Green Chimneys reaches out to castaway kids


(Original publication: December 11, 2005)

Amid the whirlwind of vogue dancing, a constant, if not uplifting, scene at Green Chimneys' Ungar House, Carlos Bonafe takes a pause from the imaginary catwalk to reflect on his artwork.

The outgoing teen with a slight build and saucer-sized brown eyes hones in on one of his etchings, "The Peacemaker," a pink and red critter with its eyes clearly shut. The drawing, he said, represents how he would like others to view lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youths.

"A lot of people who are LGBTQ don't feel beautiful," said Bonafe, 17, who is gay. "I drew a creature with its eyes closed to show that people should learn to focus on the beauty inside and not what they see on the outside."

Bonafe, who is careful with his words and certain of his sexual orientation, joined the group residence in July after enduring much hazing, he said, at other facilities.

A Bronx native of Puerto Rican descent, Bonafe was placed in the foster-care system at age 13 and came out of the closet when he was 16. Since the age of 12, he said, he knew he was attracted to boys.

"I can finally be myself. I don't have to hide," Bonafe said. "We don't judge here. We help each other."

Bonafe is among 25 young men between the ages of 16 and 21 who identify themselves as gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning and for whom the Ungar House is temporarily "home," a haven from the torment, neglect and discrimination linked to this often invisible population. The four-story brownstone in Manhattan's Gramercy neighborhood is a world away from the bucolic barns and animal pastures where Green Chimneys runs a 200-acre residential treatment center for troubled youths in Patterson.

"These (LGBTQ) children were being shunted aside and not given a chance to survive," said Green Chimneys founder Samuel Ross Jr. "It just seemed another thing Green Chimneys should do. We're in the business of taking care of kids, and these were children in need."

The Manhattan house opened in 1984 and has been exclusively serving the gay community since 1992. The center, which has an on-site educational facility, the Audre Lorde School, was one of the first of its kind in the country to offer a place for these castaways to live.

"Some have really nowhere to go," said Gary Mallon, founder of Green Chimneys' LGBTQ programs. "Their families have given up on them. It's not because they are crazy or criminal. It's because they are gay. We realized that we needed to reach out to these underserved kids. It was so sad to see these kids advocating for themselves, to hear social workers saying, 'He thinks he's homosexual, but it's a phase.' "

With little in the way of residential centers to serve the estimated 3,500 to 7,000 LGBTQ homeless youths in New York City, Green Chimneys stepped in to fill the void, opening not only Ungar House but three other youth programs in Harlem known as Sugar Hill. Green Chimneys' LGBTQ programs in the city cost $3 million annually, with money coming from a variety of sources, Mallon said.

Green Chimneys' Putnam program, founded in 1947, is based on the premise that all youths deserve a safe and nurturing environment. Embracing that same ethos, the young men of Ungar House say they have gained a sense of self-confidence never felt before.

"We are learning how to be ourselves and building up our self-esteem, despite what other people think," said Devon Bowe, 17, who is gay. "Early on, my brother made fun of me, called me a faggot and a queen. I felt destroyed, because I always thought my brother was my best friend."

Bowe, neat in his dress with black jeans and a tidy brown sweater, an outfit he spruces up with gold-rimmed shades, speaks softly and politely about his goals and newfound happiness. He decided to leave home on his own because "communication was getting real bad" and he needed a place to buckle down and focus. The high school senior said he gets good grades and is applying to Howard University, where he would like to study sociology.

'I always felt I was a girl'
Certainly not lost among the crowd of gays are the transgenders, those who see themselves as women trapped inside men's bodies. Tiesha Dixon is tired and ravenous, she said, from the hormones she has been taking. Still, despite the fatigue and voracious appetite, Dixon is fulfilling her goal of turning into a full-fledged woman. Being at Ungar House, she said, has helped her feel good about her emerging identity.

"I started to dress like a woman at age 16," said Dixon, 21, stroking the black head scarf that she pairs with gold Cleopatra earrings. "I don't feel comfortable wearing man's clothes."

Sitting beside Dixon, Fatima Grant wears stylish tight jeans, a black 50 Cent T-shirt and shiny lip gloss. Like most of the residents, Grant, 16, is headed to the Hetrick-Martin Institute ­ the oldest city agency to serve LGBTQ youth and home of Harvey Milk High School ­ for its Friday night ball, or dance party. She recently took up residence at Ungar House.

"It's a good place if you make something out of it," Grant said. "The hardest thing about being transgender is getting a job."

Nearby, Mercedes James pipes in to say she is not discouraged by the prospect. James, 18, wears a half-jersey she accents with a well-padded bra.

"I go to a straight public school because I want to show them that the gay community can be whatever they want to become," James said. "Being here helps you feel comfortable in your own skin."

While both the gay and transgender populations at Ungar House are treated equally, Mallon said officials there give the transgender youths extra attention in personal safety.

"Trans kids have a harder time on the street," Mallon said. "We make sure they are aware of their surroundings and that they are careful when they go out."

Preparing for real world
Uptown, a group of young adults gathered recently for their annual Thanksgiving dinner at the Sugar Hill administrative offices, an outpost on 145th Street that serves the needs of about 36 LGBTQ youths in a different way from the downtown counterpart.

The cheerful men and women laughed, talking about subjects that ranged from their apartments to roommates to dealing with neighbors, to the daily tasks of working and preparing for final exams. Like a family, they sat close together while feasting on deep-fried turkey and pie.

"The issue here is much less about being gay and more about living independently," Mallon said from his office, which is covered in Frida Kahlo art. "From the moment you come, we are preparing you for the real world."

Sugar Hill encompasses three programs, including the Supervised Independent Living Program for 20 LGBTQ foster-care youths between the ages of 17 and 21, and the federally funded Transitional Living Apartment Program for 10 runaway and homeless youths, which also has a basic drop-in center that serves 200 youths annually. Residents live in their own apartments scattered between 150th and 160th streets. The third program, the Agency Operated Boarding Home, serves six adolescents, ages 12 to 15, who live in one apartment in upper Manhattan.

Green Chimneys acquired its first apartment in the early 1990s, after realizing that many LGBTQ youths coming out of the foster-care system were ill-prepared for the rigors of daily life.

Not only are they keeping house, Mallon said, they are learning how to balance a checkbook and budget for food and monthly bills. Residents get allowances, with staff mentoring and supervising their progress.

With these life skills, many with the Sugar Hill programs go on to lead productive, self-sufficient lives and repair relationships even with the most conservative of parents.

Triniti, a bisexual 21-year-old, left her mother's Brooklyn home when she was 18, bouncing from friend's house to friend's house before turning to the transitional-living program last December.

"My mom and I had a lot of problems. We just didn't have an understanding," she said. "Religion got in the way. My mother grew up in a church. She didn't understand what 'gay' meant."

Now Triniti, who works as a security guard and an office assistant, is preparing to get her own place and has rekindled a relationship with her mother.

"Coming here gave me insight that I can actually make it," she said. "Green Chimneys was the only help and gave me more reason to fight for what I believe in and fight the cause."

Eternity Guillen, 22, recently graduated from the transitional-living program, having spent three years visiting with a psychotherapist through the program's drop-in center.

Guillen said she lived on the streets for a year before turning to a homeless shelter, Sylvia's Place.

"I came out to my mom that I was a lesbian, and she made me pick between being a lesbian and living with her," she said. "So I left."

Guillen said it was in the sixth grade when she first "fell in love" with a girl. Her later adolescent years, though, would prove to be a hardship far different from the stirrings of love's first pangs. Scars on her wrists and piercings on her face are wounds she carries with her from years of self-mutilation.

"I have all these piercings because I was afraid of people seeing me," Guillen said. "I wouldn't let myself cry, so I would cut myself."

Her counselor in the transitional-living program would finally be the one to let her shed her first tears, Guillen said.

It has been a year since Guillen has raised a blade to herself, she said. The freckle-faced girl, with stylish urban clothes, rainbow jewelry and an infectious laugh, is studying to become a veterinarian and has returned to her Bronx home, where she lives with her mother.

'It's a good beginning, but they need more'
In recent years, as society has become more attuned to the LGBTQ experience, prime-time television shows depict gay life, and the debate over gay marriage and parenting has moved to the forefront. As a consequence, advocates say, youths are coming out at even earlier ages.

While many LGBTQ service centers have opened since Green Chimneys' beginnings, still more are needed to address the needs, particularly mainstream agencies, Mallon said.

Mallon, a professor at the Hunter College School of Social Work, has written numerous books on the topic. He has long advocated for all social workers to become educated on serving gay youth and for all service agencies to provide a welcoming and safe environment for them. He has formulated strategies for creating such settings.

There are only 22 emergency shelter beds in New York City specifically for LGBTQ youths, and only one transitional living program and drop-in center dedicated to them, according to a 2003 study conducted by the Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services.

"Things are better, but gay and lesbian kids still get beat up every day," Mallon said. "The country as a whole still has a long way to go to move toward full acceptance."

As the Ungar House residents excitedly prepare for their in-house voguing competition and the Sugar Hill crew heads back to the comforts of its own apartments, in many ways these two groups are in the forefront of what the future of homeless and transitioning LGBTQ youth should be.

"Being gay is not out of this world," Triniti said. " 'Homosexual' is just a label. If you strip those labels down, we are just human."

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Last updated on
Sunday December 11, 2005