Editors' Note: Sassafras Lowrey is an internationally award-winning queer author, artist, educator who edited the Kicked Out anthology of current and former homeless LGBTQ youth. Sassafras tours to colleges, conferences, and organizations across the country. More about Sassafras is available at pomofreakshow.com and kickedoutanthology.com.
As NYC begins to return to normal, and many residents are left eating through their stockpiled junk food, wondering when MTA will be up and running, and complaining about media hype and "overreaction," I'm left with a mixture of deep gratitude and anger. New York got lucky.
There was morally and criminally insufficient forethought and preparations from the city, and private agencies to get homeless individuals including LGBTQ youth out of the parks, and off the streets before the hurricane hit. Like the prisioners at Rikers Island, keeping the homeless safe this weekend was clearly a very low priority for Mayor Bloomberg. We are lucky people didn't pay for that carelessness with their lives.
When the city began making announcements about the mandatory evacuation of the areas known as Zone A, there was no planning or attention paid to the hundreds of homeless individuals that call those areas home and where they were expected to go in the midst of the storm. This was particularly concerning because included in Manhattan's Zone A was The Piers a location where homeless LGBTQ youth gather. The piers and surrounding neighborhoods are home to many homeless queer youth, yet no evacuation strategy was put in place by the city to meet the needs of these or any other homeless communities in NYC.
The entire NYC transit system was closed at noon on Saturday, and anyone whose ever ridden the MTA doesn't need homeless rights advocates to tell them that the trains are normally a source of shelter for homeless individuals. I am not arguing that shutting down train service was the safest option, but I am saying that attention needed to be given to the reality that for thousands in this city those trains are more than a way to get around, they are sometimes the only dry place to sleep and if you are taking that away you are ethically obligated to help people get somewhere safe.
As the trains shut down I was horrified to see pictures coming in over twitter via the MTA that police had "secured" Grand Central and that like the trains themselves it would also be closed. Grand Central, is a place many people know they are able to secure warm and dry shelter during severe winter weather, and yet for this storm was closed with seemingly no concern about what would happen to people arriving there searching for a way out of Irene's wrath.
The only physically safe option for homeless folks thorough the city were the hurricane evacuation shelters that had been set up to provide sanctuary to the residents of Zone A's across the five boroughs, yet the reality is that without access to television, radio, and the internet very few homeless people knew that they existed. Many homeless people didn't even know that this deadly storm was aimed right at the city.
We know that mainstream shelters are more often than not dangerous places for LGBTQ people, especially transgender and gender nonconforming individuals. Queer folks are harassed, abused, and sometimes even denied services because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Needless to say no thought went into if these evacuation shelters would be able to safely meet the needs of the homeless community, as a whole let alone LGBTQ homeless individuals.
The proven need for culturally competent services is the reasoning behind the fantastic LGBTQ youth shelters that exist in cities across the country including NYC. These organizations save the lives of queer kids everyday by providing safe spaces for them to get off the streets, yet they utterly failed our kids this weekend. Not one of the city's queer youth homeless shelters (all of whom were at capacity) made plans to provide emergency hurricane shelter for the thousands of youth they know that on any given night are sleeping on the streets, piers, parks, and trains of our city. Our kids deserve far better.
Yesterday afternoon there was a lot of self-congratulations from Mayor Bloomberg about how well prepared we were. I can't help but wonder if he's never passed a park and seen kids voguing backpacks scattered on the sidelines, If he's never seen a woman sitting on the street corner, or a man hunched and sleeping on the train. That's the world I see everyday and I know for a fact he was not prepared to help them through this natural disaster of historic proportions.
None of us were.