New York City will launch the nation’s largest and most comprehensive workforce development program for at-risk LGBTQ youth this summer.

NYC Unity Works, a $2.6 million initiative that will serve 90 young adults ages 16 to 24 who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless over the next four years, is aimed at young adults ages 16 to 24 who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. It will provide educational opportunities, mental health services, paid internships, and job placement in addition to job training, with the goal of establishing long-term employment and a secure financial future.

The program is an outgrowth of the NYC Unity Project, a citywide effort launched in 2017 by New York City’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, wife of Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Unity Works, according to McCray, is “the first time that any city has taken this particular set of comprehensive steps to provide training, mental health services, and social supports that are critical to long-term success and stability for LGBTQI youth.”

Ashe McGovern, the executive director of Unity Project and a senior LGBTQ policy adviser in de Blasio’s office, praised McCray for putting queer youth first. “I can say unequivocally that this project would not exist if the first lady was not at City Hall championing it,” McGovern, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, said. “She has made a personal commitment to it. She was the one who pushed for it.”

The pilot program will be run by the Department of Youth and Community Development in collaboration with the NYC Center for Youth Employment and the Ali Forney Center, the nation’s largest provider of LGBTQ homeless youth services.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the program was postponed from summer 2020 to July 1. Its introduction comes just over a year after the Supreme Court ruled that LGBTQ people are protected from employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, McGovern cautioned that a Supreme Court decision is not a panacea.

“Nondiscrimination policies aren’t self-actualizing,” they said. “They don’t automatically create a pathway for success for people who have been marginalized their whole lives. Who have been rejected by their families. They don’t teach you about showing up with the right outfit or understanding the language of a career. We need to give young people the skills to be competitive for jobs — even entry-level jobs. It’s an important paradigm shift.”

According to a recent survey conducted by The Trevor Project, a non-profit organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth, 35% of LGBTQ young people face employment discrimination. This figure rises to 61 percent among young transgender people.

According to numerous studies, up to 40% of homeless young people identify as LGBTQ. Many are forced to leave their homes due to a lack of support and seek acceptance in large (and usually expensive) progressive cities such as New York. They may be unable to find work if they do not have a permanent address, appropriate work clothes, or access to reliable internet.

Staff will assist participants with challenges such as changing identity documents and accessing public benefits to ensure their success. Participating organizations and employers are also expected to demonstrate cultural responsiveness and competency.

Unity Works participants will receive an additional year of followup from LGBTQ-affirming case workers and therapists in addition to two years of direct services. Unity Works, a 20-year-old who identifies as transgender and nonbinary and uses gender-neutral pronouns, has the potential to change people’s lives, according to Mario Smith.

Smith immigrated to the United States as a teen from Jamaica and worked with the Ali Forney Center to obtain a green card and housing. They are now enrolled in Unity Works to study psychology with the goal of becoming a youth health advocate. While Unity Works will benefit Smith and the other New York-based participants, McGovern has bigger plans.