Interview with Ali Forney Center: Heather Gay, Deputy Executive Director of Programs

Good morning Heather and Happy Memorial Day! Thank you so much for taking the time out to speak with me! Can you tell me a bit about yourself and how long you’ve worked with theAli Forney Center?

Absolutely! My name is Heather Gay and I’m the Deputy Executive Director of Programs here at the Ali Forney Center (AFC). I’ve worked here for a bit over 9 years and I work with the 3 major programs: the Drop-in Center, Transitional Housing, and Emergency Housing. My background is in Social Work, and I started here as a therapist, and then oversaw our Clinical and Mental Health Services until I moved into my current role about 6 years ago.

Wow, you’ve been here for a long time, that’s great! Can you tell me a bit about how the Ali Forney Center started?

The Ali Forney Center started 15 years ago to serve the needs of LGBT youth who experience homelessness. The Founder & Executive Director, Carl Siciliano, worked with Ali Forney, who was a queer youth who was murdered on the streets in December 1997.

Ali was a homeless gender nonconforming youth who was forced to live on the streets at age 13. Carl realized LGBTQ youth homelessness was a big issue in New York City and there was a need for LGBTQ housing services. So 15 years ago, it started with cots in a church basement and significantly grew to our current 124 beds and a 24/7 drop-in center open for all LGBTQ youth today.

Your organization does incredible work, thank you so much for all you do. Can you tell me a bit more about the Drop-In Center?

Sure! The Drop-In Center is the first point of contact for youth. The youth may have met an Outreach Worker on the streets and heard about AFC from them. At the Drop-in, youth can get connected with an array of services. They are assigned a Case Manager and through them can get connected with housing and other services we provide.

The Ali Forney Center also offers medical services, mental health services, legal services, case management, vocational training programs, and groups that run throughout the day. We also provide showers, meals, and hygiene supplies to the youth. We try to meet everything from the most basic needs to higher level needs, and in addition we provide services for applying for jobs and school.

What is the process like for a young person who comes to the Drop-In Center for the first time?

The youth will come into the Drop-In Center and immediately get connected to an Intake Worker who does an assessment, including asking them about their mental health and medical needs, food, housing, ID, short- and long-term goals, and legal needs. Then we set them up with a case manager and in-house appointments for the medical team, the mental health team, and add their names to the housing waitlist. They can stay in our overnight center until a bed opens up.

We make sure they have access to food and basic needs, and during the day the Drop-In Center offers different groups including art therapy, theater, safer sex groups, resume workshops, etc. It gives youth things to do during the day!

Photo above: Drop-In Center

The Drop-In Center offers so much. Can you tell me a bit about the Housing side of the Ali Forney Center?

Absolutely! So there are two different programs offered in Housing: Emergency Housing and Transitional Housing. Emergency Housing includes crisis beds, where young people can move in as soon as beds open up. These beds are open to youth between the ages of 16 and 24 years old who identify as LGBTQ. The average stay is between 3-6 months, and we make sure they’re connected to health insurance benefits, have all their ID’s, SSN cards; we help stabilize them at this point.

Photo above: Room in Emergency Housing

They then move to Transitional Housing, where they can stay here about 1-2 years. This type of housing is meant to help the youth stay even longer and get them adjusted into adult life. These youth may be working a total of 35-hour weeks, and we help them open savings accounts, apply for jobs, etc. Some may not be capable of doing these tasks because of mental health issues so we work with them to help them get on their feet.

Photo above: Transitional Housing apartment

We also started offering Transgender Housing programs, where TGNC youth have a safe place to work on their skills for independence but also focus on any needs connected to their gender identity. We create a safe environment for them where they can talk and create a strong community while exploring their gender identity.

I am really moved by how much thought and care goes into everything the Ali Forney Center does. What’s your favorite part about working there?

I’d definitely say the youth – they are resilient, strong, funny, amazing people. I love working with the staff here too; they consistently keep our doors open. It doesn’t feel like a job, it feels like a family here.

That’s definitely really important, I’m so happy you have such a supportive staff for the young people that come through your doors. Can you tell me about a success story of a youth that benefited from the Ali Forney Center that has stuck with you?

When I first started working here, there was a youth around the age of 21-22 who came in with calluses on her hands from pulling her suitcases around New York City for weeks. She came to us right off the streets and we quickly moved her into the housing program. Over the next few weeks, we watched her transform and became a vibrant, funny, lively woman who was able to dress the way she wanted and found a safe environment where she was comfortable.

We watched her come to life in just a matter of weeks from the services and housing we provided her. She lived with us for many years and we helped connect her to permanent housing. She was a huge presence and voice in the center.

That’s wonderful. Since 100% of the proceeds from Pull for Pride NYC is going to the Ali Forney Center, can you tell our audience how the money will be used? 

Sure! We have housing programs in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens – we rent small apartments that usually hold about 6-8 youth and 1 staff member, so we can create small, home-like environments, So some of the money will be helping to pay for the rent for these apartments. We also provide youth with 3 meals per day in addition to basic everyday supplies, such as soap, toiletry, hygiene kits, etc. The youth may also need Metrocards so they can go to appointments around the city or interviews for jobs. We also have clothing on site in case they need any professional attire for their interviews. The money raised will be going to all of our services and housing to assist youth in getting connected to the best opportunities possible.

Great, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. Lastly, how can someone get involved or become a volunteer at the Ali Forney Center?

We have volunteers who help serve meals, become mentors to young people, help with resumes, etc. We have housing sites in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, where volunteers can help cook meals, provide support, etc. In Transitional housing, we have volunteers who are mentors from the community and who commit to being involved for 1 year. They develop relationships with the youth, and attend monthly Life Retreats, including rock climbing, cooking classes, museum visits, etc. Then, mentors graduate out of the housing programs with youth, who they maintain relationships with over the next upcoming years. Essentially, youth grow with their mentor.

If you’re interested in volunteering, please visit the Volunteer Opportunities page and fill out a volunteer application.  


Pull for Pride NYC will be held on June 10, 2017 at Murder of Crows Barbell Club. If you would like to donate, go to the Crowdrise page!


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