Kate Barnhart: The Godmother for At-Risk Queer Youth

Jobs and security can be hard to come by in NYC—for LGBTQ+ youth, the road is even rougher. That’s where New Alternatives comes in.


On a Sunday afternoon in early March, in Hell’s Kitchen, Kate Barnhart is sitting in her crowded office in a building that doubles as a church. She’s hunched over her desk, snacking on a candy cane, wearing a green and yellow floral dress and big black glasses; she wears her gray hair in curls, with a cane propped by her side—she’s scheduled for back surgery in a few weeks.

Barnhart, who’s 46, serves as executive director of New Alternatives, a center for homeless and at-risk LGBTQ+ youth ages 16 to 30. These days, she’s focused on a continuing crisis: unemployment. As she’s scrolling through Facebook messages from clients, an employee knocks on her door and explains that he’s been double-booked for tomorrow. Barnhart patiently suggests that he ask another employee to take over one of his obligations. Thirty minutes later, another employee knocks with a similar dilemma. Both of these workers, she explains, are former clients of New Alternatives. “Even years ago, when I was just starting as a caseworker, I hired former clients,” she says. “People know that young people need jobs, but nobody creates jobs for them.” She adds, “I like to put my money where my mouth is.” Employers tell her they want to hire people with experience. “Well, how are people going to get experience?” she demands. “Let me hire people.”

As she walks through the four-story building where New Alternatives rents two floors, Barnhart radiates a nurturing and motherly aura that extends well beyond West 40th Street. J.D. Melendez, an employee and former client of Barnhart’s, notes that almost her entire staff is made up of former clients. “That’s important because not only is it an income, it’s also a source of stability,” he says. “When you work with Kate, you’re given the chance to make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and fail. It’s an entryway to a professional work environment.”

Queer youth suffer disproportionately from joblessness, with transgender youth particularly affected. A 2019 UCLA study revealed that LGBT youth ages 18 to 24 experienced greater rates of poverty and unemployment than any other age bracket, and fared far worse than national averages. Bianca Wilson, a co-author of the study, tells the Voice, “There are some LGBT specific components, where you see that LGBT young adults report experiencing rejection from their family because they’re LGBT.” She adds, “Even if they weren’t raised in poverty, the rejection because of LGBT bias by their family essentially cuts off that family resource. We also know that LGBT people experience higher levels of mental health distress and some forms of substance abuse that are often explained by experiencing LGBT discrimination.” When asked about the implications of this, Wilson explains, “That’s likely a pathway into the persistent economic disparities that we see among LGBT adults.”

The pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. A 2021 Rutgers University study of 1,090 LGBTQ+ Americans found that half reported job loss during the Covid-19 pandemic. The greatest loss occurred among 18- to 29-year-olds, comprising 42.1% of all those who became unemployed during the pandemic. In contrast, a 2021 Congressional Research Service report found that 36.3% of 16- to 19-year-olds overall and 27.9% of 20- to 24-year-olds became unemployed during the pandemic, suggesting a disproportionate rate of unemployment for queer youth. And while Barnhart has long had a challenging career, the need for New Alternatives’ services skyrocketed during the pandemic. “People sometimes have an extended family member, an aunt or somebody, who will take somebody in at least for a while,” she explains. “We saw less of that because people were afraid to take in people during Covid.” Regarding employment, she says, “We definitely had people who lost jobs during the pandemic.” She notes that demand for specific jobs increased during the pandemic, such as for delivery workers, saying, “We had a lot of clients looking for bikes and signing up for those types of jobs.”

“LGBTQ folks structurally and systemically haven’t had the same opportunities to get comfortable and cushy jobs,” Kristen Krause, an author of the Rutgers study, tells the Voice. Among LGBTQ+ individuals, she adds, “There are a lot of people who are part of the gig economy.”  In 2020, the gig economy increased by 23 million participants, according to a 2021 DaVinci Payments study. Despite its proliferation, however, these jobs often have little to no job security, including health insurance or 401k plans, making gig workers highly vulnerable. Krause also sees employment disparity to be a result of a lack of physical community spaces during the pandemic. Before Covid, queer youth could gather in bars, at community centers, or at events, finding connections and networking that would frequently lead to potential employment. “Those opportunities that could lead to jobs, that could lead to internships, they could lead to some type of position that would further someone’s career—we had a year and a half of that not being able to happen.”

Barnhart was born and raised in Brooklyn by parents who instilled a strong sense of activism in her from a young age. She frequently mentions her dad, Addison, as inspiration for her work. Addison, a high school teacher in East Harlem, worked with at-risk populations in school settings; he passed away in 2012. Barnhart says he loved hanging with New Alternatives clients, adding that they saw him as a grandfather-type figure. She also recalls that her dad’s mother, Grace, who died in 1999, was quite the activist while studying at Columbia in the late ’60s.

Barnhart has worked with at-risk youth for more than 25 years. She began her career at CASES, an alternative-to-incarceration program, as a caseworker. In 2001, she shifted to LGBTQ+ youth, working as a case manager at the Neutral Zone, a drop-in center for queer youth, on Christopher Street; starting in 2003, she served as director of Sylvia’s Place, an emergency shelter for homeless youth. In October 2008, she decided to found New Alternatives, after being frustrated with the lack of individualized plans for her clients.

In what is a rare moment for Barnhart, she takes a few weeks off in late March while recovering from her back surgery. When the Voice speaks with her again, it is early April, on a gloomy Sunday afternoon. Barnhart is on her third day back in the office. She is wearing a black “Trans Liberation” T-shirt, and employees and clients alike bombard her in the halls, inquiring about her recovery. “Oh, I’m doing, you know,” she responds to everyone, tiredness in her voice. Unlike most Sunday afternoons, when Barnhart interacts with clients and staff during group dinners, she explains that she’ll stay in her office for the rest of the evening, not wanting to give a surgery update to everyone she greets.

Beyond her natural warmth, Barnhart has played a tremendous role in the career trajectories of former clients and staff, such as Melendez, 40, who wound up being employed by Barnhart six times. “I follow her around like the Grateful Dead,” he says, laughing. They met when he was 16, homeless and sleeping on bleachers in the Bronx. He was still identifying as a lesbian then, and had left home because his Christian Latino family opposed his sexual orientation. Barnhart initially offered him a job as a street outreach worker at the Neutral Zone, where he’d been a client and she was on staff. Melendez advanced quickly, and Barnhart helped him get hired at the Greenwich Village Youth Council, a shelter for at-risk youth. With a few jobs under his belt, she then suggested that Melendez attend college, an idea he had never considered. Hampshire College (Barnhart’s alma mater), in western Massachusetts, offered him a scholarship; after graduating, he got a job, with Barnhart’s help, with the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders in Boston.

Melendez soon began his gender transition, and when Barnhart founded New Alternatives, he returned to New York to work as a program coordinator alongside her. He also cared for Barnhart’s father when he was diagnosed with dementia. “She allowed me to get through homelessness and become stable and live a life that’s taking me to pretty great places,” he says gratefully. Melendez may be one of New Alternatives’ shiniest success stories, but he is by no means the only one. Barnhart adds that when her dad became ill, she also hired another former client, in addition to Melendez, to work as a home attendant.

Aside from hiring clients as New Alternatives staff, Barnhart also offers employment and job training help. “The first step is working with them on their resume, and that’s often challenging because the clients don’t necessarily have much experience or education or stuff to put on the resume. For me, one of the important things is to talk to them about what it is they actually want to do.” She explains that anyone can get a short-term job, but envisioning long-term goals is crucial. “I like to find out what it is they would do if they didn’t have any limitations. I don’t want the clients to be stuck in low-end jobs.” New Alternatives has strong relationships with organizations that offer paid internship programs, such as The Door (a youth services organization founded in 1972), and she often refers clients to those job postings. Many of her clients start in the nonprofit sector. “Nonprofits are more tolerant, but you don’t want somebody to be stuck in nonprofits forever,” says Barnhart. “There’s no way to advance in some of them.” Like Barnhart, Melendez believes that nonprofits that hire former clients represent a vital solution to queer unemployment, at least for entry-level jobs. He cites other New York organizations—Street Works, Safe Space—that hire former clients. As a way of sharing job opportunities with clients, Barnhart often posts in a private Facebook group for New Alternatives clients—the group currently has more than 800 members.

Ideally, Barnhart would like to hire even more clients in staff roles. Looking forward, she would love to see them in peer outreach positions, recruiting and identifying future clients—but more funding would be needed before those positions could be created.

For Melendez and others, New Alternatives provides a place led by queer people, like Barnhart, for queer people like themselves. Scholars such as Krause believe that, for queer staff, helping clients at New Alternatives while being able to say, “Hey, we’ve been there,” and developing trust through shared experiences is of great value. Melendez agrees. “That lived experience of being a queer youth on the streets of New York City allows you to know what the needs are of those that you’re serving,” he says. “It allows folks to give an even more quality form of service to the young people.”

Currently, Barnhart can employ roughly a dozen queer youth, but the need continues to remain dire. For some clients, their mental illness is so severe that they’re unable to join the workforce, so securing disability benefits becomes a priority. As Barnhart explains, while job training programs exist for LGBTQ+ youth, such as NYC Unity Works, most cater to those under 24. “That 24 to 30 period is a real gap,” she says. “People don’t think of those ages as youth. Even if they’re working full time, at a minimum wage you can’t get a place to live at high New York rents.” And unlike some initiatives across the city and country that tackle queer youth unemployment, New Alternatives receives no government funding—Barnhart found herself exhausted with “the amount of manpower it takes just to execute a contract with them,” and ultimately felt the funding was not worth the administrative effort.

Meanwhile, Melendez can’t keep quiet about his admiration for Barnhart. “I’ve seen her spend 24 hours sitting in a bail office to try to get somebody out,” he says. “This is a person who’s fully dedicated to making the world a better place.”  ❖

Jordan Pike is a culture writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in Hey Alma, Xtra, and The Uptowner.

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