Operating the only city-funded emergency shelter for homeless youth, Covenant House traces its mission to God’s word, which the Catholic group says “calls us to serve suffering children of the street, and to protect and safeguard all children.” The question is whether homeless gay and transgender kids will use the beds and services Covenant House, which started in 1972 and provides a variety of social services, offers at its Crisis Center on West 41st Street. One night last week, at an independent shelter in Brooklyn, the mere mention of Covenant House had a transgender youth named Misty Murray insisting she’d never go there. “You know how many horror stories I’ve heard about that place?” she asked.
Advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth have heard those stories too. “What we see is a pattern of homophobia at Covenant House, both on the part of other residents and on the part of the staff,” says Kate Barnhart, manager of a shelter for LGBT kids. “We see staff members behaving in ways that are directly homophobic themselves, and we see staff members failing to intervene to stop homophobia among the other residents.”
It’s a complaint that’s now penetrating city politics. A group of councilmembers led by Lewis Fidler and Alan Gerson is pushing to add $2.5 million to next year’s budget to pay for dozens of new shelter beds for homeless kids. And as LGBT advocates press for that money, they are also highlighting the problems they see at Covenant House.
“Stonewall decided to try to make this a major issue in the mayoral race this year,” says the gay Democratic group’s leader, Dirk McCall. At mayoral-candidate forums this year, Stonewall will have “people in the audience who are primed to ask the question” about services for street kids.
It’s unclear how many kids are homeless in New York City, but they may be disproportionately LGBT, because those kids are especially likely to run into trouble at home as they come to terms with their sexual identity. An article published in the Journal of Adolescent Health pegs the LGBT share of street kids at 25 to 40 percent. Yet the only city-funded emergency youth shelter is the one on West 41st Street run by Covenant House, which has $3.3 million in contracts with the city for shelters and the services provided in them. Covenant House, which operates in other cities and countries, calls itself the largest private child-care agency in the U.S.
Advocates want the new money to go to other private agencies, because, they say, Covenant House’s structure and religious background deprive LGBT kids of the help they need. The biggest problem, critics say, is the sheer size of the Covenant House shelter and its high client-to-staff ratio. “Those staff ratios make it impossible for staff to protect young people who are targeted,” the Urban Justice Center’s Kim Hawkins tells the Voice.
Because of the size of the shelter—the 41st Street site has 97 beds—it’s not an easy place to work, and there’s a lot of turnover, critics say. “There’s a prison mentality that gets set up there,” says former Covenant House intern Eric Hartman, who now interns for the Ali Forney Center, one of several alternative shelters that do not get city funding.
Charlene Artis knows what it’s like to be outnumbered. A Staten Island native, she was an 18-year-old bisexual boy when she spent a night at Covenant House in spring 2001. The staff seemed OK with her being gay, but the other residents weren’t. “The verbal abuse was horrendous,” Charlene recalls. “They wrapped batteries in a sock, actually, and hit me upside the head.” Charlene says that when she complained to staff she was told, “There’s nothing we can do.” One night two years later, Charlene returned to Covenant House as a transgender person. Her fellow residents made her sleep on the floor.
When Rebecca Walton—then a transgender 18-year-old—arrived in late 2000, the staff psychologist refused to call her by her girl name, and the job counselor mocked her feminine appearance. The other residents cornered her, robbed her, and threw things at her while she slept. “All these acts of violence, the staff really ignored it,” she claims. Yet she stayed for about six months. “Couldn’t think of anywhere else to go,” she says. Eventually she returned to the streets, and now, like Charlene Artis, lives in a residence run by the Ali Forney Center.
Covenant House staff does take steps to protect kids, but sometimes they are halting ones. Sadaisha Shimmers, who is transgender, says she spent a month in Covenant House about six months ago. Things went well at first—staff allowed her to live on a female floor, and when slurs and threats began, they moved her to a different room. But the threats continued, Shimmers says, and when a staff member joined in, Shimmers vowed to file a grievance. The staff member then discharged her for making a threat, Shimmers claims.
The Forney center, named after a gay teen murdered in 1997, operates two six-bed shelters. The small scale means clients get personal attention, but it also means a 100-person waiting list, says founder-director Carl Siciliano. At Covenant House, Hartman says, “the advantage is, I never saw someone turned away from a bed.” Some advocates fault the city for creating the group’s singular role in the youth shelter business. “Unfortunately,” says Patrick Markee of Coalition for the Homeless, “historically the city has chosen to fund warehouse-style shelter facilities with one-size-fits-all services that don’t meet the needs of many homeless youth, particularly LGBT homeless youth.”
The city’s Youth and Community Development department says it has received no formal allegations of abuse at Covenant House and has never substantiated informal complaints. But the shelter has a bad reputation among LGBT youth like Misty Murray.
Many who work at Covenant House feel a genuine moral drive to help people, says longtime critic and LGBT youth activist Steve Ashkinazy, “but they bring with them their very strong beliefs on what a young person’s conduct should be, and that includes sexual orientation.” Those beliefs then play out in delicate issues like where to have transgender people sleep. Also tricky for a Catholic group is the issue of condoms for a population at high risk for HIV. (The current complaints aren’t related to the allegations of sexual misconduct that forced Covenant House’s founder, Reverend Bruce Ritter, to resign from it in 1990.)
Covenant House declined an interview request and issued a statement by spokeswoman Suzi Halpin: “We serve all youth who come to us in need, regardless of religion, financial status, sexual orientation, or race. We do not discriminate and do not tolerate discrimination of any kind.”
For Charlene, who went back to the streets for a while, and Rebecca, who returned to prostitution, their experience at Covenant House was just another in a string of hard knocks. “These are really traumatized kids,” Ali Forney director Siciliano says. “They need to be treated in a certain way, and if you do and you’re effective they can respond and thrive.”