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The Ali Forney Center: New program offers unique support to homeless youth

28 Feb

 By Stephanie Jackson Ali, LMSW

I was able to sit down for a phone conversation with Ali Forney Center’s Deputy Executive Director of Programs Heather Gay to discuss AFC’s programs in general and, more specifically, the Learning, Education, Advancement and Placement (LEAP) program Foundation Beyond Belief is supporting this quarter. Heather spoke to us about the founding of the program this past fall, program goals and early successes, and the needs of the program for the future. 

A Little More About Ali Forney Center

Ali Forney Center was founded in 2002 as a response to a lack of safe places for homeless youth. Youth coming to AFC range from 16 to 24 years old and are of any gender. Of AFC’s three major programs, the Drop-In Center in Harlem is the busiest. Open seven days a week, the center is the first point of contact for all youth and includes staff conducting street outreach, a medical team, a health insurance counselor, a psychiatrist, and a weekly drop-in legal team. Most youth making contact with AFC are also in need of housing and may be connected to one of the other major programs: emergency housing, which provides crisis beds for up to three months while long-term housing is found, and transitional housing, where clients stay while finding full-time jobs or attending work and/or school. All clients are also provided with savings accounts and life skills workshops, but the main priorities remain safe housing, clothing, and food. 

The LEAP Program

The LEAP program is housed within the Drop-In Center in Harlem. It focuses on clients who have been stabilized in housing, are under 21, and have some form of criminal activity in their background. The idea of the program, which was funded by a grant from the Department of Labor last fall, is to divert youth away from crime back to employment and/or school. 

The goals of the program are three-fold: 1) to improve employment readiness, 2) to educate enrollees, 3) to build community connections through service learning. A student is considered to have completed the program when he or she has passed the National Work Readiness Exam, obtained a diploma or GED, completed a service-learning experience, and found employment or is seeking higher education.

Who They Work With

The program partners with other local New York agencies, including the YES Program, which offers a service-learning project, and the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which assists with GED classes. On-site at the Ali Forney Center, there are life skill classes (including resume and interview preparation). 

The next steps for the staff of Ali Forney Center are to continue to build the internship and employment opportunities for those in the program. Currently, opportunities with the Coalition for the Homeless have been popular—they’ve offered both internships in the agency and some positions in the tech field. Also popular have been opportunities with Parsons School of Design, which provides on-site workshops, include sewing and drawing skills, for the many clients interested in jobs in the fashion world. 

The goal for staff is that internships will be something unique for each participant. Currently, participants are encouraged to find postings they’re interested in, go out, and interview for the position they want. Continuing to develop new partnerships with agencies for internships would allow for new opportunities for internships (both paid and unpaid), more jobs, and better skill and resume building for those enrolled in the program, Gay said. It also gives students the critical chance to meet people from new walks of life and in industries they are interested in, which could lead to something long-lasting. 

Early Success

According to Gay, cohorts for the program begin every two months. The first cohort was small: Only eight started. Two of those passed the exam already and are in the next step—the service-learning project. Four more have passed the work-readiness exam. The program is designed to take anywhere from four to six months, depending on a student’s education history. Gay sees the program continuing to great success. She shared a story of one student in the program who is not only applying for jobs after passing the exam, but colleges as well. 

You can learn more about Ali Forney Center by visiting their website or following them on Facebook or YouTube.

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