Carl Siciliano was on his way to becoming a Benedictine monk when he discovered his true calling. He had spent years in monasteries, running soup kitchens and serving in shelters run by the Catholic Worker Movement until his homosexuality came between him and his religion.
"I ended up just feeling like the Catholic Church was wack," he says. "Cardinal O'Connor (the archbishop of New York at the time) was like the arch-homophobe of America."
Carl abandoned the religious life but not his commitment to sheltering the homeless. It was while working at a housing program in New York City that he noticed a change in the people normally coming in to seek shelter.
“You almost never saw kids,” he says. “It was Vietnam vets, alcoholics and deinstitutionalized mentally ill people. But not only were more kids showing up, they were also disappearing. Every couple of months one of our kids would get killed and it would always be a gay kid."
For seven years, Carl worked as the Director of Homeless Youth Services for Safe Space in Manhattan, focusing on the needs of teenagers.
He set up a 24-hour drop in center, a citywide street outreach program, an emergency housing program and a residential program for HIV-positive teenagers. The federal government officially designated Carl’s program a "Special Project of National Significance."
But in 1997, Carl received shocking news that would intensify his mission to rescue an especially downtrodden group--LGBTQ youth.
Just before Christmas of 1997, a young transgender man named Ali Forney was found shot in the head outside a New York City housing project.
It was a tragic end to a troubled life. Ali had been rejected by his family at 13, forced to live in foster homes and on the streets, surviving by selling the only thing he had…his body.
“Ali’s death shaped me as much as anything that’s ever happened in my life,” says Carl. “I was so hurt and upset and devastated by that experience and it really changed my life, in a way. I felt like such a failure. It wasn’t at all enough to run a good drop-in center if these kids were still dying on the streets.”
Studies have found that LGBTQ youth comprise up to 40% of the homeless youth population in New York City. So, in 2002 Carl started a center to help them, naming it in honor of his lost friend, Ali.
“He showed that in his eyes the lives of homeless LGBT youth had value, and he did so in a time when few paid attention to these kids.”
The Ali Forney Center (AFC) started with 6 cots in a church basement and the first day had a waiting list of 20 kids; within a few weeks the wait list had grown to over 100 kids every night.
“It’s disgraceful that any young person should be waiting out on the street for a bed. I want us to grow to meet the need to a place where we’re not turning kids away anymore.”
AFC says its goal is not just to provide basic services, but to transform the lives of the young people who come through the door so they can reclaim their lives and never live on the streets again.
To that end, the Center provides lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning youth access to food, housing, medical care, and mental health services. Its two Drop-In Centers give LGBTQ youth a safe community with young people who are just like them, as well as education, job training, life skills training, mentoring and referrals to other services.
The center that began with 6 cots now provides 107 beds in 10 residential sites around the city, and a multi-purpose drop-in site, assisting 1,400 young people every year. And while the center has grown, so has the waiting list for beds…to 150 every night.
“The work has changed me by making me more conscious of the plight of children whose parents abandon and abuse them; conscious of the need for adults to be advocates for youths who do not have a political voice and conscious of the goodness and generosity of many people who help our youth.”
Weekend and overnight hours are when LGBTQ homeless youth are most vulnerable and when services aren’t available to them. So, in January 2015, AFC became the nation’s first 24-hour drop-in program for homeless LGBTQ youth, providing meals, showers, clothing, HIV support, mental health services, and case management – day or night.
“I’m proud that we have created the largest shelter for gay kids in the country,” says Carl. ”I just yearn for NYC to be a place where homeless children don’t have to lay out on the streets waiting for shelter beds.
Carl is a nationally recognized advocate for homeless LGBTQ youth and has been dedicated to this population since 1994. He was named a White House Champion of Change by President Obama citing the wide recognition AFC's programs have received for their quality and innovation.