By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Pop star Cyndi Lauper shed tears all throughout the ceremony dedicating True Colors Residences, New York state’s first permanent supportive housing facility for LGBT youth in Harlem Friday.
And then she stood up and channelled all that emotion into powerful a capella version of the 1986 hit song the $11 million facility is named after.
“I believe a strong society is an inclusive society. If we want to win big then we’d better include everybody because we need everybody,” said Lauper, a co-founder of the facility and outspoken gay rights activist.
Sitting in the audience at Colonel Charles Young Triangle, Priscilla Rumnit, 21 and Angela Louis, 23, two of the building’s first occupants, said they had goosebumps during the rendition because they couldn’t believe they finally had a place to call home.
Louis, who is transgender, says she was kicked out of her home at 16. She has bounced from shelter to shelter and never had a place of her own until now. Rumnit, 21, has been moving around since her mom died when she was 14.
“It’s hard out here. It’s so hard,” said Rumnit. “Now we have someplace to go that’s ours.”
“These are not tears of sadness,” added Louis.
The six-story energy efficient building is located on West 154th Street between Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Macombs Place. Residents of the 30 studio units must be between the ages of 18 and 24 when they enter.
They will have access to a computer room, laundry, outdoor space, recreational room and also receive voluntary support services to learn life skills as well as to get help with job training and educational services. The building is part of the Section 8 program which means residents will pay 30 percent of their income in rent.
“Please know you are safe. We welcome you to your new home and we stand behind you on your journey,” said Colleen Jackson, executive director of West End Intergenerational Residence, which will manage the facility.
Jackson said the idea for the facility came about from a conversation she had with Lauper and Lisa Barbaris of So What Management in 2007. The group wondered what else they could do to help LGBT youth.
“We don’t need another shelter. What we need is permanent supportive housing for this population,” Jackson recalled saying.
There are an estimated 3,800 homeless youth, according to a July 2007 study by the Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services. A June 2010 report by the city’s Commission for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Runaway and Homeless Youth found between 15 and 40 percent of that group identify as LGBT.
“This is fabulous. It is much needed and long overdue in our community for the LGBT community,” said Central Harlem Councilwoman Inez Dickens as she toured one of the units.
The journey to Friday’s ribbon cutting was not an easy one. While they were trying to secure financing for the project, the housing market and banking industry was near collapse.
The Manhattan Borough President’s office was able to assign $500,000 of public money to help with construction financing. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development provided $3.78 million in construction and permanent loans through the federal HOME program.
“Getting the most simple thing done was extremely difficult. Getting something like True Colors was….stepping outside of their comfort zone,” said William Traylor, president of Richman Housing Resources.
Eventually, Citi Community Capital was able to provide $6 million in construction financing, said its director, Bill Yates.
“On a credit call I’ve never used the term LGBT. I’ve never said Cyndi Lauper,” said Yates.
Louis showed of her studio with pride. She was particularly happy about the long hallway and the closet space. There’s even has a closet in the bathroom and the stove runs on gas. Louis refuses to smoke in her room.
Both Louis and Rumnit, who work as home health aides, said they plan on going back to school to further their educations now that they have stable, permanent housing.
“There’s not a lot of people that have a loud voice about LGBT issues,” said Louis. “There are no words. [Lauper] did something so good. She doesn’t understand.”
According to Lauper, that’s not exactly true. The plan now is to build more True Color facilities, she said.
“We need more place like this,” said Lauper. “By the time they are ready to move on in the world they will be rockin’.”