The picture above was taken by Lucky Michaels, a photographer and also a counselor at Sylvia’s Place, located within the Metropolitan Community Church of New York. The shelter (named after Queer rights activist Sylvia Rivera) is a temporary safe haven for homeless LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Queer) youth.
I find this picture pretty startling — rich in inexplicable, incongruous juxtapositions. It shows a homeless young man, at home — for the time being — apparently in bed.
Where is it that he’s at home? In a public, sterile space where nobody could be at home but people are trying. Judging from his expression, he lives there. I won’t mention the impossible, necessary, Christmas tree in the background.
His shirt is more of the same: “No girls allowed.” It expresses the basic fact about him whose discovery is probably what made him homeless. Now he’s free to wear it — and so he does, in a determined but understandable gesture of defiance. Now that he’s homeless he can be at home in himself.
Is he at home? I don’t know him, and I’m not stupid enough to try to speak for him. He can speak for himself. But, to the extent I know how to read pictures and body language, my personal guess is he’s about ready to jump out of his skin — yet, paradoxically, he’s at peace with himself: gathering himself for the future . . . doing OK.
He has a dignity that totally prevents me condescending to feel sorry for him — but the fact that this was done to him for no greater crime than being LGBTQ, like I am too, makes me want to scream with rage. I hope for the very best for him.
A new study by the Empire State Coalition of Youth & Family Services, commissioned by the New York City Council, says that 3,800 people under the age of 25 live on streets of New York and 30% of them are LGBT. This is proportionally 3 times the prevalence of LGBT people in New York’s population as a whole. (Nationally, 1.6 million youth are estimated to be homeless, of which 20-40% are thought to be LGBT.) 42% of the homeless kids surveyed sleep on streets, in subways or empty buildings. Some turn to prostitution to spend the night. So, the young people shown in these pictures are fortunate.
Still, though, in his notice in the New York Blade, Rafael Risemberg writes:
As fortunate as these teens are to have a place to stay (most of them having been kicked out by their intolerant families), the photos show shelter life to be no picnic. Twenty-five of them sleep on rustic cots or on the floor in one cluttered room, which they need to vacate every morning to make way for food pantry set-up.
Lucky Michaels’s exhibit, Shelter, has 30 photographs chronicling the everyday lives of these young people. It is currently showing at Exit Art. Originally scheduled for December 15 – December 22, 2007, it has now been extended through January 26, 2008.
Those who can’t get to the exhibit can see the book, Shelter, by Lucky Michaels. It’s an in-depth look at the Sylvia’s Place community, published by Trolley Books. ISBN: 978-1-904563-63-1. (The link from the publisher gives more description of the book and shows more pictures. Click the ISBN link to get information from Wikipedia on sources to buy or trade the book, or to check it out of a library.) At Shelter Book Campaign, you can buy a copy of the book and also simultaneously help Sylvia’s Place (MCCNY Homeless Services) for LGBTQ youth.
Another picture shows a young person dreaming about role models. It seems more expressive of future hopes than of present contradictions. It’s easy to appreciate its formal, pictorial beauty. The first picture has a lot of that formal beauty too, but you need to look harder to find it among the ordinary, daily artifacts it shows. In my own case, it takes me a while to get past my rage about the content of that one to notice the art at the picture surface.
A third picture shows preparations for Thanksgiving dinner.
Sylvia’s Place is not the only organization trying to help. There are more links in the YOUTH IN CRISIS category found in the sidebar on the left of each of my pages. Collectively, though, these organizations are not nearly enough, or nearly well-enough funded, to cope with the number of homeless kids who need help.
This condition is something that’s being done to masses of young people in the name of “protecting the family” — in the name of “family values.” How could that possibly make any sense? Here are kids needing, like all kids, to figure themselves out and to find a place for themselves in the world. Instead, socially vulnerable, they are pushed out onto the streets to fend alone — because it satisfies somebody’s sense of “morality.”
According to my idea of morality, I’m more impressed with Lucky Michaels and the others who try to help. I’m even more impressed with the morality of the kids themselves who are trying to maintain a human vision of self in the face of an adult world that’s been capriciously, meaninglessly hostile to them just where it could be most destructive.
Readers of this post may also be interested in Kai Wright’s “Drifting Toward Love”.
ABOUT EXIT ART
Exit Art is an independent vision of contemporary culture. We are prepared to react immediately to important issues that affect our lives. We do experimental, historical and unique presentations of aesthetic, social, political and environmental issues. We absorb cultural differences that become prototype exhibitions. We are a center for multiple disciplines. Exit Art is a 25 year old cultural center in New York City founded by Directors Jeanette Ingberman and Papo Colo, that has grown from a pioneering alternative art space, into a model artistic center for the 21st century committed to supporting artists whose quality of work reflects the transformations of our culture. Exit Art is internationally recognized for its unmatched spirit of inventiveness and consistent ability to anticipate the newest trends in the culture. With a substantial reputation for curatorial innovation and depth of programming in diverse media, Exit Art is always on the verge of change.
Exit Art is located at 475 Tenth Avenue at 36th Street. Exit Art is open each Tuesday through Thursday, 10 am – 6 pm; Friday, 10 am – 8 pm; Saturday, noon – 8 pm Closed Sunday and Monday. There is a suggested donation of $5. For more information, the public may call 212-966-7745.