The Unkindest Cut: Why Are We Slashing Youth Shelter Beds?

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I want you to close your eyes. Picture a 15-year-old child, out on the streets of New York City, late at night with no place to go. Some horrible situation has made living at home impossible. Unable to go home, the child finds whatever shelter or comfort one can possibly find in a bus shelter. Hungry and needing food and a place to stay, this young tender creature considers the options: couch surfing, sex work, an act of criminal desperation or starvation and exposure.

Now, before you open your eyes, pretend that it’s your child.

As melodramatic as all of that may sound, that is the story for approximately 3,800 runaway and homeless youth in our City on the average night. That’s a shocking number, especially in this day and age in a city that prides itself as being one of the world’s most civilized places. Yet this Thanksgiving, in one of the cruelest actions imaginable, the Bloomberg Administration cut funding for our youth shelter bed programs by $1.5 million. Ho ho ho and happy holidays.

Over my nine years chairing the NYC Council’s Youth Services Committee, we have held 18 hearings on issues related to runaway and homeless children. Partnering with the Dept. for Youth and Community Development, we have increased the number of shelter beds and their diversity. For me, the goal is a moral imperative: to find a hospitable and appropriate shelter bed for every child who needs one. We are miles and miles from that end.

Today, despite having added capacity to the program, there are still far too few shelter programs. There are a scant 114 emergency or “crisis” shelter beds. Most programs have one hundred or more kids on their waiting list, kids who have come in from the cold in the hope of getting their lives together, returning to school or getting some vocational training, only to be told that there is no room at the inn.

Who are these kids? Many are fleeing a home environment where they have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused. Some have a parent or parents who are drug abusers. Many have “aged out” of the foster care system. They come from diverse ethnic backgrounds. One-third to forty percent identify as LGBTQ. Some are pregnant. Hard times? No doubt. Bad choices? Sometimes. Still each is a child, a child almost always without proper parental guidance, love and support…and every one of them is one of God’s children.

As a parent, I cannot fathom anyone who cannot feel the pain of a child who has been denied love and support in the one place that every child should be entitled to it, in their family home. But if you can’t wrap your mind around the sheer human tragedy and find compassion in your heart, then as a taxpayer, look at your wallet. Left on the street, every one of these kids is more likely to develop a mental disability, become HIV positive or become a burden to the criminal justice system. And, the cost of dealing with any one of those things is more than the cost of a shelter bed program.

I am not one of those elected officials who thinks we can spend money we don’t have. Nor am I willing to raise the only tax over which the Council has control-the property tax-and drive more families into home foreclosure. So, cutting spending is a must. But doing it on the back of our very most vulnerable population—children who are, without their families, sleeping on subway gratings at night—is morally wrong. There’s got to be a better choice to make. The Speaker has provided a list of $130 million in alternate cuts to the mayor. Surely some of them have to be acceptable. Surely some have to be preferable to cutting shelter bed services for homeless kids.

Feel the pain of a child. Multiply it by 3,800. Then go home and hug your child. But first, let City Hall know that in the most civilized city in the most civilized country in the year 2010, letting 3,800 children sleep on the streets every night is just not acceptable. Call it the holiday spirit. Call it simple human decency. Just call City Hall.