Homeless Youths Star in Ads for Ali Forney Center
Source: The New York Blade
By ERLINE ANDREWS
Friday, June 08, 2007
Eleven months ago, when David Williams’s mother turned him out of her home because he was gay, he wandered the streets of Manhattan for three weeks, sleeping in the Columbus Circle subway station. Eventually, he found refuge at the Ali Forney Center, a shelter for homeless LGBT youths. His experience there has been so positive that he wants to tell many people about it. And he will.
Williams, 21, and other residents of the Ali Forney shelters will be the faces and voices of an ad campaign scheduled to begin this month in brochures, newspapers and magazines, and on posters, television and web sites. It will target gay youths who are homeless or in dire situations at home. Its message is simple: Help is out there.
“There’s nothing I can do that’s going to make it OK for a kid to be thrown out by his parents,” says Carl Siciliano, Ali Forney’s executive director. “But it doesn’t have to be such an utter tragedy.”
Siciliano is referring to the homeless LGBT young men and women who get caught up in the potentially fatal cycle of drugs, prostitution and violence. He saw it too often in the ’90s, when he began working with LGBT homeless. It’s why, in 2002, he set up the Ali Forney Center, named after a homeless gay youth who was murdered.
Since then, several churches have begun offering shelter to LGBT youths in New York City, but Ali Forney remains the most comprehensive. It offers meals, counseling, health services and employment and housing assistance at a Chelsea location and emergency or longer stays at six shelters in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The Ali Forney shelters—actual apartments—are the most attractive of the options. The transitional homes are decorated like they belong to young professionals.
Recently, one of shelters—located on a quiet block of red-brick apartment buildings on Clifton Place in Brooklyn—is buzzing with activity. The five residents and a cadre of volunteers are working on the early stages of the ad campaign. Williams and roommate Queenasia Bailey, 20, pose seated in grey armchairs. Photographer Joan Beard is crouched in front of them, fiddling with her camera, while filmmaker Matt Paco hovers nearby. In one bedroom upstairs, more volunteers help the residents document their lives.
Williams now has a degree in graphic design and plans to get one in social work. He runs a reading program at a health center. Queenasia, a lesbian who’s been with Ali Forney since January, is studying to gain her GED and plans to become a nurse. Currently, she works as a home-help aid for elderly people.
“It gives me a chance to do everything else that I need to do, because I have a stable environment to live in,” Williams says of Ali Forney.
The new ad campaign will be the center’s second and most ambitious. The first took the form of newspaper ads and posters in subway stations and trains. They each featured a parent, a baby and a message of acceptance. In one, a father proudly rest his face against that of a chubby baby boy. The caption read: “Would you stop loving him if you know he’s gay?” The main target of the ads were Caribbean black and Latino communities, from which emerge most of the homeless LGBT youths. “People are coming to New York from countries where there’s much less acceptance or even understanding of homosexuality,” says Siciliano. “You have this gulf between the experience of the kids, who connect to the gay community in New York, and the parents.”
Ali Forney’s evolution, from simple beginnings in a church basement to leader in LGBT youth activism, has been propelled by demand. Siciliano realized that shelters and a few services weren’t enough to make up for the past neglect of young LGBT needs.
“As we became more well-known, kids were starting to call us when they’re still at home,” Siciliano says, “saying my father’s beating me up for being too effeminate or my mother won’t let me around the other kids because she thinks it’s contagious. These were situations where the kids didn’t feel safe and welcome any more in their homes.”
The center, which receives funding from state and federal agencies and private donors, began to offer family counseling. The ads are another type of outreach. The response to the first campaign was so strong—calls to the center increased five-fold, says Siciliano—it demanded a second one.
Arthur Korant, creative director of the gay marketing company Double Platinum, conceived and directed the first campaign. He’s doing the same for the second, providing his services free. He says although last year’s ads were confined to publications and locations within New York, they had impact outside of the city.
“We found the campaign went on blogs all over the country,” he said, adding that he’s expecting the new campaign to do even better.
Photographer Joan Beard sees Ali Forney’s work as wide-reaching. Beard volunteered to help after being moved by a speech Siciliano gave at a benefit. It’s not the first time she’s worked with young people in tough situations.
“Just having people available to support and nurture them, it can boomerang,” says Beard. “You touch one kid’s life, and they may touch two people’s lives, and they touch five lives on and on and on like that.”
Studies have shown that LGBT teens are more likely to wind up on the streets than straight teens and more likely to be victims of violence. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Coalition for the Homeless released a report last December that found that up to 42 percent of the nation’s homeless youth identify as lesbian or gay. That means, of New York City’s estimated 15,000 to 30,000 homeless youth population, about 6,300 to 12,600 are LGBT.
But the picture isn’t all bleak. Ali Forney’s “would you still love them …” campaign drew responses from as far away as Peru, says Siciliano. Most of the calls were from parents who wanted to support their gay teens but weren’t sure how.
Siciliano tells the story of a 15-year-old Mexican boy who came in for counseling with his mother. He was convinced that she could never accept him despite her repeated avowals to the contrary. He finally broke down.
“He started to cry, and they hugged each other,” says Siciliano. “It was very moving.”