City Must Show That Street Homeless Youth Count

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According to the Department of Homeless Services there is an estimated 128 street homeless youth in NYC. You read that correctly: 128.

In a strong contrast, service providers estimate the number to be in the thousands every night. A 2007 study conducted by the Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services, in coordination with service providers, estimated 1,750 street-homeless youth per night in New York City. Many homeless youth also slept in shelters, hospitals, jails and other facilities. Our study estimated 3,800 homeless youth in the city on any given night, but due to difficulty obtaining the data this number did not include the majority of youth sleeping in the municipal sheltering system, which means the number was actually much higher.

That study took place six years ago. Since then homelessness in the city has risen to levels not seen since the Great Depression.

Recently, the Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services and the New York City Association of Runaway, Homeless and Street-involved Youth Organizations – whose membership includes the majority of programs serving homeless youth in New York – issued a briefing describing the problems with the city’s count of homeless youth. We strongly believe the city can do better in 2014, but it must appropriate the necessary attention and resources to ensure that homeless youth are counted.

A new count

For the first time in 2012, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) worked with nine cities in a pilot effort to count street homeless youth. New York City was one of those cities, and its youth estimate was part of the city’s annual HOPE effort to estimate the number of street homeless people. The Department of Homeless Services (DHS) is the city agency in charge of the HOPE count each year, and it is the city agency that decides on and reports the numbers of street homeless people in New York City to the federal government.

Before the count, the city did invite youth homeless providers and advocates to weigh in on the planned survey. But DHS was unresponsive and resistant to requests offered by youth providers to approach the count differently to reflect the unique characteristics of youth homelessness. Because of that, the city missed an important opportunity to contact thousands of disconnected and unaccompanied young people.

DHS coordinated thousands of volunteers who searched parts of the city looking for people living on the street. But as is always the case with the city’s HOPE survey, the volunteers didn’t go to places that street homeless youth often sleep: fast food restaurants, most subways or abandoned buildings. And volunteers weren’t trained on spotting homeless youth, which requires a unique set of skills. DHS gave no extra resources and almost no identifiable extra attention to counting homeless youth.

It largely left the effort to the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), which was neither funded nor prepared to conduct such a count, and which did not determine how the final numbers looked when reported to the federal government and the media. At the direction of DYCD, drop-in programs that normally close early in the evening—as well as some other providers—stayed open the night of the count to allow homeless youth to come in and be counted. Programs voiced strong concerns that this was not an adequate approach to a youth count.

About 180 young people showed up, many sleeping under Red Cross blankets or on floors—a very small number in proportion to what advocates believe is the city’s homeless youth population. DHS counted these youth as sheltered for the night and did not include them in its tally of street-homeless youth.

What numbers mean

These numbers matter. Each year the city presents its HOPE count as a valid estimate of street-homeless people in the five boroughs. The results are a factor in determining funding, policies and legislation, and they matter greatly for the city’s image. The street-homeless youth count is going to be permanent and will be a significant determinant in the funding of resources for homeless youth.

City officials have already begun using this year’s count in their work. For example in May, Jeanne Mullgrav, DYCD’s commissioner, testified to the City Council that, “We counted 1,420 homeless youth the night of the survey. The survey included youth in DYCD and DHS facilities, drop-in centers and on the street. Fortunately, the vast majority of youth counted were provided shelter, while those who identified as homeless were offered shelter.”

Unfortunately, most street-homeless youth weren’t counted at all.

Historically, street-homeless, unaccompanied youth are an “invisible” part of the homeless population. As Dr. Kristina Gibson documented in her 2011 book “Street Kids: Youth, Outreach and Policing New York’s Streets,” homeless youth are hyper-policed and constantly “swept” from place to place throughout New York City by authorities. They often don’t identify as “homeless.” As a necessary survival mechanism, they often “dress up” their homelessness to fit in with their peers and avoid the stigma and possible violence of being seen as homeless. They often sleep in abandoned buildings or in 24-hour fast food restaurants. Sometimes they spend the night on the couch of a friend or family member and then the next night are in the park. Sometimes they sleep in groups in various parts of the city. Sometimes they “break night” and don’t sleep at all.

Accurate estimates of homeless youth are critical to ensuring that appropriate funding is available to providers to reach the thousands of unaccompanied homeless young people who could benefit from the meals, showers, hygiene supplies, counseling, safer sex supplies, advocacy and age-specific case management that homeless youth agencies offer. Undercounting homeless youth leads directly to the shortage of resources for them, which perpetuates a vicious cycle of homeless youths’ invisibility to support systems.

An under-served population

New York has never adequately provided for its homeless youth, but in recent years, services have been reduced—even though the need has increased. Often, DYCD and DHS argue that one or the other is responsible for this population.

The city’s continuum of services for homeless youth, administered by DYCD, funds only 253 age-appropriate shelter and transitional beds. While DYCD oversees the Runaway and Homeless programs in New York City, the extremely limited funding for these programs—annually used as a political football to get budgetary compromises—means that DHS provides shelter to many more homeless youth in its adult facilities. Sheltering at these facilities is often a difficult and traumatizing experience for young people, who use them as a last option.

City officials can do better. Our recommendations include working with homeless youth and providers to design a survey methodology that works for homeless youth, and providing the appropriate resources to see it through.

Perhaps most important, however, is that DHS must take responsibility for counting homeless youth and not relegate its responsibility to non-profits or other city agencies who are not resourced to conduct the effort and have no control over the final tally. DHS is the city entity in charge of the count each year and the agency resourced for it. It’s their responsibility.

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