BY MATT TRACY
A program aimed at providing training, job placement and other workforce development initiatives for runaway and homeless queer youth that was slated to officially begin in July has been placed on the back burner due to cuts to the incoming budget.
The city’s Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) collaborated with the NYC Unity Project and NYC Center for Youth Employment to create the NYC Unity Works Program, under which a not-for-profit organization would be contracted to help queer homeless youth between the ages of 16 and 24 obtain gainful employment or education.
The program was scheduled to kick off for the first time on July 1, with the contract lasting until 2024. But the looming cuts to the budget — which is due June 30 — are putting everything on hold, at least for now. The Queens Daily Eagle first reported on the forthcoming cuts in May and a spokesperson for the de Blasio administration confirmed to Gay City News on June 29 that the program is “on pause,” but did not answer questions about when the program is anticipated to return.
An outline of the Unity Works program published by the city in November of last year stated that the four-year-long program was slated to cost $2.7 million in total, or $675,000 per year, though that figure did not include wages paid to those who participate and eventually gain employment.
In recent months, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, numerous queer nonprofit and advocacy organizations, and a group of LGBTQ candidates for City Council in 2021 delivered letters to de Blasio and DYCD Commissioner Bill Chong advising against the impending cuts to the program, warning that it would be problematic to leave such a vulnerable demographic in the dust in the midst of a pandemic. The public advocate, who also called out cuts to other youth programs, placed extra emphasis on Unity Works.
“LGBTQ youth experience high rates of homelessness, unemployment and hate violence,” Williams said in a June 15 letter. “We must ensure we are taking a multifaceted approach in eliminating these social issues, and putting funds directly into their hands is a step closer to our shared goal. In short, we must invest in our LGBTQ youth. Your commitment to launching Unity Works must continue during this current public health crisis.”
Williams encouraged the mayor to reduce funding from the NYPD as one way to begin freeing up enough cash to fund the Unity Works program and other necessary initiatives.
The groups that penned a joint letter to the administration included the Coalition for Homeless Youth, Ali Forney Center, the Brooklyn Community Pride Center, the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, Convenant House, the Hetrick-Martin Institute, Housing Works, the New York Transgender Advocacy Group, VOCAL-NY and the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, among others.
“Given the widespread uncertainty and funding losses related to COVID-19 and the impact the disease has had on city systems, we understand that a number of programs are being suspended, unfunded, or otherwise terminated,” the groups wrote in a May 12 letter. “However, [runaway and homeless youth], particularly LGBTQI youth, are disproportionately experiencing the impact of COVID-19 already and by suspending or delaying the start of this vital program, the city will be making the decision to negatively impact this population further.”
Meanwhile, the coalition of queer City Council hopefuls running in the next election cycle put forth similar demands in a joint letter.
“Now more than ever, LGBTQ youth are in dire need of pathways to good-paying jobs. Given the current crisis we are facing as a city, we believe it is a poor decision not to move forward with and fund the contract for this program,” wrote Elisa Crespo of the Bronx, Erik Bottcher, Marti Gould Cummings and Seth Rosen of Manhattan; Wilfredo Florentino and Josue Pierre of Brooklyn; and Rod Townsend and Lynn Schulman of Queens.
The candidates continued, “The NYC Unity Works Program is intended to facilitate jobs and various other wrap-around services for one of our most vulnerable populations and it is desperately needed right now. The costs will be far greater for our city if you choose not to fund this necessary program. We demand that you protect and commit to fully funding the NYC Unity Works Program.”
First lady Chirlane McCray took the lead on launching the NYC Unity Project in September of 2017 in an effort to create a citywide program that would provide necessary services to queer youth communities in the city by expanding drop-in centers, providing funding for shelters, create LGBTQ-affirming mental health training programs, and more.
The following year, however, queer youth who were trotted out by the administration to serve as the face of an announcement unveiling a new package of initiatives pertaining to the NYC Unity Project spoke candidly to Gay City News about how they felt as if the administration used them to promote the program but did not seek their input on how to go about executing the services in the program.
This story originally appeared on gaycitynews.com.