By Maria Rocha-Buschel
A new residence for homeless LGBT youth named in honor of an iconic Golden Girl opened in the East Village at the beginning of May.
That specific Golden Girl, Bea Arthur, was known as a strong advocate for the LGBT community and when she left the Ali Forney Center, an organization that advocates for homeless LGBT youth, $300,000 in her will after her death in 2009, executive director Carl Siciliano promised that he would name a building for the non-profit after her.
Siciliano said at the time that the donation helped the organization make payroll for months because it had been struggling due to the recession as well as a lack of donations. However, he announced the center’s intention to keep his promise in 2015 when the organization held a ground-breaking at the East 13th Street building between Second and Third Avenues. The property was previously a single-room occupancy (SRO) and crack house that had been vacant for almost 20 years.
The city-owned building was transferred to the Ali Forney Center in 2011 after a recommendation from Community Board 3 and the project was made possible through $3.3 million in contributions from City Council and then-Borough President Scott Stringer.
Stacey Lewis, director of the life skills program at the Ali Forney Center, said that the new residence is now fully occupied, with 18 young people living in the building’s three apartments, with six residents in each. Lewis said that the layout allows the residents to live independently but there is still a familial atmosphere.
“The apartments have a nice open floor plan so it feels homey but like in a college dorm kind of way,” she added.
Lewis noted that the building also has an office space on the main floor where staff can hold meetings with the young people living there and provide various services. One of the difficulties for the youth living at Bea Arthur is finding a job, so the staff work the residents to offer various career services.
“Unemployment is probably the biggest challenge for our residents,” Lewis said. “We want to work with them on finding employment opportunities so they’re not discriminated against.”
According to city data, LGBTQ youth are disproportionately represented among the homeless youth population and while Ali Forney offers additional resources, including drop-in services and emergency shelter at other locations, the residences have continuing waitlists because demand is so high.
Lewis said that all the residents who now live in Bea Arthur were previously in other housing situations available through the organization, and most residents started out in emergency housing. The Bea Arthur Residence and other transitional housing programs offered through Ali Forney are considered the last step for many program participants because it allows them to move into their own space.
Lewis noted that the center often has to turn young people away because they don’t fall into the 18 to 24 age range that the Bea Arthur residence serves, but she added that services specifically for LGBTQ homeless youth are improving.
“The Department of Homeless Services has opened a new shelter for LGBTQ youth,” she said. “Services has increased in recent years and the city has responded with a task force. LGBT cultural competency has increased and there has been a galvanized effort to increase those services.”
Because of her commitment to LGBT issues, as well as her large fan base in the LGBT community due to both her roles in sitcoms “Golden Girls” and “Maude,” Arthur is seen as a gay icon. And although the shows are hard to miss in the days of Netflix and online streaming, even the oldest residents of the new space had not been born yet by the time both shows were off the air, so teaching the youth about the residence’s namesake is part of their education, Lewis said.
“Golden Girls is part of the culture here,” she added. “It’s a little bit of LGBT history for them.”