Twenty to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, yet only 3 to 5 percent of the general population does the same. Shock was the first thing I felt when I heard this statistic, and then sadness that there are so many young people who are either thrown out of their homes or run away out of fear and despair because they are gay or transgender.
But, while the disproportionate numbers are disheartening, what really matters and makes a significant impact are the young people themselves, their struggles and their desire to live a life that they dream about and deserve to live.
About five years ago, I had an opportunity to do a photo shoot for Interview magazine and wanted to include some young gay and transgender people to help spread a message of diversity and acceptance. So, I went down to the Christopher Street Pier here in New York City, where they tend to hang out. What came next opened my eyes to a problem that for far too long has not received the attention, the money, the resources and the focus that is desperately needed.
I was overwhelmed by the stories these young people were sharing with me about how they came out of the closet and the rejection that quickly followed by their family and friends, how they were forced to leave their homes or fled because they were scared or tired of the abuse and rejection.
As a mother, I could never imagine throwing my kid away for any reason, let alone over something like their sexual orientation or gender identity. It would be like ripping out a piece of my very own soul. For far too long, dogma and fear have torn apart too many families. It is a time when the heart must lead the way when your child shares this personal and life-changing moment with you.
As I was talking with these young people, I was inspired by their determination and strength to survive and do what they can to move forward in life. But they need our help; they need all of us to step up and do what we can. That is why I love this country so much, why I believe it is the greatest country in the world, because when one person falls, when we learn about that person's struggle, we join together to help them out. It is the American spirit, and it is a spirit we need to tap into to help these young people.
Here in New York City, as is the case in most cities around the country, there are not enough resources to help these young people. On any given night, approximately 3,800 young people are living on the streets of the Big Apple, yet there are not even enough shelters and transitional living beds to house 10 percent of them. Most of those beds are funded by the city and operated by incredible organizations that are stretched to their limit, but they cannot do it alone.
After being inspired by the young people during my visit to the pier five years ago, my manager and I joined with the West End Intergenerational Residence here in New York City to open the True Colors Residence in Harlem. It is the first permanent housing facility in New York state specifically for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth ages 18 to 24. This low-income housing building will provide 30 young people with a permanent roof over their heads and supportive services as they go after the future they have been dreaming about and deserve.
My commitment to doing what I can is just beginning, and I want to encourage you to do what you can today to make a difference. I started the Give a Damn Campaign last year in part to educate straight people about this issue and to help gay and transgender people use the information to spread the message. I encourage you to read up on it today and learn more as a first step.
Then, research the youth shelters, transitional living programs, drop-in centers and youth centers in your community. Contact them and volunteer or make a donation. Ask them what they need. It may be $10, it may be some food and clothing for their youth, you may have a professional skill that you can mentor a youth in — the possibilities are endless. The most important thing is that you step up; when one person, especially a young person, is in need, we all need to do what we can.
If you are a parent and you have a child who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or just questioning, or whom you think might be, the most important thing you can do is let them know that you love them first and foremost. Do not let fear and long-held beliefs interfere with the most important relationship you will have in your life. Lead with your heart and with the love that you have for your child. Just a little bit of acceptance can make a huge difference, and that little bit will grow over time.