The stats might be nothing new to you: 40 percent of homeless youth identify as being LGBTQ. But having spent some time with these youth, I know that numbers are just numbers until you see a face and hear what is often a very disturbing story. The fact that few people have ever experienced this makes a movie like A Road to Home all the more important.
As many as 500,000 young people experience homelessness in the United States every year. Doing the math, that’s 200,000 LGBTQ youth who are potentially affected. With numbers like that, it’s no surprise that the Ali Forney Center (AFC) in New York City came to be. The largest LGBTQ community center focused on helping LGBTQ homeless youth in the country, it’s fitting that AFC is at the center of Cal Skaggs’ new documentary.
More specifically, six youth (four of them getting help from AFC) and AFC staff members are profiled. The majority of these youth are POC, which is in line with national numbers that point out POC represent over 70 percent of LGBTQ homeless youth.
But, again, those are only numbers. What really means something is getting to know Beniah, Noel, Giovanno, Benjamin, Danielle and Zaykeem. Over the course of 18 months, we do. Of the youth profiled, two are queer women: Noel and Danielle.
Noel is a trans woman whose father kicked her out after she began expressing her true gender identity. She’s tried to commit suicide three times, a figure that’s not all that surprising when you consider that 62 percent of homeless LGBTQ attempt suicide, this compared to 29 percent of heterosexual homeless youth.
But whereas Noel is staying at AFC, Danielle is living in a women’s shelter that she describes as looking like a prison and being “depressing.” At the same time, she says the conditions motivate her to not stay there forever. It’s a shame that she has to be there at all, but she had to leave home after coming out to her dad as a lesbian.
In the past, Danielle has sold drugs to keep herself afloat. Doing so was by no means easy on her, what with her mom having been a drug addict who died of an overdose. But these days she dutifully attends classes, calling her school her “safe haven” and “the only thing I have.”
While financial aid allows Danielle to attend college for free, she still doesn’t have a home at AFC. With only 77 beds, the shelter turns away up to 200 youth a night. Drop-in programming is essential, but without funding, there’s only so much they can do.
That doesn’t mean they don’t try. It seems to be the nature of the job to go above and beyond. Several AFC employees are queer women. It’s typical to see employees driving around the streets of New York at night doing outreach work. Their hope is that if they become familiar faces, youth that are sticking to the streets (many doing so year-round) might come to trust them. Several employees put in night shifts at the center as well, while others lead therapy sessions, career counseling meetings and more.
But it’s not always about the business of running the center. There are field days at the park, Halloween balls, talent shows and the like that allow for another level of bonding.
Still, money, or the lack thereof, has a way of rearing its ugly head. During the course of filming, a few employees had to be let go because of a significant decrease in funding, which also contributed to a 170 person waitlist and reduced hours of access and weekend closures.
What does that mean for AFC’s future and, consequently, the future of a lot of youth? While the center has supporters, like Ally Sheedy and Edie Windsor who are briefly seen in the film, it’s clear star power isn’t enough to keep AFC’s doors open. It’s going to take a village.
So what of the six youth? How especially do things pan out for Noel and Danielle? I invite you to watch the film to find out, while keeping in mind that for young people living under such conditions, life is always in transition.
If you’re interested in volunteering with or donating to AFC, visit the center’s website for more information.
A Road to Home screens at the Kaleidoscope LGBT Film Festival in Little Rock on Aug. 20 and at the Atlanta LGBT Film and Music Festival on Aug. 26. Visit the movie’s website for future screening dates.