Homeless Gay Youths Seek Security, Equality
Some Live in Abandoned Brooklyn House
By Verena Dobnik
BROOKLYN — Iro Uikka clutches his throat as he describes the violent clash that led to spending his nights sleeping in New York City subway cars.
“When I told my mother I was gay, she grabbed me by the neck and threw me out,” he says. “Then she threw my coat on top of me and shut the door.”
That was five years ago when he was 18, still living at home in Florida.
Uikka is among tens of thousands of homeless youths across America who are LGBT — lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Most are on the streets because they have nowhere else to go — outcasts who leave home after being rejected by family members or flee shelters because residents bully or beat them.
LGBT young people represent a dramatically high proportion of an estimated 600,000 or more homeless youths across the country — between 20 percent and 40 percent, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute.
“We’ve won battles for gay marriage and gays in the military,” says Carl Siciliano, founder and executive director of the New York-based Ali Forney Center, whose shelters in Brooklyn and Queens house 47 youths. “This is the next frontier, the next battle: helping these youths.”
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth are about four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers, according to the CDC. And one in three is thrown out by their parents, according to data collected from youth across the country by the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University.
On any given day, there are almost 4,000 homeless youths in New York City, and at least 1,000 are LGBT, according to a 2008 census released by the City Council.
Each night, some fill tables at a fast-food shop off Manhattan’s Union Square. One is a lively 19-year-old bisexual man from Virginia.
When he leaves in the late evening, Baresco Escobar goes to the far end of Brooklyn to sleep in an abandoned house with dozens of homeless kids, covering bare floors with blankets and cuddling for warmth.
“Home is where you’re supposed to have stability, unconditional love, support, a foundation,” he says. Instead, back in Virginia, “I was in a place of dysfunction, with expectations that didn’t apply to me — full of judgment, discrimination and hypocrisy.”
Escobar goes to the Ali Forney drop-in center on Manhattan’s West Side, which offers clothing, counseling, workshops in life skills, showers, laundry facilities and HIV testing. A nurse is available for quick checkups, sending clients for follow-ups with doctors.
The Ali Forney Center opened in 2002. Siciliano named it after a transgender youth who was kicked out of his home at 13. He was found shot to death on a Harlem sidewalk in 1997, at 22. By then, he had become a counselor to his homeless friends.
Siciliano knows of five other LGBT youths who were killed in New York over the years.
Despite the hardships, the city is a magnet for young people who grew up with conservative traditions, whether among immigrants from Caribbean and Asian countries or parts of the United States where residents are less accepting of sexual diversity.
Gizmo Lopez, 19, comes from a staunchly Catholic family with Puerto Rican roots. She now sleeps on the subway.
“I’m bisexual, and my stepfather didn’t approve; he said it’s wrong,” said the teenager, whose mother died two years ago.
Her stepfather moved to Puerto Rico with her two half-brothers, leaving her behind — alone in the family’s apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. One afternoon, when she came home from school, “I found a pink slip on the door.”
She was evicted.
“I took my stuff, cried and left,” she says. “We’re nomads.”