One of the hardest tasks at the Ali Forney Center is telling one of our youths that they have tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Having already been dealt the cruel blows of family rejection and homelessness, our youths struggle daily with despair. When they find out that they are HIV-positive, many of our youths become so despondent that we have to have them hospitalized for risk of suicide.
Every month, 1,000 young people in our nation between the ages of 13 and 24 are infected with HIV. A hugely disproportionate number of these new infections are among LGBT youths of color. There is an undeniable correlation between poverty and HIV infection rates among youths. And the failure of HIV prevention efforts to reduce new infections among these youths is undeniably exacerbated by a lack of clarity and vision in public policy to address how homelessness and poverty force young people into situations where they are at grave risk of infection.
Last year in the United States, at least 500,000 youths experienced homelessness. However, there was only enough capacity in the youth shelters to house 50,000 of them. Lacking shelter, a great many homeless youths turn to prostitution, or “survival sex,” to survive . A 2012 New York Times op-ed cites a study by John Jay College that indicates that almost 90 percent of the surveyed minors who engage in survival sex indicated that they would stop if they could, but they cited lack of shelter as a major barrier to doing so.
HIV prevention efforts directed at homeless youths typically focus on condom distribution and HIV prevention education. But focusing on condoms and awareness without responding to the lack of shelter, which forces homeless youths into survival sex, is a failed policy. Nothing heightens the risk of homeless youths becoming infected with HIV more than the lack of shelter, and nothing diminishes their risk behaviors more than providing them with shelter.
The Ali Forney Center and the Treatment Action Group (TAG) have recently begun examining how we might work together to advocate for HIV prevention strategies that target youths to incorporate the need for housing as a core prevention component. Frank Selvaggi and Bill Shea, who are board members of TAG and the Ali Forney Center, respectively, have recently offered to contribute up to $50,000 to match private donations to the Ali Forney Center that are made in support of our housing development fund, recognizing that expanding the access to shelter for homeless youths will greatly reduce their HIV infection risk. Additionally they are helping TAG fund a policy coordinator to implement an ambitious advocacy agenda to generate political leadership, research and policy initiatives to more effectively address the current crisis in HIV prevention in the United States, focusing on the highest-risk populations, including homeless youths, transgendered persons, and young men who have sex with men.
Nothing makes a homeless youth safer than having a roof over their head.
To learn more about the Ali Forney Center’s Housing Development Fund, visit aliforneycenter.org/campaign/housingdevelopment.
A version of this blog post appeared as a guest post on David Mixner’s blog, Live From Hell’s Kitchen.