As part of our series of interviews with the winners of Allstate and The Atlantic’s Renewal Awards, I spoke with Kate Barnhart, the director of New Alternatives for LGBT Homeless Youth in New York City.
Barnhart explained how her activist mentality motivated her to dedicate her life to helping homeless, LGBT youth in New York transition into a more stable adulthood, through case management, education, and Sunday night dinners. She also discusses the struggles and freedoms of running an organization that isn’t dependent upon government funds. The transcript of our conversation has been lightly edited for space and clarity.
Leah Askarinam: What was the problem you noticed that you sought to solve through New Alternatives?
Kate Barnhart: I was the director of … an LGBT youth emergency shelter here in the city. And there were several things I noticed, but one of them was that there's a real lack of consistent long-term case-management services for this population. What was happening is most of the programs, especially the shelters, tie their case-management services to someone being in their housing, which makes some sense. Except, a lot of the shelters are kind of short-term stays—so like 30 days or 90 days—so people kept having to start over with new case managers as they moved from place to place. And a lot of the things that you're working on with these folks are actually really long-term.
For instance, a lot of clients have significant psychiatric issues, so you may be applying for disability. That's easily a two- or three-year process. Or, applying for Section-8 housing—I have a client who applied when she was pregnant and her son is 8 years old now, and she just got her apartment. So, these are long-term.
And the other thing is a lot of our clients have been traumatized, often repeatedly, both from experiences they had before they became homeless, like abuse in the family, etc., and then things that have happened to them after they became homeless. So, it takes time to really build trust with folks who have been through so many traumas, and I don't think you can really start addressing some of the deeper issues like mental health and substance abuse until you've established real trust. Also, with people who have had a lot of abandonment and loss in their lives, folks who've been in foster care may have been bounced around through the system all over the place, and then folks who've been kicked out by their family—that's a huge loss—people who become homeless because of addiction or death in the family, there's a real need for a stable adult presence. The program we created, we are often the only stable adults these people have ever had in their lives.
Askarinam: What led you to believe “ I should be the person trying to fix this problem, I can independently do this”?
Barnhart: Partly, we were sort of even starting to do it like unofficially [at the LGBT youth shelter I previously directed] in the sense that clients who were even no longer staying [at the shelter] were still reaching out to me and maintaining their relationship with me even once they left, like if they had a crisis or whatever they would email or call or now they Facebook. So, that was already going on.
And then in terms of thinking “Well, I can do something here,” I had already done a lot of creating [at the shelter] ... Because I was the first full-time director, there was a lot of growth and establishing the program that had to happen after I came on board. So, I already had that under my belt. Plus, I had been an activist for a long time at that point. I joined Act Up in 1990, so the activist mindset is sort of like, if there's a problem, don't wait. We all have a responsibility to take action, to correct things and improve things. So I already had that mindset. And I also knew that I had a lot of people, both folks at [the shelter] and some other agencies I've worked at, and from the activist community that I can mobilize to get involved in a new initiative. So, I kind of cherrypicked people, both my favorite staff and volunteers at [the shelter], plus people I thought did good work at other places, and we just all started having meetings. We just rented a room at the Gay and Lesbian Center, and started talking about what would eventually become New Alternatives. And many of those people wound up being the first board of directors.
Askarinam: When was the first meeting?
Barnhart: We started providing services in October 2008, so the meetings probably started in June 2008.
Askarinam: Can you walk me through how this has scaled up since then?
Barnhart: It's been a process of gradual growth. One thing I learned from going through the growth process at [the shelter] is you don't want to go too fast and then get to a point where it's difficult to sustain. You kind of want to make sure you have a firm base. We started out initially serving Sunday dinners, followed by life coaching. And that's all we were doing. We did that because, first, nobody else of the homeless, LGBT youth providers was open on Sunday, and so the clients had literally nowhere to have dinner, all the clients from all the different agencies. So, we started with the Sunday dinners—and you know, they're big, they're 50 or more. I remember nights we got like 70.
One of the people who had been a favorite volunteer at [the shelter] and is still actually on our board of directors is a member at Middle Collegiate Church, so he was able to secure the space there for us. So, we started doing our Sunday dinners there in October of 2008. And then I stayed on at [the shelter] until June of that year. Then I switched over and started doing our case management program, which is our other big initiative. … That first year was a little crazy because there was no money. I worked the first year without getting paid at all. Luckily, I had some money I'd inherited, and it was also a good time for me to be not completely full time because I was caring for my dad, who was kind of at the end of his life at that point.
Askarinam: You said your first year you said you weren't paid at all. What was your mindset going into that? How you were going to make that work?
Barnhart: I think there are a few things. When things are rockier, we have to go out on a limb. I say to myself “You know where there's a will there's a way,” and I've found that to be—you know, it's a cliche—but it's very accurate. … As activists we didn't have a lot of money to work with or whatever, but what we did have was determination and people. You can really use those things to get stuff done.
Even now, New Alternatives has a way smaller budget than most agencies, and we do a lot just with willpower and volunteers and in-kind donations and things like that. But I also think people sometimes overestimate what you need. Like, I still take a fairly modest salary, and that can be stressful sometimes, but it's possible to sort of simplify your life so that you know you're not spending a lot. That frees you up to be less tied to having to have a super lucrative job, or it also can free you up so, even if you do earn a fair amount, you can donate more if you kind of streamline. And it's a tough thing, New York City is expensive. But on the other hand, you don't necessarily need a huge shoe collection. You know, I have a pair of boots, I have my everyday work shoes, and then in the summer I'll get a pair of sandals. That's it. … It can also help with issues around clutter and living in smaller spaces too, if you kind of let go of some of the materialism that our society tends to emphasize. And I also think I have an advantage because I was raised by sort of a, whatever-lefty mom, and I came into it thinking, money is not the most important thing … I didn't have a strong capitalist mindset coming into life [laughing]. So, maybe it's a little easier for me.
Askarinam: Have you ever thought though that there should be a government system in place here to do the work that you're doing? That that should have already been there before you got started?
Barnhart: Yes and no. We do have some government shelters here in New York, although not necessarily specifically for young people, and I have to say they are so poorly run … so, I definitely think the government should be responsible for funding these types of services, but I think they're better off run by community-based organizations, because we're more in touch with the needs of our various communities.
And I do think it helps to have programs that are really tailored to specific communities. Sometimes people will say “Well, shouldn't we just make it so LGBT folks can go to any shelter?” And it's like, of course they should be able to go to any shelter and be safe, but there are very specific needs that this population has that are sometimes better met by people who specialize in them. Especially if you have issues with gender transition for instance, you really want medical and mental-health personnel who are fluent in those issues.
Askarinam: Do you think there is a place for government to look at what you're doing and help spread it?
Barnhart: Certainly. Funding, definitely. I think that's the main thing, is that New Alternatives receives practically no government funding. We get $5,000 a year. That keeps us open for a little over a week. And that's like just from one city-council member here in New York. And that, in a way right now, is a good thing, because the big agencies that get federal funding are all panicking right now. So, we're less susceptible to which way the political wind is blowing. And I'm able to make more radical political statements because I don't have to worry about jeopardizing our funding. I can be more critical of the powers that be and stuff. I also think that we don't have some of the restrictions that come with government funding, so we're able to be more flexible to really accommodate the needs of what can be a very challenging population. But on the other hand, it does mean we scrimp and we pinch pennies and can't always do everything we'd like to do. So, there's pros and cons.