

TM: OK, great, thank you, Alex, and good luck to you. Carl, let’s turn back to you briefly to finish up. I wanted to ask you: Do you think family rejection of LGBTQ kids has lessened since you started AFC in 2002?

CS: No. I think maybe there is more overall acceptance of LGBTQ young people by parents, but the religious, conservative communities that tend to reject them have gotten more virulent. About 90% of the kids who come to us say they weren’t safe in their homes because of their parents’ religious beliefs. It’s a terrible paradox that as LGBT people become more accepted in mainstream society, conservative religious communities see that as a sign of evil and wickedness.

TM: Some regions have a reputation for being more religious and homophobic than others, such as Middle Eastern, Caribbean, or the U.S. Bible Belt. Is that your experience with the young people?

CS: About 15% of our kids come to us from other countries, very heavily Caribbean but also a lot from Central and South America, because they’re getting caught up in U.S. detention camps and getting sent to us by progressive advocates. We also have kids from the Middle East and Russia. And about half of our kids are coming from the U.S. Deep South, where there are almost no resources for LGBT youth. Nationally, you have fewer than 600 beds dedicated to LGBT youth.

TM: Do you see fewer young people coming from in or near NYC than you did 18 years ago?

CS: In NYC, it tends to be kids with real poverty issues, those who grew up in the foster care system or who had families who were homeless or living in really poor conditions. When 10 people are sharing an apartment, the gay or trans kid is more likely to get put out. I’d say at least 40% of our kids are still from in or near NYC.

TM: What else has changed in 18 years?

CS: When I started, there weren’t so many young people who’d been in Bible camps and conversion therapy centers. I think because there’s more consciousness of queerness in our society, people are more on edge about it in some of the scary parts of the country.

TM: And how would you say HIV has intersected with your work all these years?

CS: When I was at Safe Space, lots of funding was HIV-related, so our outreach workers would go into the streets to find people and bring them condoms and safer-sex info. This is when trans people had built a shantytown along the piers, where Sylvia Rivera was living in the mid-’90s, cardboard boxes and sheets of plastic, and so much violence against trans and GNC people when they’d go to shelters. If it hadn’t been for HIV, there’d have been no funding whatsoever. I remember sitting in a meeting of the Mayor’s Office of AIDS Policy. Everyone said, “We need more money for outreach,” and my head wanted to explode, because these kids had nowhere to sleep. You could give them condoms till they were coming out their ears, but if someone was going to offer them $20 more to have sex without a condom, they were going to take it. It was an abysmal situation that forced tons of kids to get killed or infected with HIV.

City resources and services for those kids have since improved to the point where, after DeBlasio was elected, there are now more than 700 beds. People don’t wait more than a day or two to get into a youth shelter if they’re under 21. So I feel that’s been radically transformative. HIV infection rates in young people have gone down significantly since there’s been more beds.

TM: What’s the relationship of PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] to the community you serve?

CS: We’re funded to provide it at our drop-in center. There’s been high uptake and adherence. The biggest thing that impacts the kids’ ability to stay on PrEP is their housing stability.

TM: What’s been the toughest thing about working with these young people?

CS: Their hearts are broken and they’re traumatized, and it’s hard seeing young people hurt so badly. To have your parents convey to you that you’re not worth being loved—that’s psychologically devastating. They’ll spend their lives trying to get over that, and I don’t think all of them will.

TM: How have you learned to deal with absorbing all that trauma and stress?

CS: I’ve worked with homeless people since 1982. I’m a spiritual person, and I pray and meditate a lot, and when I do, I cry a lot. Somehow I’ve been able to spend many years absorbing a lot of suffering. Everybody’s the same: We want to be listened to, to have respect, affection in our lives. So I just try to be a listening, affectionate, respectful person.

TM: What have you learned to do better in 18 years?

CS: Compared to where we were as a community back in 2002, people of color within the community are much more wanting to stand on equal footing and not have white folks dominate the running of things. So for me it’s been a process of hearing, understanding, and respecting that. And also I think trans people are much more now in a place of having the power to articulate that cisgender people shouldn’t be dominating their lives. So those have been two very powerful and good growth processes that the community has gone through, that every agency has been responding to, that the LGBT community has had to learn from and listen to. At AFC, the senior leadership is 70% people of color, and that’s been very intentional.

TM: Does this have something to do with you, as a cis gay white man, leaving the helm?

CS: In AFC, we’ve been doing anti-racism trainings, as many organizations have, and that’s made me think about this more every day. I’ve long been struck that I’ll go to meetings of leaders of homeless organizations and the vast majority of people there are white, yet they’re overseeing a service landscape where the vast majority of people are of color. So I’ve gotten more conscious that it’s a justice issue that people of color should not have their services determined by white folks. Also, I never intended to run AFC for this long. I wanted to cultivate more people of color in leadership positions so there’d be a chance that one of them could take over, which is what is happening with Alex. But having said that—no, I don’t feel like I’m being hounded out because of my whiteness.

TM: So what’s next for you?

CS: I’m not totally extricating myself from AFC. I’m just tired of running things. I come from a very grassroots background. I was part of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement as a kid. I’ve been arrested a lot. So my AFC title going forward will be “founder.” And I’m going to focus on two things. One, there are groups from all over the country reaching out, asking us to help build their capacity to serve homeless youth in their localities, and I have a unique skill set on how to design, fund, program, and create a political dynamic, so I’m gonna consult.

But something that’s important to me because of my own religious background is kids who are thrown out of their homes because of religion. So I really want to educate and create more awareness in religious communities of the kind of unbelievable harm that does to kids. I’m gonna start a podcast called, A Long Way From Home. I’ll work from home and come into AFC a couple of times a month.

I’m also going to write two books, one about Ali’s death and what it was like in those days, and another about my spiritual awakening and radical Catholic youth.

TM: Are you still a Catholic?

CS: Yeah—a complicated one. It’s a challenge to be part of something that is hostile to LGBT people. But I believe I’m as much a part of the church as the Pope is. I believe in that radical love at the heart of the gospels. If someone is poor, hungry, or homeless, you take them in, because that’s where God is.

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