Invisible Youth: Samantha Box

3 minute read

While enrolled as a student at the International Center of Photography in the fall of 2005, Samantha Box was given an assignment to photograph a community space in New York. In the Hell’s Kitchen district of Manhattan, she found Sylvia’s Place, the city’s only emergency shelter for homeless LGBT youth. More than six years later, she has yet to leave.

On any given night in New York City, an estimated 4,000 LGBT youth roam the city without a home. As the country celebrates LGBT Pride month throughout June, Box aims to remind us that, in spite of tremendous progress, vulnerable LGBT youth still suffer in the shadows. According to a recent study by the Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services, an estimated 25-40% of homeless youth in New York City identify as gay, bisexual, and/or transgender. These young adults must navigate a social and cultural landscape punctuated by multiple layers of stigma in regards to race, gender, class and sexuality. Many suffer from a history of trauma. Most, if not all, have fled broken homes.

Box believes in slowing down, that to accurately tell a story involving a cacophony of societal and personal layers one must wait patiently for the expression to flicker on someone’s face. Only after three to four years of patiently returning to Sylvia’s Place — after producing a series of images focused on the issue of homeless LGBT youth designed to, in her words, “hit people in the head to say these people need your attention,” — did she fully understand the nuances of her story.

Although one senses heartbreak in the images — the pained expression of a young woman visiting the grave of her deceased mother, the “Happy Mother’s Day” note bequeathed on a bed of flowers — there is an overwhelming feeling of life and youth radiating from Box’s photos. As opposed to relying on expected visual tropes of homelessness and LGBT youth, Box paints a more refined and heartfelt portrait: these are young adults coming of age and coming together in search of family.

“The young people that I photograph are some of the most resilient people that I have ever met: despite facing the societal animosity of homo- and transphobia, and the burden of a broken system that conspires to keep them homeless,” she says, “they continuously work for a future where their talents and intellect can be used, where they have a home, a family and a life of stability.”

Samantha Box is a documentary photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. You can see more of her work here.

K. pauses on 34th Street while on her way to the Village. August 2006. Transgender people comprise the highest proportion of homeless LGBT youth. In particular, they are often denied access to shelter services, particularly in shelters that segregate clients based on birth sex. Discrimination and lack of identification that reflects their chosen name and gender makes it hard for many young transwomen to find a legal job, leaving sex work as one of the few options available to them. Samantha Box
D.'s back tattoo, created during a stint in juvenile prison, commemorates his estranged family. December 2005.Many homeless LGBT youth have had brushes with the law for a variety of reasons, but without a family to support them, it is almost impossible for them to be considered for the “alternative to incarceration programs” that can give a domicled youth with a minor charge a second chance. Samantha Box
Here, a resident of Sylvia's Place shows a prized family photo to a staff member. September 2006.Even though many of the youths are estranged from their families, they hold onto memories. Samantha Box
M. and his girlfriend, at Sylvia's Place. September 2008. Samantha Box
Sylvia's Place is housed in the basement of the Metropolitan Community Church of New York, and shares the space with the church's food pantry. May 2006. Samantha Box
J. holds D.'s Barbie doll family during drop-in hours at Sylvia's Place, New York City's only emergency shelter for homeless LGBT youth. January 2006. Samantha Box
O. and M. dance to "Single Ladies," by Beyonce, during drop-in hours at the shelter. December 2008.Samantha Box
I. and her girlfriend hang out with J. and K. in front of the shelter's entrance after drop-in hours. October 2006. Samantha Box
C. visits her mother's grave. May 2007.30% of all LGBT homeless youth have had experience in the foster care system; many LGBT youth run away from their placements in order to escape from discrimination or, in some cases, violence, at the hands of their staff members or foster parents. Samantha Box
I. and his chosen sister—someone he has decided to call family—rest at Occupy Wall Street. November 2011.Samantha Box
M. tries on wedding dresses with her chosen sisters: J., K. and C., in anticipation of her wedding to her fiancee. May 2007.Samantha Box
C.'s new tattoo, which commemorates her relationship with her chosen sister, who she calls "her twin. February 2011.Samantha Box
K., in Times Square. May 2006. Samantha Box
At-risk LGBT youth on the Christopher Street Pier, in the Village. April 2007.Pier 45 has historically been a congregation point for LGBT young people of color, both homeless and domiciled. It is located in the 6th precinct, which was the focal point of the Guiliani-era "quality of life" campaign; these young people are subject to extensive levels of police harassment and intimidation.Samantha Box
D. and S., at M.'s Mother's Day picnic. May 2007. Samantha Box
R., in the Village after leaving one of the few case-management clinics that give assistance to homeless LGBT youth. April 2011.Samantha Box

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