Guest Blogger

No Shelter: NYC Failed LGBT Youth During Hurricane Irene

Filed By Guest Blogger | August 29, 2011 8:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: gay youth, Hurricane Irene, LGBT homeless youth, New York City, NYC, Sassafras Lowrey

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 red-cross-emergency-kit.jpgMTA 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.

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I was a homeless LGBTQ youth for years and am now a disabled first responder who volunteered for almost 45 years for communities across this country, and I am afraid your expectations of specialized emergency services for LGBTQ youth are unrealistic. In a disaster resources are already stretched extremely thin just to protect lives.

In a disaster cooperation from the public is essential, and people who do not wish to be evacuated or sheltered cannot be forced to. All we can do is beg people to accept help and stay safe. Over the weekend during the hurricance I literally walked the entire lower west side and up through midtown going to and from the evacuation center where I was a volunteer. There was a police or EMS vehicle parked on every single side street leading into the mandatory evacuation areas to assist anyone in trouble, and inform anyone remaining of their options for shelter. EVERY SINGLE SIDE STREET was covered. That is a huge mobilization of people to help anyone in trouble, regardless of sexual orientation of gender identity or presentation. The streets were constantly patrolled by emergency responders. The evacuation centers took in everyone who came, families were roomed together, no matter what their constitution (I was there to witness this). Outside the evacuation center I spoke with many of the homeless who stayed just outside the shelters, generally smoking and drinking, activities that are not permitted in the shelters. If people do not want to come in to sleep it would be an abridgment of their rights to try to force them.

As a previously homeless person I found that any information about free services, shelter, food, etc., spread like wildfire by word of mouth. And homeless people now have cell phones and internet access, and unless they are too drunk or drugged to be conscious they are well aware of surroundings, dangers, and survival aid. Many hold down jobs even while homeless. Homeless people are often very capable, and are better than many privileged people at survival.

Homeless LGBTQ youth in the parks with their backpacks are generally indistinguishable from well to do NYU students.

I'm sure you want to advocate for LGBTQ youth protection, but the youth have to also do their part and be responsible enough to take cover when it is offered without prejudice.

I advocate for cultural sensitivity toward all people for first responders and emergency personnel, but we have to also consider that in a disaster only people's most basic needs for safety and public health can be fulfilled, and that is minimal. Everyone is special, and has special needs to feel safe and embraced, but in an emergency expectations of emergency services have to be realistic. For every person who doesn't want help there are hundreds, if not thousands, who do, and they are the ones who do get the help we are capable of delivering. Those who don't end up on their own.

Also, many people who serve during an emergency are volunteers, and are not mandated to attend any cultural sensitivity training or otherwise commit to warm, courteous, sensitive treatment of everyone they help. They can get someone a cot, but may not always do it with a smile. In extreme times it remains necessary to overlook some less than optimal accommodations. Stress does not bring out the best in everyone. Nevertheless, most people will do the best they can.

Jay,

The gist of the article was about the homeless and impoverished who were ignored by City Officials as the storm approached. Outside of the historical issue of why mainstream shelters are not always good places for LGTQ youth and the fact that LGBTQ are more likely to be homeless, the main point I got from this, was how the city ignored the needs of this population. For example, shutting down Grand Central Station was bad all around, not just for LGBTQ homeless youth. I didn't see where Sassafras Lowrey advocated for specific services for LGBTQ populations in emergencies.

-Jeremy

"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."

This seemed to suggest that LGBTQ-specific services are expected, even if the larger point was homeless services in general. Not an attempt to refute your point, just a POI from my perspective of the piece.

Jeremy, during a disaster the needs of all people must be addressed, and we triage those needs according to the threat to life. In that respect, the needs of everyone are equal; to be protected from loss of life. The needs of someone bleeding to death gets our priority whether they are homeless or not, and special provisions cannot be made under those circumstances. If it was necessary to close Grand Central Station, the people there could go to the evacuation centers like everyone else who could not stay in their homes.

Perhaps I need to go a step further here, and say that I fully support that prioritizing.

There are always arrogant people who come up to us first responders in an emergency and demand special treatment, and if we start giving special consideration to everyone who comes up insisting that "They know somebody" , or will sue us for not catering to them first, giving them special provisions, etc, then that will cost those who are in genuine need of emergency care. We need to remain available for the emergent needs, not indulging people who think they are more valuable than everyone else.

In this case hundreds of thousands of people were horribly inconvenienced by the mandatory evacuations from their homes, and no one liked moving, but they did it for everyone's safety. Both the wealthy Battery Park co-op owner and the homeless in Grand Central. No one was turned away from shelters. Bus fares were suspended so people could evacuate for free, and public housing residents who had to evacuate were given special free busses to ride in, with their pets. Pets were given special cages to sleep in, veterinary care and shelters were staffed with doctors and mental health providers for the humans... Honestly, Howard Wolfson studied all the failings of Katrina, where the poor were genuinely treated like garbage, and NYC remedied it all. I don't see how much further we could have gone. The poor were treated as valuable citizens. No one would be left waving white sheets from their rooftops begging to be saved from the rising flood waters. I feel we are going overboard here playing the victim card. Not a single person died from lack of care here.

I think also it is a mistake to regard the homeless as helpless. I felt somewhat patronized and insulted by this article, as though being homeless made one some kind of pathetic victim who didn't know a huge hurricane was coming. If you are homeless, you already know how to survive one night of Grand Central being closed. A minor inconvenience in a life of hardship and trauma.

Thank you for writing this response. I won't pit both of your experiences against one another, but I did find it strange that the article suggested that the homeless had no idea that a hurricane was coming. The homeless don't live in a vacuum free from current events; information travels. Homeless youth do have access to technology, and quite innovative access, even if it's nowhere near what most of us mean for the average youth.

And I trust that the subway and the park were closed for very real safety reasons, for a working-class civilian or a homeless civilian. With the flooding going on, and no real idea of how bad the flooding would be, I can't imagine that a subterranean enclosed space would be a safe place to hide out as water gushes in. Likewise, even if someone was in there, in the event of an emergency, access is a huge issue for rescue workers.

I can't really speak on how I think NYC did, considering that I wasn't there like either of you. Sassafras may have seen and heard things, testimony, etc. that gives real cause for outrage. As far as I can tell, however, it SEEMS as though everything was done well. No one was harmed, space was available, nobody died. When a tornado comes, do you take shelter in the basement, or do you really care that it's the evangelical church basement and wish you could have hid out in the LGBT-friendly safe-zone basement?

Thank you for writing this response. I won't pit both of your experiences against one another, but I did find it strange that the article suggested that the homeless had no idea that a hurricane was coming. The homeless don't live in a vacuum free from current events; information travels. Homeless youth do have access to technology, and quite innovative access, even if it's nowhere near what most of us mean for the average youth.

And I trust that the subway and the park were closed for very real safety reasons, for a working-class civilian or a homeless civilian. With the flooding going on, and no real idea of how bad the flooding would be, I can't imagine that a subterranean enclosed space would be a safe place to hide out as water gushes in. Likewise, even if someone was in there, in the event of an emergency, access is a huge issue for rescue workers.

I can't really speak on how I think NYC did, considering that I wasn't there like either of you. Sassafras may have seen and heard things, testimony, etc. that gives real cause for outrage. As far as I can tell, however, it SEEMS as though everything was done well. No one was harmed, space was available, nobody died. When a tornado comes, do you take shelter in the basement, or do you really care that it's the evangelical church basement and wish you could have hid out in the LGBT-friendly safe-zone basement?

I also want to recommend to folks that the very best way to make sure homeless and poor people are well cared for in n emergency is to join your local emergency preparedness services, either as a first responder or volunteer. Our presence there advocating directly for equal treatment for everyone is the most effective way to change the services we participate in and through providing direct service to people in need. It's not hard to do, and the civic involvement can be very empowering and educational. Also, you get a much better idea about the interventions that actually help people and address real needs, so you become a far more constructive advocate in other situations as well.

I also worked in a shelter from Friday through Sunday. First off, I really wish you had not picked an American Red Cross branded box of comfort kits for your choice of photo to accompany the article. Red Cross was NOT, I repeat NOT running evacuation shelters in the 5 boros, instead the Office of Emergency Management was in charge. Red Cross volunteers (I am one) helped staff the centers, but we were in the minority. Most of the people on staff were city workers. Any issues you may have about how things were run this weekend should be directed at OEM, not Red Cross but the image implies otherwise.

That said, I am in 100% agreement with Jay. I was at an evac center in Queens and we were open to >everybody

All the Red Cross workers I encountered were the epitome of well trained compassion and inclusiveness, in support of what Judy has said. I was very happy whenever I was able to work with them, and that has been true across the country, in fact. Of course none of us has been everywhere to vouch for saintlike behavior, and in a prolonged emergency sleep deprived people can become pretty gruff and short tempered, but I have almost never seen anything but compassionate response from the Red Cross volunteers. People who serve as volunteers in general are very committed to inclusiveness.

If there are legitimate complaints with any of the emergency provisions I believe they will receive a caring, constructive hearing from people who wish to serve everyone in the best possible way. Please bring them to our attention, if they exist. If not, please do not write articles or books to sell alleging injuries and neglect that have not occurred. That's not fair. It breeds undeserved distrust and despair between people.

There are very real injuries and disparities based in bigotry that really do occur that deserve the air time. There are also many concrete skills one can learn that actually help people that are a better use of one's time and energy if you wish to be of genuine service to others.

It is also important to give credit where credit is due, and I feel much credit is due in the NYC response to Hurricane Irene. When government does serve people well, and takes care of the poor and vulnerable, it is important to point out that government can be good, and well represent everyone, and act with the highest values and ethics. If we ever want people to trust government to enact single payer health care, or other major safety net programs that serve everyone, it is very important to give credit and promote trust when government and service agencies really do a good job. That breeds hope, and creates the energy for positive change.

It is disheartening to see several of the prominent people who form an echo chamber for each other's books and ideas all agreeing the LGBTQ youth were somehow underserved during the hurricane, and proclaiming this a terrible outrage, while I have no yet heard of any youth at all being even mildly inconvenienced during the hurricane, never mind suffering any injury.

Meanwhile I read about communities in Vermont and New Jersey where people who are severely impacted and stranded open their homes to each other, offer showers, share food and supplies, etc. I see none of these folks who say they care so much about LGBTQ youth open their doors to them in a hurricane, let them couch surf, or otherwise offer the same concrete help that other communities offer their neighbors. I see them sell books and paid articles about them. They don't even go out and do as so many LGBTQ people do and join the Red Cross, volunteer First Aid Squads, Fire Department, and regular and Auxiliary Police Departments so that in time of emergency we will be in those services making certain that LGBTQ people are all served equally and with respect and understanding. We pay taxes, and deserve to be able to turn to emergency services when the chips are down, just as any other citizen can. Many of us volunteer all year round just so that these services will be accessible to all LGBTQ people when we need them.

I read a number of people blaming the NYC LGBTQ youth shelters, who, by their own admission, are always full to capacity, not creating some kind of additional refuge out of thin air for extra youth to shelter during the storm. That is exactly where real generosity, sacrifice, and genuine love for others comes in, for those times when we cannot afford to keep the ongoing infrastructure in place to be there for everyone caught in a crisis.

I get tired of the hypocrisy of people expressing this calculated outrage, while insisting that it is always someone else's responsibility to actually provide the help. Be a mensch already. We all should be responsible to one another. If you are not going to roll up your sleeves and help, then shut it and get out of the way of those who do. And we don't need your "helpful"criticism, we already know far better than you do when we are outgunned. That is what I find to be an outrage.

I'll tell you a story, if anyone reads these days old blog posts.

Someone took me in when I was a homeless LGBTQ youth; ragged, penniless, with a backpack and a sleeping bag, a complete unknown, living off selling the feminist newpaper, Majority Report, for a nickel a paper in profit every day. She kept me, knowing I might otherwise die on the streets, and the relationship lasted 35 years, until her death. After a dozen years of caring for her serious, crisis riddled illness and growing incapacity, I was with her during her last days on earth. A hospice volunteer sat in our hospital room, a retired man who had been the CEO of a major bank, and had spent his life making huge amounts of money and now had joined hospice to train to do something meaningful for others. We let him stay with us, because he had never seen anyone die.

I would not leave her bedside that final day, feeling her death was imminent. We had both promised the other that whoever died first, that the other would be there. I was there singing to her and telling her over and over how much I loved her, and that I had made a deal with God, and that she should just spring upward from the love of my heart here on earth, and right on the other side God's love would be there to embrace her, keep her safe and sound until I could get there. I was holding her, looking into her eyes, and repeating that I loved her over and over like a mantra, trying to comfort her and surround her with love for her last minutes on earth, when her breathing slowed, then stopped, and the brilliant light of her consciousness finally went out from her eyes.

When I finally relinquished my hold on her, giving up my place by her side, and turned, the millionaire banker was awash in tears, soaking the front of his gray flannel suit. His face shone, lit up with tears. He gasped he was sorry for crying, but this had been the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, and he felt so honored to be there. And how he prayed there would be someone there like that for him, when he died. You never know who it is you might take in from the cold.

Yes, there are people who read these posts, days later. What a wonderful story of enduring love and grace. Thank you.

On the topic of the article - one of my big worries (from here in Western PA, where it was sunny and dry) was the homeless in the cities. It sounds as if they were as cared for as they could be, at least in NYC. In an emergency like this, it seems kind of nit-picky to expect special accommodations for LGBT homeless. It's time to concentrate on accommodations for people, whoever they are.

Why should str8 people take care of us gay people. Obviously this hurricane proves that more LGBT services in NY are needed by LGBT activists. What exactly are LGBT activists doing besides throwing parties in NYC patting each other on the back for a job well enough done? Time for a real LGBT activist network in NY to help homeless LGBT youth not be homeless any more.

What do you mean str8 people taking care of gay people? Are those shelters run and paid by straight people only? Don't gays pay taxes to provide that kind of help, among other things?

If they do pay taxes, why should gays take care of heterosexuals? Perhaps because gays in NY are part of the NY community? At least I thought so.

@Jessica: "Time for a real LGBT activist network in NY to help homeless LGBT youth not be homeless any more." -- Why single out NY? Such networks are needed nationally! The work to do is enormous!

@Lu: The federal govt does not run or fund homeless shelters -- private orgs of some kind or other do. Truth is, the major part of a homeless shelter's money, usually, is private donations of some sort, not tax dollars. There are certain federal programs that homeless shelters can dip into for particular activities, such as feeding school-age children, substance abuse counseling, vocational training, and such. But if you look for a line in the federal budget that says "Funding for homeless shelters" you will not find it. (We don't even have shelters for homeless vets!)

Secondly, yes, "people are people" is the best approach -- tribal thinking such as "this is a LGBT shelter" and "that is a str8 shelter" just leads to more tribalism. OTOH, so many shelters are run by fundies that there is a need for "LGBT-friendly" shelters that accept everyone even if we have to establish them ourselves.

Finally, a shelter can be staffed by volunteers, but running the shelter, as in administering it well, requires professionals -- social workers, MBA/MPA/MPH types, lawyers, and some type of medical support mechanism. Doing it all-volunteer is almost impossible and probably asking for trouble.

Bottom line: As badly as we need these places, bringing them about is a daunting task. But that is not to say it can't be done.