MCCNY’s Homeless Youth Services provides emergency shelter to homeless LGBTQ youth in New York City. Kate Barnhart is the shelter director and works tirelessly by providing services such as food, clothing, mental health counseling, HIV prevention, and help with a variety of job and school needs. Many of us think of money in terms of wants, but Kate deals in the context of needs – day in and day out. Read on as she brings a unique perspective to this week’s Ten Money Questions.

1. Among queer youth, is homelessness a direct result of poverty or is it something else?
Homelessness may start out for a variety of reasons – being kicked out because they’re gay, or running away because they are being abused, for example, but it continues because of poverty. Many of our youth work, like Angel, who’s a busboy at Applebee’s, but at minimum wage, it’s very difficult to save enough for a security deposit on even poor quality housing anywhere in New York City. I have a number of former shelter residents who are paying rent and paying for their transportation, but can’t afford groceries and wind up coming here to eat and grab a roll of toilet paper. And the housing that our clients can afford is usually not very safe or stable. For instance, I had one young woman who rented a room in a building that was in such poor condition that there were no locks on the doors, because she couldn’t afford anything else on what she made working in a doggie day care. She wound up getting raped there and came back to the shelter, where she felt safe, to recover.

2. How are you able to help so many on what’s been described as a ridiculously small budget?
It’s a “where there’s a will, there’s a way” approach – often there’s a trade off between money and effort, so we work harder and get the job done for less. For example, one of the things we do to create a family atmosphere for the young people is celebrate each person’s birthday individually. We bake cakes ourselves, because buying that many cakes is just too expensive – plus, the homemade cakes make the young people feel more cared for.

We also rely heavily on individual in-kind donors – people who send us a case of socks, or pay for a young person’s textbooks, or bring us a carload of secondhand clothing. We send out a weekly email list of that week’s needs and we have been lucky to have people respond generously.

Finally, many of the most valuable things we offer – a safe place to be yourself, a listening ear, compassion – are free.

3. How would most of these kids define success?
We get an incredible variety of young people – we have young people from countries like Pakistan and Iran, for whom success would be obtaining political asylum in the U.S., we have young people applying to college, for whom success would be graduating, we have young people struggling to stay sober, for whom success is another week of being clean – the only thing they all have in common is that they all dream of having a safe place to live.

4. If you could pay to add a new convenience to the shelter, what would it be?
I dream of an industrial can opener that we could screw into the countertop. That sounds weird, but we use so much canned food that regular can openers just fall apart – we’re constantly having to replace them – and forcing a broken can opener to work can really make your wrist hurt. We’d also really like to be able to build more shelving – storage, especially secure storage for the young people’s belongings – is an ongoing struggle.

5. What did your mother teach you about money?
My mother was freelance, so she had very little money most of the time, and what she taught me was that creativity can make a big difference – when I was a kid, she made a lot of my toys and clothes, and she did things like dying different shapes of pasta for kids to string at my birthday party.

6. Where does most of your funding come from?
A big chunk comes from the NYS Dept. of Health, through the LGBT Initiative. We receive a small amount of NYC City Council discretionary money, a couple of grants from private foundations, and a fair amount from individual donors and benefits organized by groups like the Imperial Court and Leather Pride. We do direct mail/email solicitations, have events like flea markets, and sell copies of “Shelter”, a book of photographs of the shelter taken by staff member Lucky Michaels.

7. How has the economy impacted the shelter?
We didn’t have much, and now we have even less. In particular, cuts in funding for feeding the hungry have made it harder for us to provide nutritious meals for the 45 or so youth who depend on us for their dinner. Meat is especially hard to come by. Donors are also cutting back – I just got a note that said “I would have shipped more, but as I am sure you are aware, money is tight right now.”

8. Have you paid a financial price with your career choice?
I call it my inverse career – I’ve worked for three youth serving organizations over the last 11 years and I’ve made less at each successive one. Since we rely on reimbursement-based contracts where we have to spend money and then go through a paperwork-intensive process to get it back, we sometimes have cash flow problems – I’ve had to wait several months to get paid sometimes. And it’s not unusual for me to buy things for the shelter with my own money – just today I bought a journal for one of our transgender girls who is celebrating her first sober birthday in a very long time and needs an outlet for feelings she used to drown. Doing this work is definitely not a way to get rich! But working with the homeless can make you think about how much you really need.

9. Which is more important: donating time or giving money?
Why is it an either/or? I think it’s really a matter of individual preferences and abilities. Both are essential for keeping the shelter running.

10. How could our readers contribute?
Readers can see our web site for information about giving. Contributions can be made by check, credit card, or paypal. To receive a weekly list of items needed at the shelter, readers can email me at Items can be dropped off or mailed to us at: MCCNY/Homeless Youth Services, 446 W 36th St, NYC NY 10018. We are a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

More about Kate Barnhart
Kate Barnhart is currently the Director of MCCNY/Homeless Youth Services. A graduate of Hampshire College, she was previously employed at the Neutral Zone, a drop-in center for at-risk LGBT youth and CASES, an alternative-to-incarceration program for teen felons. She has been a long-term member of ACT UP and has been arrested multiple times for acts of civil disobedience protesting issues including police brutality and AIDS.

Read other Queercents interviews in the Ten Money Questions archive.