On the morning of May 29th, at the LGBT Center on West 13th Street, Shelter of Peace hosted its first annual conference, “The Role of the Faith Community in ending LGBT Youth Homelessness.” The conference was attended by over  faith leaders, both lay and ordained, from churches and synagogues through the New York metropolitan area.
Attendees began to arrive around 9:30 for registration and to enjoy meeting one another over a continental breakfast, while Shelter of Peace volunteers helped them register and handed out information packets that included a copy of the DVD Becoming Me, a documentary on transgender children and their families generously provided by In The Life Media.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, opened the conference by welcoming everyone and leading them in prayer. Rabbi Kleinbaum spoke at length about a passage from the Bible, Leviticus 23:22, in which we are commanded to leave the edges and gleanings of our fields for the poor and the stranger, and how this commandment is central to the story of Ruth, traditionally read during the Jewish festival of Shavuot that had been observed only days earlier. Rabbi Kleinbaum made it clear that, based on our religious teachings, it is our moral obligation to provide for the most vulnerable members of our society, and that includes our runaway and homeless youth.
George Hermann, co-founder of Shelter of Peace, then gave a brief overview of what had inspired him to get involved with homeless LGBT youth, how Shelter of Peace was founded less than a year ago, and the tremendous strides it has made since; this spring, during budget negotiations in Albany, advocates from Shelter of Peace played a key role in securing an increase in New York State funding for runaway and homeless youth services, reversing four consecutive years of cuts. Mr. Hermann added, though, that the State was currently providing only about 30% of the funding it provided five years ago, and that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had just proposed cutting City funding for runaway and homeless youth services by $7.2 million, more than half the total budget. Mr. Hermann concluded by saying that Shelter of Peace had a critical role to play over the coming months in reversing these proposed cuts, and expressed his hopefulness that the faith leaders present at the conference would join him in this important work.
RoseAnn Hermann, co-founder and chair of Shelter of Peace, introduced the first panelists: Margo Hirsch, Executive Director, Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services, and Jonathan Lang, Director of Governmental Projects and Community Development, Empire State Pride Agenda. Ms. Hirsch and Mr. Lang discussed Advocacy and Activism, and the challenges inherent in advocating for a youthful, marginalized population, too young to vote, and mostly unnoticed by our political leadership. Further, there is no legal mandate to provide for runaway and homeless youth outside of the foster care system, which has largely failed LGBT youth, and whenever there is fierce competition for limited resources, programs lacking a mandate are usually the first casualties. However, Ms. Hirsch pointed out that it is largely a lack of political will, not a lack of money, that is at the heart of this problem, and that the LGBT community as a whole has historically received less than its share of public funding. Both Ms. Hirsch and Mr. Lang agreed that it is only through the advocacy of adults that the situation facing homeless LGBT youth will change, and that our state and local legislatures are particularly responsive to the concerns of faith leaders.
The second panel discussion addressed the issue of Building a Shelter of Peace, and included Rabbi Kleinbaum; Joseph Amodeo, Director of Development, Quality Services for the Autism Community; Reverend Heidi Neumark, Pastor, Trinity Lutheran Church of Manhattan, and Carl Siciliano, Executive Director, The Ali Forney Center. Rabbi Kleinbaum reiterated that we, both as adults and people of faith, must use our political strength on behalf of our most vulnerable population, our homeless LGBT youth. Mr. Amodeo, who recently resigned from the Junior Board of New York City’s Catholic Charities in protest of Cardinal Dolan’s stance on LGBT youth, discussed the generally negative attitude towards LGBT people expressed by the Catholic leadership, and its seeming lack of concern that these attitudes translate into children being disowned by their parents. However, according to Mr. Amodeo, the majority of Catholic lay believers are welcoming and supportive of LGBT parishioners, and that the true power of the Catholic Church is to be found in the pew, not the pulpit. Reverend Neumark talked about her congregation’s decision to open a shelter for LGBT youth, and about some of the regulatory issues involved. She also said how difficult it was to bring young LGBT youth into a church, as most of them had very negative experiences with religion in their family homes. She also said that tolerance, as exemplified by the saying “hate the sin, love the sinner,” was not enough; the church must rise above such disingenuous attitudes and truly embrace LGBT people. Mr. Siciliano talked about his own experiences growing up Catholic and studying to become a monk. He related a story of his religious awakening to the fact that his own sexuality formed the basis of his affinity to the marginalization of Jesus. Mr. Siciliano then stressed the importance of advocacy and direct involvement, both as independent faith communities and through partnership with organizations such as The Ali Forney Center.
The Conference ended with a workshop in which Shelter of Peace members led discussions at each of the tables where attendees were seated. Each table was given a question on how faith leaders could, within their own lives and congregations, advocate for greater acceptance of LGBT individuals and their families, and work to prevent and end LGBT youth homelessness. Each table then selected a representative to report back to all the attendees. The ideas presented were the results of some wonderfully creative brainstorming; it is the hope of Shelter of Peace that these ideas will serve as the impetus for concrete action over the next year. The faith community has a unique and important role to play in solving this crisis, both in the influence they wield with political leadership and in changing the religious attitudes towards LGBT people in general and LGBT children in particular.