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'More than a handout': N.Y.C. to launch largest work program for LGBTQ youth

The $2.6 million Unity Works initiative seeks to put at-risk young adults on the road to success with job training, education and mental health services.
Image: First lady of New York City Chirlane McCray speaks as activists rally in support of LGBTQ rights at City Hall
Chirlane McCray, the wife of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, speaks as activists rally in support of LGBTQ rights at City Hall on Oct. 8, 2019.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

This summer, New York City will launch the nation’s largest and most comprehensive workforce development program for at-risk LGBTQ youth.

NYC Unity Works, a $2.6 million initiative that will reach 90 participants over the next four years, is targeted at young adults ages 16 to 24 who are homeless or at risk of experiencing homelessness. Along with job training, it will provide educational opportunities, mental health services, paid internships and job placement, all with the goal of establishing long-term employment and a secure financial future. 

The program is an offshoot of the NYC Unity Project, a citywide effort to help at-risk LGBTQ youth launched in 2017 by New York City’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, wife of Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In a statement, McCray said Unity Works “marks the first time that any city has taken this particular set of comprehensive steps to provide training, mental health services and social supports that are critical to long-term success and stability for LGBTQI youth." 

Ashe McGovern, Unity Project’s executive director and a senior LGBTQ policy adviser in de Blasio's office, praised McCray for prioritizing queer youth.

“I can say unequivocally if the first lady was not at City Hall championing this project, it wouldn’t exist,” McGovern, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, said. “She’s personally committed to it. She’s pushed for it.”

The pilot program will be run through the Department of Youth and Community Development in partnership with the NYC Center for Youth Employment and the Ali Forney Center, the nation’s largest LGBTQ homeless youth service provider. 

Initially slated for summer 2020, the program was postponed to July 1 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Its launch comes a little more than a year after the Supreme Court ruled LGBTQ people are protected against employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But a Supreme Court ruling isn’t a magic bullet, McGovern cautioned. 

“Nondiscrimination policies aren’t self-actualizing,” they said. “They don’t automatically create a pathway for success for people who have been marginalized their whole lives. Who have been rejected by their families ... We need to give young people the skills to be competitive for jobs — even entry-level jobs. It’s an important paradigm shift.”

A recent survey by The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth, found 35 percent of LGBTQ young people experience employment discrimination. For young transgender people, that percentage jumps to 61 percent.

Up to 40 percent of homeless young people identify as LGBTQ, according to numerous studies. Many are forced out of their homes due to a lack of support and seek acceptance in large (and typically expensive) progressive cities like New York. Without a permanent address, suitable work clothes or even reliable internet, they can be locked out of the job market.

“Many of them are literally in survival mode,” McGovern said of Unity Works’ target applicants. “There’s not space, time or support to think long term or feel energized and joyful about the future. We’re trying to give them that.”

To ensure their success, the staff will help participants with challenges such as changing identity documents and accessing public benefits. And participating agencies and employers are expected to demonstrate cultural responsiveness and competency. 

In addition to two years of direct services, Unity Works participants will receive an additional year of followup from LGBTQ-affirming case workers and therapists.

“We know that young LGBTQ people are largely homeless because their family rejected them,” McGovern said. “They may face peer rejection, school rejection, community rejection, so we knew this had to be trauma-informed. It’s not enough to just give people resumé building tips and say ‘good luck.’ This program is a larger support system to help them feel empowered.”

Mario Smith, a 20-year-old who identifies as transgender and nonbinary and uses gender-neutral pronouns, said Unity Works has the potential to be life-changing. 

“Giving trans people the tools to work and get educated — it’s not a handout,” they said. “It’s going to create such a productive group of people who can turn around and help their community.”

Smith immigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica as a teen and worked with the Ali Forney Center to get a green card and housing. Now they’re enrolling in Unity Works to study psychology and eventually become a youth health advocate. 

“Everyone’s at a different place in their life,” they said. “Some people need job placement, some need help furthering their education. You can’t just have a cookie-cutter answer. This program is tailor-made to the individual.”

As much as Unity Works will benefit Smith and the other New York-based participants, McGovern is thinking even bigger.

“Ultimately we want to build a model we can prove and push it across other jurisdictions,” they said. “I want this to be such a success that it’s replicated all across the country.”

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