Making Room

Three Decades of Fighting for Beds, Belonging, and a Safe Place for LGBTQ Youth

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May 21, 2024 | ISBN 9780593682234

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About the Book

From a pioneering advocate for LGBTQ youth, a gripping, impassioned account of how an unhoused queer youth's murder compelled him to create the nation's largest housing program for homeless LGBTQ teens.
 
“A gut-wrenchingly poignant real-life saga . . . an unputdownable account of what it looks like when compassion is harnessed to funding and policy.”—Tim Murphy, author of Christodora and Speech Team
 
ONE OF CNN’S ESSENTIAL READS FOR PRIDE MONTH AND BEYOND

What power does a long-disenfranchised community hold to transform the treatment of its most abused members? How can we locate that power?
 
Carl Siciliano met Ali Forney—a Black nonbinary teenager known for fierce loyalty to friends and an unshakeable faith that “my God will love me for who I am”—in 1994 while working at a daytime center for homeless youth in New York City. Nineteen years old, Forney was one of thousands Siciliano encountered who had been driven from their homes by rejecting families, forced to struggle in the streets due to homophobic and transphobic violence in the shelters. 

Then Forney was murdered, a moment of horror and devastation that exposed the brutality that teenagers like Forney faced in a city marked by gentrification, racist policing, and the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic. Anguished by Forney’s loss, Siciliano fought to create homes where unhoused queer teens could live safely, with their human dignity at last affirmed, while he helped lead a movement that compelled New York City to invest millions of dollars in kids who’d been ignored for decades. 
 
Siciliano writes with loving affection for Forney and many other queer teens, showing deep respect for their wisdom, courage, and spiritual integrity. Their stories illuminate the harsh realities faced by hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ youths suffering from homelessness across our nation. And, exposing the political and religious forces that continue to endanger LGBTQ youths, he makes a clarion call for their protection. 

Written with heart and profound insight, Making Room is a landmark personal narrative, bringing to life an untold chapter of LGBTQ history and testifying to the power of community, solidarity, and the human spirit.
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Praise for Making Room

Making Room is a brave, honest, and deeply spiritual reckoning with the trauma and joys of caring for the youth that families and communities have cast away.”GO Magazine

“Carl Siciliano grips his readers in a world full of heartbreak and hope.”Service95

Making Room is absolutely beautiful, necessary, and destined to become a classic.”Spirituality & Practice

Making Room is a must read for anyone who cares about our LGBTQ homeless youth. The story is riveting, emotional, powerful and an important part of our history. Carl has lived a life of service and love.”—David Mixner, activist, performer, and author

“Carl Siciliano’s Making Room guides us from the cold, pitiless streets faced by the homeless youth to a warmer place; from heartbreak to a place of hope. . .  . the fate of our queer kids is intertwined with us all.”—Christian Cooper, New York Times bestselling author of Better Living Through Birding

“It is tragic that so many LGBTQ youths are forced into homelessness, all too often due to their parents’ religious beliefs. I hope this compelling book will be read by many in the church as well as many who wished that churches treated LGBTQ youth not like lepers, but who they are: beloved children of God.”—James Martin, SJ, author of Building a Bridge

“A must-read for anyone seeking to understand, empathize, and advocate for the most marginalized among us.”—Kristen Lovell, director of HBO’s The Stroll

“May this book inspire others to recognize the unmet needs around them, and find ways to creatively solve the problems that plague this world.”—Ross Murray, Vice President, GLAAD Media Institute

“The key to Carl Siciliano’s candid, artful, soul-altering book, I think, is that it makes room for the reader. We are right there with him as he faces challenges such as few of us will have to face. We see what he sees, feel what he feels, believe what he believes—and are changed by the experience. I know I was.”—Paul Elie, author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own   

Making Room is a call to action—a reminder that in the fight for inclusivity and equality, no one should be left behind.”—Emanuel Xavier, former homeless teen, author, and activist

“A gut-wrenchingly poignant real-life saga . . . Carl Siciliano has written an unputdownable account of what it looks like when compassion is harnessed to funding and policy.”—Tim Murphy, author of Christodora and Speech Team

“Homelessness is cruel and vile, and I am haunted by the fact that LGBT youth are still being displaced. An essential read for all of us who survived homelessness and its atrocities!”—Junior LaBeija, trailblazing, pioneering icon of the Ballroom Community and star of Paris is Burning
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Excerpt

Making Room

Chapter 1

Lives of the Saints


I met Ali three years before he died, on November 30 of 1994. It was my first day as program director at SafeSpace, a recently opened daytime drop-­in center for homeless teens that provided food, medical care, support groups, and a range of other essential services.

In the very early hours of that morning, Tupac Shakur had been shot five times in the lobby of a Times Square recording studio, only two and a half blocks from SafeSpace. Some of our clients who spent their nights out in the streets had witnessed the artist being carted into a wailing ambulance. During lunch, anxiety buzzed among the dozen dining room tables. Would Tupac survive? Was Sean “Puffy” Combs behind the attack? Could it have been Biggie Smalls?

I had determined to spend my first few days immersing myself in the program’s activities and meeting the young people in its care. After lunch, I went downstairs to the large community room, where eight long tables were joined together in the shape of a Greek cross. I took my seat there, surrounded by a dozen kids ranging in age from their teens to early twenties, most of them black and Latino, many decked out in bulky winter coats. I introduced myself and asked if they would speak to me about their experiences at SafeSpace. What did they like? What could we improve?

One young woman wasted no time in taking up my invitation. “This place sucks!” she said, her voice shrill and electric with anger. “The staff don’t care. None of you care about us! You’re all just here for a paycheck. You talk down to us, you won’t lift a finger to help us. And the food is shit. You don’t care! None of you care!”

I looked around the room and saw some of the young people squirming in discomfort. Not wanting to respond defensively, I forced myself to remain calm and asked the young woman her name.

“Tangie,” she said.

“Tangie, I’m so sorry to hear you’ve had such negative experiences at SafeSpace,” I said softly. “I’ll see what I can do to make it better. But I’m curious, how long have you been coming here?”

“Since eleven-­thirty.”

“Eleven-­thirty today?” I asked.

“Yeah, I came in for my intake just before lunch.”

It was a few minutes past one o’clock. I didn’t know what Tangie had experienced in the ninety minutes she’d been with us, but it was hardly enough time to make an accurate assessment of SafeSpace and the dedication of its staff. More likely, I was listening to the agony born of a lifetime of trauma.

By then, I’d spent twelve years serving homeless people in soup kitchens, shelters, and residential facilities. I had come to understand that entering their lives meant opening yourself to heartbreak, to people battered by poverty, abuse, mental illness, oppression, and the inevitable rage born of it all. It also meant looking past the surface and seeking to understand more of who they were. When I listened to Tangie without rebutting, it seemed to defuse her anger. She sat attentively as other youths talked about SafeSpace’s medical care, food, showers, and laundry facilities. None were especially effusive, but they made it plain that we met some of their most urgent needs.

Afterward, reflecting on Tangie’s eruption, I thought about how the hagiographies that led me to this work had not prepared me for its reality. As a teenager and a Catholic convert, I had immersed myself in the lives of the saints. Inspiration poured through me when I read of Saint Martin of Tours cutting off half his cloak to give to a naked beggar, or Saint Francis of Assisi physically embracing a rotting-­fleshed leper. In both legends, after the saint gave aid, the person in need subsequently vanished, and the saint realized that they had actually been God. In real life, however, I quickly learned that people in distress rarely disappear for any good reason, and their needs are far too vast to be resolved with half a cloak or a hug.

Over the next month, Tangie returned to SafeSpace sporadically, until one day she vanished. She had gotten herself a boyfriend, though the word around the center was that she’d just been hooking up with him for a place to stay out of the cold. A couple days later, we heard from her friends that Tangie and her boyfriend had gotten into a huge argument. Tangie was dead. The boyfriend had killed her.

I learned little of her story in the month I knew her, but if Tangie’s experiences were similar to those of other displaced youths, there’s a good chance she would have been abused by parents struggling with poverty, addiction, mental illness, or all three. She might have been sexually assaulted while living in foster care. She could have been forced to do sex work to survive in a city that terrorized its homeless youth with its police force, whose primary offering of shelter was incarceration. In the end, her being killed was something else she shared with far too many of our clients. Tangie’s death appalled me. How could someone sizzling with so much life force be extinguished so easily? But as I look back, I realize that Tangie was one of three young people I met that day who would go on to be murdered.

After my meeting in the community room, I went downstairs to sit in on the transgender support group. As I crossed the crowded lobby, Inkera, whom I hadn’t yet met, loudly remarked that the new program director was “the sexiest white man alive, except for Jean-­Claude Van Damme.” My face grew hot. I continued on to the basement, wondering what I was getting myself into.

The group got off to a colorful start. Six transgender youths lined up along the opposite wall, and each took turns sashaying across the room like they were strutting down a runway. Whenever one of them reached me, they would strike an elegant pose and announce their chosen name—­“Inkera,” “Regine,” “Kiki,” “Coco”—­before plopping themselves down in a metal folding chair.

The last young person was different. She wore masculine clothes and no makeup, though her head was crowned by a wig. As she walked the imaginary runway, her wrists and elbows bounced about, at once gangly and elegant, and her head swayed slowly back and forth. Pausing in front of me at the end of her walk, she fixed her gaze on me with a conspiratorial smile, like we were in on some cosmic joke. Then she introduced herself in a deep, melodious voice: “My name is Ali Forney.”

When the flamboyant introductions were done, I asked the kids for their impressions of SafeSpace. “This is just about the only program in the city where we are treated with respect,” said Coco. A few years older than the others, she seemed to have appointed herself the spokeswoman. The other young people nodded in agreement, and I was relieved to hear of their approval. “But the food sucks,” Regine added. (She was correct about that. Later that week, our clearly inexperienced chef served up plates of undercooked, bloody chicken, and I realized he needed to be replaced.)

I’d come out of the closet eight years earlier and moved fluidly through many spaces of New York City’s gay world, but had only met transgender people in passing. That this was my first deep encounter speaks to the segregation the LGB community imposed upon its “T” members, how back then they were still held at arm’s length, like unwanted stepchildren. As I got to know our young transgender women, I also began to recognize how gay organizations back then often refused to include them in their advocacy.

There were persons in that room who would come to shatter my heart’s constraints. They would greatly expand my understanding of what it means to be queer and of how to be an authentic human being. At that point, I had no idea how these kids would change my life.

One afternoon during my first weeks at SafeSpace, I was summoned to the case management office. Tyrone, a thin young man, was shaking uncontrollably and unable to respond to his case manager’s questions. Afraid he might be having a seizure, we called for an ambulance. When the paramedics arrived, they recognized Tyrone was hyperventilating from a panic attack, gave him a paper bag, and instructed him to breathe into it slowly. Once he stopped shaking, he explained his situation.

Tyrone had been couch-­surfing for six weeks at various friends’ places, a common practice of teens when they first become homeless. Now he’d come to the dreaded day when no more couches would welcome him, and he was panicked at facing the night with nowhere to go. As Tyrone described his predicament, I was struck by the difference between his clothing and his demeanor. He was dressed in a baggy black sweatshirt and a tilted black baseball cap, projecting toughness like a member of the Wu-­Tang Clan—­yet he wore unmaskable terror on his face. As hard as he needed to appear to the outside world, his clothes couldn’t disguise his painful vulnerability.

Tyrone’s case manager made some calls and was able to locate a grandmother in Washington, D.C., who offered to take the young man in. I agreed to foot the bus fare, and one crisis that day was resolved.

About the Author

Carl Siciliano
Carl Siciliano is a nationally recognized advocate and provider for homeless LGBTQ youth. In 2002, Siciliano founded the Ali Forney Center (AFC), which has grown to become the nation’s largest and most comprehensive housing program for homeless LGBTQ youth. His work has been featured by NPR, CNN, The Daily Show, and New York magazine. His writing has appeared in HuffPost, The Advocate, and The New York Times. More by Carl Siciliano
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