Homeless LGBTQ Youth Still Bearing Brunt of COVID
Disadvantaged young New Yorkers face health, economic, social effects of pandemic
BY MATT TRACY
When the coronavirus
York City last year,
homeless individuals were immediately
impacted. Many providers
offering much-needed in-person
services quickly shut their doors,
housing insecurity worsened, and
COVID-19 spread through crowded
Now, nearly one year since the
mass shutdowns in mid-March,
homeless LGBTQ youth — already
overrepresented among homeless
individuals — have continued to
fi nd the COVID crisis consuming
all aspects of their lives. Staff
members who have weathered the
storm are still strained.
Kate Barnhart, the founder and
executive director of New Alternatives
for Homeless LGBT Youth, which
helps queer young people transition
out of the shelter system, said her
clients are facing barriers to mental
and physical healthcare as well
as a lack of dedicated social spaces,
among other lingering issues.
At Ali Forney Center, which provides
housing and support services
to queer young people, they are
seeing similar problems — including
mental healthcare needs.
“It is very much still a pandemic
for us,” Alex Roque, Ali Forney Center’s
president and executive director,
told Gay City News. “People are
coming to us really traumatized.
They were already denied a home
by the people who were supposed
to love them unconditionally.”
The interruption of services
early on in the pandemic led to a
ripple effect that is evident today
for clients of both New Alternatives
and the Ali Forney Center.
Barnhart pointed to an uptick in
depression and anxiety cases, but
she said her clients — who have to
rely on Medicaid providers — are
facing months-long waiting lists to
see a doctor or a dentist.
“One girl was called for an intake,
but they missed the call, and
they were told, ‘Well, the next time
available is six months from now,’”
Kate Barnhart, executive director of New Alternatives for LGBT Homeless Youth.
Alex Roque heads up the Ali Forney Center.
The very threat of COVID-19
infection is hindering some of the
most marginalized homeless individuals
— undocumented folks —
from accessing basic healthcare.
Barnhart said many undocumented
clients have been reluctant
to go to the doctor out of fear that
immigration offi cials could sweep
them up and hold them in custody,
where they could be exposed to
COVID-19 in crowded spaces.
For youth experiencing homelessness,
some shelters seem to
pose greater risks than others.
While the Ali Forney Center has
on-site testing four days a week,
social distancing measures and
proper protection are apparently
hard to come by in city shelters,
according to Barnhart, who said
she has heard mixed reports about
compliance at those locations.
“One client was freaking out because
she got to a city adult shelter
in Brooklyn where they were not
PHOTO ALEX ROQUE
doing any COVID compliance at
all,” Barnhart said. “I’m hearing
mixed reports about compliance.”
Those housing issues have been
compounded by economic woes.
Many homeless LGBTQ youth trying
to establish their footing saw
their work lives turn upside down
during the pandemic. A whopping
90 percent of the kids at the Ali
Forney center lost their jobs and 65
percent lost the education structure
that was in place pre-pandemic.
“For our kids, it is another layer
of devastation,” Roque said.
Barnhart and Roque both explained
that their teams have had
to absorb extra workloads to help
meet their clients’ needs at a time
when many places are still operating
in a limited fashion.
In fact, closings of restaurants
and other public spaces left many
homeless individuals with nowhere
to go as a last resort. Shelter beds
have been in high demand during
the pandemic and those who are
unable to secure a bed are unable
to fall back on other places, like the
subway, which is still not operating
on a full schedule. And when
shelters are closed during the day,
folks have fewer places to go.
“People went to Starbucks and
they went to the public library; none
of those are available,” Barnhart
said. “Places like bathrooms in Port
Authority, where people would brush
their teeth, are just not available.”
“They want to be able to enjoy
time with friends and eat dinner
like they used to,” she said.
That all could change once more
folks are vaccinated, but in the
meantime, shelter residents are indeed
eligible for the vaccine. New
Alternatives and Ali Forney Center
are helping to connect clients to
vaccines and educating those who
are hesitant to get a shot.
Roque said the city set up a “vaccination
day” for kids at Ali Forney
Center and his team has been helping
kids schedule appointments to
get vaccinated. They’ve also organized
Barnhart said many clients have
voiced suspicions about the vaccine,
so New Alternatives surveyed
them to understand how they felt
and then posted educational fl yers.
The organization is also creating
TikTok videos about the vaccine
and Barnhart documented her
own experience getting both of her
shots so others could see “nothing
crazy happens,” she said.
It will still be some time until
a sense of normalcy sets in for
the general public, but homeless
LGBTQ youth will still be facing
adversity long after the pandemic
subsides — and that’s been evident
ever since they felt the weight of the
pandemic at the onset.
“It’s important from an LGBTQrelated
perspective to know that
our queer homeless youth are always
last in the line of services,
last in the line of consideration,
and last in line of being connected,”
Roque said. “The pandemic
has just exacerbated that. I don’t
know when the awakening is going
to happen, but our kids have been
on the outs for a long time.”
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