For LGBTQ youth, homelessness is often a common place many find themselves in as they’re misunderstood or cast away by family, lacking support and empathy from society, and so many more waves of adversity. Founded in 2002 in memory of Ali Forney, a gender nonconforming teen who was murdered in Harlem, The Ali Forney Center in New York City works around the clock to provide a safe haven for LGBTQ youth. “The Ali Forney Center is the largest and most comprehensive organization dedicated to housing homeless LGBTQ youth,” says AFC Founder and Executive Director Carl Siciliano. “Nearly 40% of the homeless youth population is LGBTQ. Homeless LGBTQ youth are eight times more likely to experience violence, discrimination and suicide. AFC houses 124 youths each night, and provides services to over 1,400 homeless young people per year.”
A place that sees ample foot traffic and provides a welcoming atmosphere to struggling teens can become well-worn with time, and one of AFC’s living spaces was in desperate need of some love. The communal room was dark and poorly lit, the flooring was in bad shape, the room lacked proper storage, the furniture wasn’t conducive to gathering, and the residents didn’t even use the space. Interior designer Sean Carlson Perry, feeling a deep connection to the center, set out to gift AFC with a complete renovation of their space.
“I grew up gay in Nebraska (you can imagine), and have gone through some hard times when I was younger, but I can’t imagine going through what these kids go through — rejection from family, rejection from society, being kicked out of their home for being who they are, having nowhere else to turn,” Sean shares. “Luckily there is the Ali Forney Center. I can relate to some of the challenges our LGBTQ youth go through. These projects for AFC are extra special to me and close to my heart. This is the second shelter space we have redesigned/renovated for AFC.”
Sean’s own experiences — particularly a very trying year in his life — led him to launch Design Exchange in 2013, a not-for-profit design outreach wing of his interior design business that donates redesigned spaces, materials, and furnishings to under-served individuals, communities, and organizations in NYC.
“One’s sense of self is challenged through traumatic experiences, such as being homeless,” Sean says. “In addition, one’s surroundings directly affect our decisions, emotional responses and the way we feel about ourselves. These shelter spaces act as the foundation for rebuilding broken lives. By providing a comfortable, vibrant and welcoming environment, we improve their quality of life, their outlook and their self-esteem; increasing their chances of success. Design increases connection and community.”
To Sean, creating an empowering and safe space for AFC’s community meant painting the walls a crisp white, replacing fluorescent overheard lighting with varying tones of warm lighting through chic lamps, and switching out problematic flooring with energetic fuchsia carpet tiles donated by FLOR. Sean also played with symmetry to foster a cozy layout that’s more functional for gathering while expertly layering in brass and gold accessories, textiles in deep blues, green plants, and warm walnut and black metal tones, resulting in a calming visual harmony.
The result is a space that’s not only beautiful, but usable and welcoming to residents. Sean tells us, “When we revamp a shelter space, history tells us that the residents spend more time in the space, more time with their peers, building connections and community; a greater sense of home.” —Kelli
How to help: For ways to support the Ali Forney Center, click here. To help Design Exchange with a future gifted renovation project, click here.
Image above: “There are certain parameters when designing for a shelter/high-traffic space,” Sean says. “Of course we want it to increase sense of community, and be gorgeous and cohesive, but if we want these spaces to remain beautiful we have to consider wear and tear — product longevity (durability) and ease of cleaning, all while building the scheme.”