Based in New York City, Samantha Box was born in Kingston, Jamaica. After working for many years in the media—first at the New York Post, and later at Contact Press Images, an international photojournalism agency—she attended the International Center of Photography in 2005, where she pursued a certificate in photojournalism and documentary studies.
For the past four years, she has dedicated herself to photographing homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth in New York City. Her project, Invisible: The Crisis of LGBT Youth Homelessness, has been recognized by the Anthropographia Award for Photography and Human Rights, En Foco, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. The work has been published in Kicked Out (an anthology of essays by current and former LGBT youth) and the online publications 100 Eyes and The Raw File. The work was exhibited in 2010 at The Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, New York.
According to the U.S. government, the number of homeless and runaway youth ranges from 575,000 to 1.6 million. Out of that number, it is conservatively estimated that between 20 and 40 percent identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), widely considered to be the fastest-growing demographic in the homeless youth population.
Many homeless LGBT youth are people of color and come from low-income families. Many come from homes marred by instability, conflict, abuse, neglect, or parental drug use. Many are forced to leave their homes: often family members assault them and kick them out when they reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity. Having experienced this violent rejection at home, in church, at school, or, in some cases, in foster care, these abandoned youth turn to the streets. Too often, sex work, survival crime, drug abuse, and untreated mental illness become a part of everyday life. Animosity toward LGBT youth’s sexual orientation or gender expression at mainstream shelters and programs effectively bars them from receiving the meager services available to homeless youth, services that might move them toward more stable lives. By being homeless in a society that discriminates against LGBT people, these young people are rejected twice: first by their families and communities, and again by the service providers and shelters that are supposed to help and protect them.
In 2005, disturbed by the silence surrounding this issue and seeking to put a face to this crisis, I began photographing the residents of Sylvia’s Place, New York City’s only emergency shelter for homeless LGBT youth. Its 30 beds comprise over half of the beds (the others are in mixed shelters) specifically designated for the upwards of 8,000 homeless young LGBT people in the city. Using the shelter as a home base, I spent countless hours—both inside and outside the shelter walls—as a witness to intimate moments often hidden from public view: crying at the grave of a mother who left too soon; kissing a new boyfriend; sharing moments of tenderness with members of one’s chosen family.
As this project continues, it is my hope that this work will not only bring awareness to the crisis of LGBT youth homelessness, but also draw attention to the support networks and sense of community that shelters such as Sylvia’s Place can create.
—Samantha Box, November 2011