Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Kids Struggle on the Streets

Ali Forney Center Highlights Stories in 'Homeless at Holidays'

December 13, 2011, 3:05 PM

Dec. 13, 2011— -- Tiffany "LIFE" Cocco has been homeless for seven years, living on park benches, stoops and New York City's A train.

Her parents died of AIDS in the 1990s and so Cocco was raised by an aunt and uncle who disapproved of how she dressed and led her life -- as a lesbian.

"I was kicked out of the house at 15," said Cocco, a poet whose chosen middle name means "literary, intelligent, forward, engaged."

She dropped out of high school after being bullied, rebelled and was forced to keep her sexuality a secret. Cocco slipped into a depression so deep she nearly killed herself on an overdose of pain killers, NyQuil and Tylenol PM.

"I didn't trust anyone at all," said Cocco, who is now 24. "I tried to tell myself I was strong, but deep down inside I was falling apart."

A report released this week by the National Center on Family Homelessness, "America's Youngest Outcasts," finds one in 45 American children 18 and under -- 1.6 million -- live on the street, in homeless shelters, motels or with other families last year.

That number is up 33 percent from 2007. The numbers come from the Department of Education and do not include unaccompanied youth.

"But those youth are a very important issue," said John Kellogg, vice president of the national center.

About 20 to 40 percent of youth who leave home like Cocco to live on the streets identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), according to National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

In one study, 26 percent of teens who came out to their parents were told they must leave home. Others said they were physically, sexually or emotionally abused. The task force added that LGBT youth also reported that they are threatened, belittled and abused at shelters, not only by other residents, but by staff, as well.

Resources for homeless LGBT youth are scarce and shelters are at capacity, especially in New York City where the Ali Forney Center (AFC), estimates 3,800 youth are homeless, about 1,600 of them LGBT.

But they have only 250 beds for youth like Cocco, and state and city funding has been drying up.

This month, AFC launched a Web series, "Homeless for the Holidays," that makes an appeal those who struggle on the street as winter approaches. Cocco is one of the featured youths.

"My lowest point of trying to make it on the streets was three weeks ago," she says in her story. "My girlfriend and I had to sleep on the roof of a building in the Bronx. It was raining cats and dogs. I let her sleep, and stayed awake to make sure we were safe."

But today, Cocco is on a new path because of the support she got from AFC and another smaller shelter, Green Chimneys.

With a permanent roof over her head and a place to shower and keep her belongings, she has been able to earn her GED and now works at a vegetarian store with her domestic partner.

Cocco also wants to go to college to study writing or media communications."While we are in the shelters, my wife and I are saving up our money to get our own place," she said. "We want to do it on our own. No Section 8 and no welfare."

AFC is the largest serving LGBT youth in the nation. Only two other major shelters, one in Los Angeles and the The Ruth Ellis Center in Michigan serve this population.

"LGBT kids are eight times more like than straight youth to be homeless," said founder Carl Siciliano.

Families Often Reject Gay Children

The most common cause of homelessness is family rejection.

"We just live in a very divided society," said Siciliano. "In New York State, 54 percent are willing to support marriage equality, but that still means 46 percent don't."

"Even in a progressive state there is an incredible unwillingness to accept gay people as members of society," he said. "And if politicians and religious leaders go around saying it's unacceptable, and people give credence to that, how do they accept their gay kids?"

The center, founded in 2002, was named for Ali Forney, a gay 22-year-old who was murdered by a shot in the head on Dec. 2, 1997. He had been homeless since the age of 13, thrown out by his mother, and beaten up in foster care and group homes for his feminine behavior.

"Back then, there were no shelters and kids were stranded on the streets," said Siciliano. "They survived on prostitution and were addicted to drugs and infected with HIV. But most disturbingly, every few months kids were murdered on the streets."

Cocco has had close calls with assaults. One night riding the subway, her backpack was grabbed with such force that she was thrown from her seat.

"New York City is the birthplace of the gay rights movement and has a powerful gay community here," said Siciliano. "It's just so wrong that these kids are suffering."

The center runs two drop-in centers and a mental health clinic that also provides free medical treatment, as well as two housing programs, one for emergencies and another transitional facility.

They rely federal, state and some city funding, which has been substantially cut back during the down economy, and on private donations.

One gift -- $100,000 from gay activists Frank Selvaggi and Bill Shea -- arrived on the 14th anniversary of Ali Forney's death. They hope to raise even more funds for more shelter beds.

The couple saw a recent news special on homeless youth.

"It was completely devastating to see how these bright young kids had to fend for themselves," said Selvaggi, 52.

After meeting Siciliano, they made their decision to divert donations from Selvaggi's high school and to donate to AFC in 15 minutes.

"There's an urgent need for these kids, especially in New York City, where they are sleeping in the subways, rooftops and selling themselves for sex," said Selvaggi, a CPA. 'It's heartbreaking."

"We didn't know the facts and horror stories," said Shea, 52. "It blew our minds and we've got to wake up the community."

The couple, who were married seven years ago, said they found it hard to comprehend the cruelty of parents who reject their children.

"Frank and I were very lucky in our lives when we came out," said Shea, who the director of creative services for Autism Speaks. "Our parents were great. I am part of his family and he mine."

Cocco said that with a more stable life, she has now reconnected with her own family. And being part of the "Homeless at the Holidays" project has given her new hope.

"All these interviews [with homeless youth] inspired me to make a difference," she said, "to let people know that the kid sitting next to you on the train is probably homeless. Don't be fooled just because they don't smell like pee and wear nice clothes."