New York's homeless youth as they want to be seen

The terms beauty and youth homelessness may rarely be mentioned in the same breath, yet both combine in a stunning photography project created in New York that aims to change public perceptions of LGBT homeless youths.

Instead of the common black and white stock images of young people huddled on street corners, heads bowed and faces hidden, See Me: Picturing New York's Homeless Youth shows its subjects as they want to be seen. The vibrant, colourful portraits depict individuals standing proud, strong and full of potential. These are survivors, not victims.

The project was born from a collaboration between Reciprocity Foundation and renowned photographer Alex Fradkin, the nonprofit’s first-ever artist in residence. Reciprocity co-founder, Taz Tagore, explains that the goal of the project was to overturn persistent stereotypes about homeless youth so that "Americans can be free to really see homeless youth more deeply than many are willing or able to right now.

“We carry around so many stereotypes about homeless youth but in reality, most homeless youth are not living directly on the streets," she adds.”They find temporary shelter, couch surf, rent rooms and generally live in a situation of housing insecurity. They often don’t know where they will sleep from night to night, especially in an expensive city like New York.”

Photo: Alex Fradkin

All 25 young people featured in See Me are in different stages of homelessness. Some live in temporary crisis shelters, others stay in longer-term transitional shelters and several have secured long-term, subsidized housing.They have also all been victims of gender-based discrimination and received support services from Reciprocity.

Founded in 2005 by Taz Tagore and Adam Bucko, Reciprocity works with 100-200 young people aged 15-23 from all five boroughs of New York City every year. It supports particularly at risk groups, including youths who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), and offers programs that focus on stress management, trauma recovery and classes to help young people move on to higher education.

Today, nearly 20,000 young people in New York City are homeless. Around 40% of homeless youth in the U.S. identity as LGBT and one in five transgender individuals have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.

"It's hard to believe that so much challenge and so many talents can co-exist in one person but for most LGBTQ identified youth, their obstacles and their gifts are both enormous."
Photo: Alex Fradkin
Photo: Alex Fradkin

"LGBT homeless youth are faced with the obstacle of homelessness and isolation from family but they face an additional level of discrimination because of their sexual orientation. And if they are youth of color then they face racial barriers too," says Taz.

“When Adam and I looked at the LGBT homeless youth more closely, in the decade that we have been supporting them, we saw a group of young people with extraordinary creativity, compassion and vision.

“It's hard to believe that so much challenge and so many talents can co-exist in one person but for most LGBTQ identified youth, their obstacles and their gifts are both enormous.”

To create See Me, photographer Alex Fradkin worked with young people over the course of a year. He taught them photography skills and gradually gained their trust until he was invited to take their pictures in places that held great significance for them.

"Even the images that captured more vulnerable moments in a youth's life were captured with such beauty," says Taz.

“Beauty and homeless youth are rarely mentioned in the same sentence. But Alex found a way to see deeply into each young person’s heart – and the result was stunning.

“I think that it’s the purest expression of what Adam and I see in LGBTQ homeless youth. We see their beauty and potential, and then we put months and years of effort into helping them become the people they wish to be."

Photo: Alex Fradkin
Photo: Alex Fradkin

"Our students have become world-class designers, educators, activists, performers, writers and business leaders, so we know first-hand that there is a lot more to every homeless youth than meets the eye. The homeless youth we have worked with are some of the most extraordinary people we've ever met."

After the project was successfully funded by a Kickstarter campaign, the photographs were unveiled at a large-scale exhibition at the Reciprocity Foundation base in Midtown Manhattan to mark the nonprofit's 10th Anniversary in May 2015. They are accompanied by a collection of essays compiled by Taz which describe the lives of those pictured before and after homelessness, showing the real people behind the statistics.

"Their stories are not just about homelessness, they are about young people learning how to transform their difficulties into something powerful and meaningful," adds Taz.”The essays are powerful because they are universal. Each of us face challenges and each of us needs to learn how to transform pain into compassion or creativity.”

For example, Lyssette, pictured standing in the snow (above left), is transforming years of sexual abuse into a career as a healer and documentary filmmaker, Dorian has turned a lifetime of HIV into a career as an HIV educator and Eleet (main image), a transgender female photographed on a busy New York street, is pursuing a career as a musician.

"Even the images that captured more vulnerable moments in a youth's life were captured with such beauty."
Photo: Alex Fradkin

Another inspiring story shared by the project is rape survivor Derrick, 25, (above right) who is shown sitting full of grace and calm in his new home at True Colours, a residency created by the Cyndi Lauper Foundation. He now works with Reciprocity as a mentor to other homeless youth because he wants his hard earned wisdom to benefit others.

"I wanted readers to connect with the life of each homeless youth, but to know that each young person connects us to a larger social or economic challenge in America," adds Taz.

“We want to help Lyssette and Eleet and Derrick overcome homelessness, but we also want to change our models for LGBT housing and HIV prevention programs for millions of other Americans, [who are] just like our students.”

Laura Smith is the Editorial Officer for INSP (International Network of Street Papers), a non-profit organisation supporting 115 independent street papers in 36 countries around the world. This article was originally published on the INSP News Service.