NEW YORK - It took only hours for Superstorm Sandy’s surging waters to destroy an emergency drop-in center for homeless gay youths. Four feet of water swamped the hallways and rooms, buckling the linoleum floors and caking the electrical outlets with sea salt.
But almost as quickly, a social media outpouring helped raise money for a new, bigger Ali Forney Center to keep helping dozens of young people a day with medical care, counseling and a safe place to sleep.
"I wish every day thousands of people would help get homeless kids off the street," said Carl Siciliano, executive director of the last-ditch refuge for homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths. "Too bad it takes a storm to get people to see how bad they have it."
Siciliano founded the drop-in center in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood 10 years ago, naming it after Ali Forney, a gay 22-year-old who was shot to death on a Harlem street in 1997. He had been homeless since age 13, when his mother threw him out.
City officials estimate LGBT youths represent about half the city’s nearly 4,000 homeless young people, who sleep outdoors or in city subways, abandoned houses and even on rooftops. More than 100 would arrive at the center daily looking for support. The city reserves about 250 shelter beds for them, and Ali Forney offers 77 in various places, about 30 of them city-funded.
Even before Sandy, the center had planned to relocate to the 8,600-square-foot Harlem space, which is six times bigger than the original one and will be open 24 hours a day. Paying for the move and renovation was a big challenge - until Sandy came along.
The center, which was evacuated ahead of the Oct. 29 storm, was hit by the same surge of water along the Hudson River that swamped a power substation and flooded commuter tunnels.
A blogger picked up Siciliano’s Facebook posting about damage to the center, and it quickly went viral, tweeted to hundreds of thousands of followers by actors Pam Grier and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
In the first three days, the center received almost 1,000 donations totaling more than $100,000. That total has grown to more than $250,000 - and counting - with contributions coming from around the world, including England, France, Sweden, Canada and Mexico.
"This shows the power of social media, when prominent people link digitally with a healthy network of people who connect emotionally," said Ryan Davis, a pioneer in using social media in politics and activism who is on Ali Forney’s board.
About $400,000 is needed to replace what the center lost and prepare the Harlem site, which Siciliano hopes will be up and running by Christmas.
In the meantime, Ali Forney services have been temporarily set up at a nearby community center.
On Wednesday, Giovanni Stanley was waiting for a counselor who could help him find a bed so he wouldn’t have to stay with a friend in storm-ravaged Staten Island.
He said he was saddened after hearing that the original center was gone.
"They did so much for me; they helped me with Medicaid, food stamps, housing," said Stanley, 20, who became homeless and dropped out of school about four years ago.
He is now working on getting his high-school equivalency diploma.