Church aids expansion of shelter for gay youths

Since 2002, when he opened the Ali Forney Center, which helps homeless gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth, Carl Siciliano says, he has often witnessed the baleful effects of some religious institutions on some young people. He said he had regularly heard stories about priests verbally or physically abusing youngsters who had come out to their parents, urging them to suppress their sexuality and telling parents to disown their children.

So when the Episcopal Community Services of Long Island contacted Mr. Siciliano about creating a shelter for homeless gay youths, he paused.

But a $200,000 donation later, the charity, and the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, of which it is a part, helped create a new 16-bed shelter at the Church of St. Andrew’s in Astoria. The Ali Forney Center, which is named for a gay homeless teenager who was killed in 1997 and which has seen its budget cut in the past year by nearly $450,000 because of the economic downturn, is partnering with the church in operating the shelter.

“For a lot of us, when we hear about Christianity, our stomachs kind of churn,” Mr. Siciliano said in an interview. “Another part of me is very grateful the church is making this kind of gesture.”

He added that the gift comes at a time when religious organizations and gay rights activists have clashed over issues ranging from marriage equality to the recent appointment of an openly gay bishop.

But the partnership is less about politics than about simple charity, said Bishop Lawrence C. Provenzano, who represents 146 congregations in the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island (which includes Brooklyn and Queens).

“I think it’s an obligation to care for God’s people,” Bishop Provenzano said. “This is basic nuts-and-bolts Christianity.”

A 2007 study conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Coalition for the Homeless estimated that up to 40 percent of nearly 1.6 million homeless American youth identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

“It’s not a reality enough people know about,” said the City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, during an opening reception on Nov. 23 for the new shelter, at 46-09 31st Avenue.

One of the youngsters, Coyotee Jaska Young, 22, said it was a challenge for homeless gay youth to stay in shelters where most of the patrons are heterosexual. Gay youth regularly face harassment if they choose to be open about their sexuality or worry about being abused, he said. Some turn to prostitution or offer sexual favors for shelter, too.

Mr. Young, who left Kokomo, Ind., for New York almost 10 months ago after his family refused to support him, described the Church of St. Andrew’s as his new home in what was a “Cinderella moment” in his life thus far.

“I’m able to sleep here with my two eyes closed,” said Mr. Young, who dreams of an acting career.

His friend, Jiaya Temple, who spent three months homeless before she found a bed at the Ali Forney Center more than a year and a half ago, said the shelter is helping her become more independent. She plans to get her G.E.D. in a few weeks and has taken culinary classes.

On a recent evening, Ms. Temple, 22, who is making the transition from male to female, showed off the new silver Ikea bunk beds in the basement of the church. Each youth gets his or her own locker, mirror and drawers. There is also a separate entertainment room and kitchen for the group.

“I wouldn’t think of this place when somebody says it’s a shelter,” Ms. Temple said.

The Ali Forney Center takes in about 1,000 youths a year, most of them 16 to 24 years old. Still, an average of 150 youths are on a waiting list each night, Mr. Siciliano said.

Ksen Pallegedara, one of the first to work with the Ali Forney Center, remembered staying in the basement of the Metropolitan Community Church of New York in 2002 when six homeless youths slept on Army-style cots and held their belongings in garbage bags. With the help of Mr. Siciliano and others, though, Mr. Pallegedara, 24, graduated from Hunter College with degrees in political science and Russian.

He did not think he would see another church, he said, but added, “It’s really gratifying to see a church behave like a church.”

BAO ONG, The New York Times

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