Hurricane Sandy flooded the New York Tri-State Area on October 29, 2012. The outline of the island of Manhattan was submerged, some buildings up to at least four feet, and power was lost below 34th Street for days. One building in Sandy’s wake was 527 West 22nd Street, home of the Ali Forney Center Chelsea Drop-In, named after a 22 year-old homeless gay man that was fatally shot in December 1997. Forney’s heartbreaking death coupled with lack of homeless shelters for gay youths at the time led AFC executive director Carl Siciliano to start the organization to offer shelter and services to New York City’s LGBT homeless youth in 2002.
Created by Tom Arana-Wolfe with timetoast.
It wasn’t until November 2 that Sandy’s destruction of the drop-in center could be surveyed first hand. AFC program director Steve Gordon told the New York Times that he had to jog over the East River from his home in Brooklyn to reach the west side Chelsea location.
“When I turned the key in the door, I couldn’t open it, because the floor had been raised,” he recalled. After Mr. Gordon and a colleague pushed their way in, they quickly grasped that the 1,200-square-foot center was a total loss — “knocked and rocked,” in Mr. Gordon’s words. Water had reached a height of at least four feet, submerging desks, immersing files and other records, and tossing or upending a refrigerator, a freezer and portable air-conditioners. Food, clothing, telephones, computers and medical equipment were ruined.
There was no way that AFC could salvage the space, especially before their lease was up in the beginning of 2013. They were already planning to move to a larger 24-hour location at West 125th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem, however the cost of the move now coupled with the replacement of all the destroyed property was astronomical. Siciliano took to the nonprofit’s web site to explain the negative impact this would have on their LGBT homeless youth clients:
“This is a terrible tragedy for the homeless LGBT youth we serve there. This space was dedicated to our most vulnerable kids, the thousands stranded on the streets without shelter, and was a place where they received food, showers, clothing, medical care, HIV testing and treatment, and mental health and substance abuse services. Basically a lifeline for LGBT kids whose lives are in danger.”
Ali Forney Drop-In Center for Homeless LGBT Youth Destroyed by Hurricane Sandy – YouTube by Paul West
Social media assisted in donations starting to pour in. Blogger Joe.My.God handed over one of his posts to Siciliano to get AFC’s tragic story out. MSNBC’s Host Melissa Harris-Perry logged onto Twitter and spread the news including a web link for donations. Her tweet was retweeted by 1970’s film icon Pam Grier and others resulting in donations to grow within three days to $100,000. By November 16, worldwide donations over doubled that number to $250,000. On December 4, just four weeks after the initial appeal went out, Siciliano announced they secured $400,000 in donations to replace what was lost and to open the Harlem drop-in center.
While raise money was necessary to open the new drop-in center, there was an immediate need for a safe place for gay homeless youth to go in the meantime. The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center opened its doors and gave AFC a room for a temporary gay homeless youth drop-in center. Medical services would still be provided by the Institute for Family Health, but at their East 16th Street location instead of on-site like previously.
Another gay youth nonprofit organization heard of AFC’s efforts to restore what little resembled normalcy for AFC’s clients. The It Gets Better Project held its first A Better Holiday concert at the West Village’s Joe’s Pub last year as a fundraiser for their fight to reach out to LGBT youth and let them know that they are not alone and can overcome bullying. This year, they decided to give their proceeds of the 2012 A Better Holiday concert on December 16 at Manhattan’s XL Nightclub instead to AFC.
“We know that a large number of homeless youth identify as LGBT/Queer, and when we learned that Hurricane Sandy had destroyed the Ali Forney Day Center, we knew that we wanted to find a way to do something, to lend support,” said Stephanie Laffin, member of the Board of Directors of It Gets Better Project. “Providing resources and identifying ways that young people can find help is a big part of the It Gets Better Project, and realizing that such an important resource that provides counseling, mental health and medical services, employment services, housing, food and support would not be able to help LGBT youth compelled us to utilize our resources and platforms to support AFC.”
Laffin explained helping AFC was more than simply helping them back on their feet after a natural disaster. It was about a brighter future for LGBT youth.
“The AFC Day Center acts as a central location for LGBT homeless young people to get help. Water levels reached over four feet, and everything in the building was destroyed. While several organizations stepped forward to provide temporary housing for some of the AFC services and a new Day Center will open soon in Harlem, we knew that we had to do something to help. Supporting AFC now is not just about Hurricane Sandy, it is about helping LGBT youth get off the street and stay off the street, and the assistance they need to make that happen. The mission of the It Gets Better Project has always been to provide positive messages of hope for LGBT youth, and by supporting AFC, we’re able to take that idea and actually work to help provide services and support so that homeless LGBT young people can work towards a better future, and get off the streets.”