Carl Siciliano got the call four days after the storm of the century made landfall.
Siciliano hadn’t seen the damage that Superstorm Sandy had caused to the Ali Forney Center, the largest organization in the U.S. dedicated to homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. The drop-in center in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York was located a half of a block away from the Hudson River. The landlord of the building told Siciliano that the floodwater came up to the front desk of the center’s lobby. At first, Siciliano was slightly relieved, thinking there would only be minimal damage.
But then he received another call from two staff members who jogged from Brooklyn to Manhattan's West 22nd Street to see the damage firsthand. They found it in ruins.
Four feet of water had overwhelmed the facility. The floors had buckled and the electrical outlets were full of saltwater that came over from Chelsea Piers, roughly 1,300 feet from the center. The medical supplies were compromised and food was rotting in the floodwater. Desks were submerged and records and files were left unreadable. The devastation left the center uninhabitable, forcing Siciliano and his staff to scramble to find refuge for the 30 to 40 homeless LGBT youths the center usually saw on a daily basis.
"It didn’t occur to us that our space would be inundated with four feet of water and that the storm would destroy the building," Siciliano says. "We weren’t really planning for that."
What also wasn’t planned was the response that followed, one that would turn the Ali Forney Center into one of the feel-good stories to come out of the Sandy relief effort – and help reignite the larger conversation around homeless LGBT youth in New York.
'We became hot'
Founded in 2002, the Ali Forney Center has become the largest organization in the country dedicated to homeless LGBT youth. Of the estimated 350 beds dedicated to homeless LGBT youth in the U.S., the center operates about a fourth of the nationwide total. It will run 89 beds among several buildings throughout New York by this Thanksgiving.
Homeless LGBT youth groups already faced a difficult funding climate before Sandy hit, said Kimberly Forte, a supervising attorney for the LGBT Law and Policy Initiative at the Legal Aid Society of New York City. Since 2008, New York state's spending on beds and services for runaway and homeless youths has been cut more than half, down to $745,000 a year.
"This crisis, which is now at its worst, has been building and building and building over the last decade,” Forte said. “I have no doubt Sandy had a tremendous impact on homeless LGBT youth throughout the entire city.”
For many organizations supporting homeless youth as a whole, the storm's devastation was a tough pill to swallow.
“Many organizations are operating on a shoestring budget and have been struggling,” says Jama Shelton, director of the Forty to None Project at the True Colors Fund, an organization fighting to end homelessness among LGBT youth. “Even if a drop-in center wasn’t flooded, the fact their electricity was out means they lost all their food and medication. For a small program that’s maybe struggling to keep their doors open, that’s devastating.”
Most urgently, the center needed to find refuge for the youths who regularly hung out there. The 1,200-square-foot space on West 22nd Street had become so moldy that it would take two weeks for a remediation crew to figure out what was destroyed and what the damages would be. Soon, Siciliano would give an update on the state of the center, pleading for assistance.