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COVID-19 Budget Cuts Are Quashing NYC’s Brand-New Summer Career Program for LGBTQ Homeless Youth

“I wish I had a mentor,” says Jourdain Gaines, 22, a queer New Yorker who once experienced homelessness but now has a stable living situation in Manhattan and is taking online classes with the famed Escoffier culinary arts school. For the past 12 months, Gaines was working as a cashier and barista at a posh eatery in the city’s tony new Hudson Yards area—until COVID-19 came along and shuttered the city’s restaurants. Now, Gaines is looking at a long summer with no work or career development.

That’s why he was so disappointed in mid-May to hear that the city, facing a multibillion-dollar, COVID-sparked budget deficit, was putting on hold a $2.7 million, four-year program, much lauded upon its introduction last fall, to give LGBTQ currently or formerly homeless youth intensive career training, development, and navigation into paid internships and jobs with actual growth potential.

Called NYC Unity Works, the program, founded by New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray and to be overseen by the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development, was supposed to start July 1 with a cohort of 45 young people. It not only would have given them intensive support, such as case managers and mental health counselors, but also would have helped those without high school diplomas get their GEDs as a work-readiness baseline, and even pay for certification programs for certain career paths, such as audio technicians.

“This is something that really could’ve helped me and a lot of people,” says Gaines, who was not signed up for the program—which, in fact, had chosen the nonprofit(s) that had won its contracting bid but hasn’t yet notified them of the award—but says he would have eagerly applied. “I’ve learned so much by trial-and-error, and it would’ve been great to have someone in the [food service] field to explain things to me.”

When, in an email, TheBody asked NYC Unity Project executive director Ashe McGovern if there was a chance that the program might be salvaged, this reply came from a City Hall press rep instead: “This administration recognizes the unique challenges LGBTQI+ young people face when it comes to educational and workforce opportunities, which is why we have prioritized this work through the NYC Unity Project. We remain committed to launching this program as soon as we are able.”

The rep did not reply to a follow-up asking when, if ever, the program might be reinstated, or if efforts were under way to source the funds for it elsewhere.

The program, in fact, was canceled—alongside the city’s entire Summer Youth Employment Program, which began in 1963. They are among countless cuts to the city budget in the wake of COVID.

In response to the cancellation, dozens of New York City nonprofits that serve LGBTQ youth—including the Ali Forney Center, Housing Works, Hetrick-Martin Institute, and MCCNY-Sylvia’s Place—sent a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio urging that the program be immediately reinstated.

The letter reads in part: “…we were extremely displeased to learn that the awarding and implementation of this groundbreaking initiative is being placed on ‘pause’ indefinitely. At a time when marginalized communities are already being disproportionately impacted financially by the COVID-19 crisis, we find it completely unacceptable that the City is not ensuring that a program that was intentionally developed to address income inequality faced by LGBTQ youth is not being awarded as planned.”

Said Jamie Powlovich, executive director of the Coalition for Homeless Youth, which organized the letter, “Unfortunately, the city is looking at small-pricetag programs like this one to make up for billions of dollars in deficit—$2.7 million over four years isn’t going to make a dent in what the city owes.”

On May 20, the New York City Council’s Finance Committee held a virtual hearing in which numerous councilmembers called for the retention or reinstatement of funds across a wide variety of city programs. Public Advocate Jumaane Williams lamented cuts or cancellations to youth summer employment programs, saying that such losses “could pose significant harm to the future of our young New Yorkers,” and briefly mentioned the LGBTQ Unity Works program, urging the mayor to reinstate it.

Otherwise, the program did not come up in the hearing, which disappointed Powlovich, who submitted written testimony asking for the Unity Works program to be immediately reinstated. “RHY [runaway and homeless youth], and particularly LGBTQI youth, are disproportionately experiencing the impact of COVID-19 when compared to their sheltered peers,” read the testimony. “By suspending or delaying the start of this vital program, the city will miss one more opportunity to lift RHY up during this difficult time.”

Among the applications for the funding submitted to the city was a group one from Ali Forney Center (which, for years, has run a similar in-house program called LEAP), the LGBT Community Center, Henry Street Settlement, and Grand Street Settlement.

“The program was really well designed,” says Ali Forney executive director Alex Roque, “and offered clear pathways to sustainable employment, in that it had a start-up component rooted in assessments, education/training, hands-on experience, and then job placement. It also called for a large collaboration among agencies throughout the city to engage and support homeless LGBTQ youth.”

Another young LGBTQ person disappointed to hear of the cancellation is Maddox Guerilla, 23, of the Bronx, who was on the youth board that advised the city on the Unity program. “Some of us thought we’d be able to benefit from this program when it rolled out this summer,” says Guerilla. “It was going to be a huge thing for us to help fight the discrimination we face in society on top of a lot of us being kicked out of our homes. We’re still fighting to make it happen, but it’s going to be a challenge.”

The program might have proven invaluable in terms of getting LGBTQ youth into fields, such as fashion and horticulture, that both discrimination and a lack of resources might otherwise keep them out of, says Alexander “Lex” Perez, 27, who is formerly homeless and now works as a youth advocate for a housing program. Perez also advised the city on the program. “This program would’ve helped me when I was younger,” says Perez. “The fact that the city was dedicating this amount of money to a program for LGBTQ young people said a lot. But at this moment, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be salvaged.”

As for Gaines, he really hopes that the program—or some new culinary career opportunity—opens up sooner rather than later. “I love food,” he says. “I’ve been cooking since I was 3 years old. Before my grandmother knew I was gay, she said to me, ‘You’re not gonna be no grown-ass man waiting for some woman to cook and take care of you!’”

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