By Leonard Freeman
Being a homeless or “marginally-housed” LGBTQ youth on the streets of New York can be a difficult road in any circumstance, but “the coming of the COVID-19 pandemic has turned difficult into disastrous,” says Jill Twohig, program manager for the Arts and Acceptance project at the Church of St. Luke-in-the-Fields in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.
Arts and Acceptance was initiated in the early 2000s as a response to the needs of marginally-housed LBGTQ youth. “We’re a congregation with a long history of reaching out to the needs of our specific community,” says The Rev. Bo Reynolds, parish associate and chaplain to its school. “We really see ourselves as a neighborhood parish church… responding organically to issues in the community around us.”
“In the early the 90’s our soup kitchen added PLWA (People Living With AIDS) dinners to address the crisis on our streets and in our pews.” But in the 2000s, “as the Village changed from a grungy, creative, slightly seedy, singles just-getting-by demographic, to more and more young professionals and families, we stepped back to reassess the needs.”
In addition to ministering to their growing and more stable family congregation, the need was for a safe space for the marginally housed LGBTQ youth and young adults — ages 16-28 — hanging out on the nearby Chelsea piers.
“We’re a harm-reduction center — a safe place for them to be for two hours on a Saturday night,” says Twohig, who is also a licensed mental health counselor. “These youngsters often come to us dealing with trauma and great pain. In many cases they’ve been abandoned, thrown out by their families, abused on the streets — and so they’ve turned to drugs for their pain… psychiatry was not an option. They’re going to keep using to manage their pain, so we try to help them by providing a very particular space of acceptance, respect and safety.”
Until recently, Jill together with two staff — arts coordinator Susan Lopez, youth engagement specialist Gabe Hooghuis — and fourteen volunteers, would do that by providing a hot meal, connecting and checking in with the guests, providing opportunities for them to express themselves and self-reflect with writing and art projects. Job readiness skills and access to resources was also a high priority.
With the pandemic that all changed in an instant.
“These past five weeks, we’ve all had to shelter in place. Three other volunteers and myself have gone to a plan B. We bag up meals to go, and some hygiene kits… toothpaste, alcohol wipes, soap etc… we had a really nice donation of cloth masks from our parishioners, and a friend offered to donate a lot of hand sanitizer.
“We adjusted our program hours so they don’t have to be out after dark, updated lists of resources for those who do come in, and organized online platforms… writing groups… Zoom hangouts. Almost of all these young adults have phones… they’re an essential for staying connected and finding resources. So we work with that.”
‘“The thing is, these young people are for the most part at high risk. Some wear masks, none have gloves…they have no access to regular hand-washing. They have no safe places to stay… they’re sleeping on subways, couch surfing with friends, many of the shelters have closed, others are ‘close quarters.’ And they have no ready access to basic hygiene. The coffee shops and public restrooms, even in the parks, are closed.
“The pandemic has made it tough. Many are hiding out, trying to stay safe, but when they come in here we care, we’ll talk for a few minutes, check in, and do the best we can to help them in this moment. Our regulars are also happy to see us, and it makes us happy to see them too. We miss them.”