The night I visited Sylvia’s Place last month was an unseasonably warm November evening. When the drop-in program began at 6 pm the place was quiet, but people trickled in steadily, greeting each other like old friends with hugs and kisses. Light purple walls framed the long rectangular room. There was a big industrial kitchen on one side, and on the other side giant piles of clothes sat on top of counters. (Donations free for the picking.) Lockers lined the wall for the residents limited belongings.
NYWC Workshop leader Charles Austin set the chairs up near the kitchen and we started with just one other writer besides myself and Charles. “They’ll join in as they arrive,” he assured me. Next a young woman brand new to Sylvia’s Place sat down. She was eager to write but first had to check-in and make arrangements to stay. Others joined in one by one, and by 8 pm there were a half dozen or so people listening and sharing their writing.
Sylvia’s Place is an emergency overnight shelter serving NYC’s homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth in NYC. It was founded in 2003 by Metropolitan Community Church of New York’s Reverend Pat Bumgardner in honor of the late Stonewall veteran and trans-activist Sylvia Rivera. The center, which operates on the ground floor of the church, serves as the entry point for homeless LGBT youth to gain access to all other social services and more permanent housing. They provide shelter, hot meals, clothing, showers, case management, medical services, and they won’t turn anyone away.
NY Writers Coalition has been providing creative writing workshops at Sylvia’s Place since 2006, and Charles Austin has been the leader there for the last year and a half. In the past, NYWC had never been able to capture the words of these writers in a publication. Because the workshop participants lives are so transient, different writers participate every week. While there are some faithful regulars that come every week, some talented writers also participate once and then are never seen by us again.
However, Charles Austin was able to overcome these challenges with Home/Homeless is Where Your Story Begins, NYWC’s first ever chapbook from Sylvia’s Place, published last summer. Charles collected the writing for the book over the course of a year. “Part of the challenge was to recognize the pieces I wanted to include and get permission right then and there because I never knew whether I would see the particular youth again,” he explained. In their own words, these seventeen writers tell their powerful stories of love and rejection, addiction and redemption, of home and homelessness. Home/Homeless Is Where Your Story Begins also features candid and haunting photographs of life inside the shelter by acclaimed photographer Lucky Michaels (and Sylvia’s Place Program Director).
But publishing a book takes time. Over the course of the year that the pieces were written, collected, and edited, most of the writers had moved on and haven’t had the chance to see their words printed and bound. Nevertheless, we’re honored to present their rarely heard and powerful voices, which now, no matter what, won’t be lost.
Walking thru the streets of
midtown feeling down
depressed and hungry
hungry for what
money of course money on
my mind it’s too much it’s
making me blind
Men staring me up and down some
wearing a smile some wearing
a frown some throwing $50 and $100
on the ground where I stand
My heart beating from the excitement
and cash – I think I should rob
them take the money and dash
The weather is nice and the
night is young so many men
so drunk and dumb as I face
the problem of prostitution
I lose all self-respect
and respect from you
and others around me
as I realize I