Inside one of DYCD's borough-based drop-in centers for homeless youth.

With little notice, April 5th brought a decisive defeat to a longstanding lawsuit brought by Legal Aid – initially pressed in 2013 against the Bloomberg administration – for a right to age-appropriate shelter for homeless youth. Individuals monitoring the case received a notice of “Activity” in their email box, notifying them that the judge granted a partial summary judgment motion, requested by the municipal Law Department, for dismissal of the core issue in the suit – the claim for a right to age-appropriate shelter for youth between 18 and 20 years old. Years of labor to force the city to house runaway and homeless young (RHY) people in small shelters with people in their own age bracket disappeared in a moment.

A right to population-specific shelter is not unheard of in New York City – there is a right to service-enriched, population-specific shelter for individuals who are HIV positive (HASA beds), and a right to shelter for families who are pregnant or parenting minors (through the Department of Homeless Services). In other specialized shelter-types without such a right like domestic violence shelters, scarcity of beds is a severe and persistent problem.

There is no right to age-appropriate shelter for youth. Rather, there is a small continuum of shelters, drop-ins and outreach services that provide youth-specific assistance that are persistently overwhelmed due to imposed resource scarcity. In what touts itself as the most progressive administration in decades, the De Blasio administration fought tooth and nail against a right to shelter for homeless youth, which would have mandated that age-appropriate shelter be provided to any young person, under 21 years old, who sought it. While the claim for young people under age 18 continues, the claim for youth 18 and over has been dismissed.

In this case, the mayor and the Law Department turned the city’s litigators against the needs of homeless youth. Efforts to invalidate the lawsuit included absurd tallies of street-homeless youth, and a marginal expansion (in context) of resources, adjoined by a massively overstated argument to the public that the needs of RHY were now being met. This was coupled with a willingness by City Council under the previous Speaker, as well as the previous Chair of the Youth Services committee, not to press the matter.

Even under the current Council Speaker, Corey Johnson – whose work on RHY matters resulted last month in the passage of the most significant RHY bills in the history of New York City’s experience with modern homelessness – the city still won’t have to shelter homeless youth in age-appropriate shelter when they show up at its doorsteps with nowhere to go.

Indeed, the recently celebrated bill that increases the age of RHY shelters to include an option for providers to serve young adults from 21 through 24 years old explicitly states that DYCD doesn’t have to provide shelter for them: “The department shall include shelter services for homeless young adults as part of runaway and homeless youth services, but need not serve all such young adults.” The devil is in the details.

If the latter fragment, which was added during the final negotiations, seems ambiguous, it is worth noting the municipal Law Department’s unambiguous take on it. In a recent brief to the Judge on the matter, a city attorney noted the following: “the caveat “need not serve all” was necessary to make clear that the bill did not create a right to shelter for these young adults.” The debate is over: homeless young adults now – legally – have no right to age-specific shelter. Since it is well-known that homeless youth avoid the adult system – often after trying it and having negative experiences – the city’s decision to seek dismissal of the lawsuit, while simultaneously refusing to codify a right to youth shelter, is likely to make the system function just as haphazardly as it has for years, and likely to keep thousands of young people from accessing services.

Perhaps the best way to understand the current dynamics of resource allocation and RHY is through a sort of rule of low expectations when it comes to aid for RHY. Since homeless youth are provided so few resources, virtually any expansion substantially increases what is available. This does not mean that the needs of homeless youth are being met. What has happened is the city has added some resources when the need is much more significant than it is willing to acknowledge or tackle.

Where Things Stand

In the first full City Council hearing of 2018, three RHY bills were overwhelmingly approved – since they received such overwhelming support the Mayor need not sign them for them to become law. Speaker Johnson, a sponsor of the most popular bill – which was led by Richie Torres and gives RHY providers the option to use city funds to serve youth through 24 years old – celebrated it as a major win, which it was. However, it is important to note that just months prior, then-CM Johnson’s office had sponsored a rally and introduced a bill calling for a right to shelter for homeless youth. But something changed early this year.

Now-Speaker Johnson’s right-to-shelter bill was re-written to become a “capacity plan” bill in its final workup. The city Law Department’s perspective on this capacity plan is telling. A municipal attorney recently told the judge overseeing the right to youth shelter suit: “There is no mention of a date for the implementation of the plan, and in fact, no requirement that this plan be implemented or that any particular services be provided.” In other words, the De Blasio administration see’s the “capacity plan” as merely an exercise in bureaucracy.

The important capacity plan bill will cast light on data about the RHY population that is often difficult to get, typically requiring extensive freedom of information requests and laborious analysis. However, the bill also has a significant internal weakness. It relies on the administration’s own unsuccessful methods for accurately assessing the needs of homeless youth. Given the extent to which the city has gone to downplay the number of homeless youth on city streets, the city using its own problematic methodologies to tally the needs of RHY is a significant risk. For example, virtually no one familiar with the RHY population in New York City believes there are 265 youth in city streets each night – but that is the number of the City estimates, and that is the number that will matter most in forthcoming policy conversations.

The age-increase through 24 years old doesn’t go into effect until January 2019. With no right to age-specific shelter, it’s a glaring unknown how the City will divvy up services between youth under 21 and those over 21 years old. The risks of populations being pitted against each other for very limited resources are real, and that the City is in no litigation to expend resources at this stage lessens the chance for substantial expansion. The bill was desperately needed and a major victory, but there is now an even more desperate need for increased resources.

Impressively, the Council was able to pass a bill calling for an extension of shelter stays through a bill led by Vanessa Gibson – up to 120 days in crisis beds, and up to 24 months in transitional beds. This is no small matter. Until recently, youth in crisis beds were expected to stabilize themselves in 30 days, or request another 30 day extension and then likely have to move to another shelter or end up back on some variation of the streets if they couldn’t find housing. Though DYCD had voluntarily instituted these extensions in the lead-up to this legislation, this law will prevent a future administration from reducing RHY shelter stays.

Further, the City has expanded – significantly – the number of shelter beds and other services for homeless LGBTQI+ youth. Indeed, as a result of the demands of LGBTQI+ activists, the City has done an impressive job at pushing providers who aren’t known to truly gear their services to LGBTQI+ youth to develop competence and inclusive services. There is more to go, but the work of LGBTQI+ activists has had a serious impact on RHY services. Without their work, there would simply not have been a bill to increase RHY services to reach youth through 24 years old.

As it stands there are currently 545 RHY beds in New York City’s homeless youth continuum, with another approximately 206 awarded. By fiscal 2019, DYCD’s plan is to have a total of 753 beds. The administration will not currently promise any others. In a striking juxtaposition, it is of note that the last reasonable estimate we have of the number of homeless youth in New York City is 3,800 – and this is from a study done a decade ago, prior to the Great Recession.

Importantly, for young people living on the street, the city has added additional overnight drop-in centers, which can be a true lifeline. Yet still, there are only two overnight drop-ins specifically for RHY in all of New York City, and they have very limited capacity each night.

But where are youth to go from shelter when they get into a shelter bed?

In New York City homeless youth services are primarily the responsibility of the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD). According to data released via a freedom of information request, 28, 816 RHY were served by DYCD’s RHY programs in fiscal year 2015. In its plan to the State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), DYCD states: “The percent of youth reunited with family or placed in a suitable environment was 89 percent from crisis shelters and 92 percent from TILs.” However, this leads to more questions than answers. What is a “suitable placement,” and why the implication that youth are so-successfully being “reunited” with family?

The city’s own data, shown in the table below and released through a freedom of information request, evidences that homeless youth who engage RHY continuum often cycle through crisis beds and back to crisis beds, and often end up lost to the four winds. According to recent city testimony, in its reporting for the Mayor’s Management Report, DYCD labels virtually any placement, for example jail or a hospitalization, as “suitable.” In the frightening words of one local non-profit executive during testimony to City Council last month: “…they are including all discharge options with the exception of “unknown” or “self-discharge” in the outcome of ‘suitable environment.’ And not only does it include young people that are being incarcerated, it also includes those that are being hospitalized and those that are being discharged to ‘other/ family or friend,’ which as a provider myself, that was the option you checked when young people are returning to their traffickers or pimps.”

Homeless youth relying on resources in the RHY continuum have no priority access to public housing units, Section 8 or access to local housing subsidies, nor does DYCD fund Housing Specialists, job placement coordinators, or benefits experts. In fact, until recently, DYCD-providers were being told – by DYCD – that they were not even allowed to assist youth to link to food stamps. That only changed after a FOIL request evidenced email exchanges showing the directive from DYCD not to link youth to food stamps – which General Welfare Chair, Steve Levin, pressed the administration on.

The extension of time in youth shelter and successful efforts toward developing LGBTQI+ competency are decisive, but there is the parallel reality that youth have virtually no way to sustainably exit the system. Despite more than a year of promises, the Social Services Commissioner, Steve Banks, has still not ensured youth have access to rental subsidies to exit homelessness. Banks repeated what has become the explanation for an increasing number of issues related to resolving the housing/homeless crisis – it’s the state’s fault. That line of argument only goes so far. And homeless youth deserve better.

In addition to having no access to local rental subsidies, youth reliant on DYCD shelters or drop-ins are granted no priority access to public housing units or Section 8 subsidies when they free up. Youth with disabilities have also face age- and other forms of discrimination in the supportive housing system, often leaving them to street homelessness and the adult shelter system. Moreover, many youth-specific supportive housing units are seen as “transitional,” but often do not offer housing subsidies for youth who are pushed to leave when they turn 25 or 26. How are these young people to manage in New York City’s gentrified housing market?

Rethinking Common Conceptualizations of Youth Homelessness

As the table below, released through a freedom of information request, shows, youth who are discharged from youth shelters often find themselves in a cycle of homelessness.

FY18 Jul Aug Sept Oct Nov Dec Jan TOTAL
  268 288 213 288 259 287 301 1904
Total Number returned home 38 21 16 17 19 27 21 159
Living with Friends/Relatives 5 8 5 23 13 13 18 85
Own Apartment 2 5 5 4 3 1 5 25
Discharged to Crisis Shelter 64 80 43 49 22 35 43 336
Discharged to TIL Program 47 64 55 56 57 89 68 436
Adult Homeless Shelter 0 1 0 2 1 1 6 11
Correctional Facility 0 0 1 2 0 1 1 5
Hospitalization 3 8 3 3 9 3 7 36
Hotel 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Other adult(not friend/family) 1 0 0 3 1 0 0 5
Supportive Housing 0 1 6 3 6 1 2 19
Non DYCD Crisis/TIL 2 7 1 5 0 1 23 39
Other Residential Care 34 26 25 33 41 43 13 215
Unknown/Self Discharge 72 67 53 88 87 72 94 533
  39 42 50 45 34 49 46 305
Total Number returned home 3 6 6 2 1 6 2 26
Living with Friends/Relatives 9 9 12 11 7 13 12 73
Own Apartment 2 1 7 3 1 5 4 23
Discharged to Crisis Shelter 9 10 6 10 11 4 11 61
Discharged to TIL Program 3 10 1 6 3 6 6 35
Adult Homeless Shelter 3 0 1 2 0 3 1 10
Correctional Facility 3 0 1 0 0 0 0 4
Hospitalization 0 0 1 1 0 0 1 3
Hotel 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Other adult(not friend/family) 3 0 1 1 0 0 0 5
Supportive Housing 1 0 1 0 1 2 2 7
Non DYCD Crisis/TIL 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 2
Other Residential Care 1 1 4 2 1 0 2 11
Unknown/Self Discharge 1 5 9 7 8 10 5 45

The picture this data draws is alarming. For example, through the first half of fiscal year 2018, only 8.3 percent of youth in crisis shelter returned home, while 28 percent left with no known destination. Only 2.3 percent moved into their own apartments or into supportive housing. For youth in longer-term transitional (TIL) beds, only 8.5 percent returned home while nearly 38 percent were discharged into some variation of homelessness.

Youth homelessness is a structural issue. LGBT youth are disproportionately represented, and youth of color compose the vast majority of New York City’s RHY population, pointing directly to how racism, heterosexism, poverty and the vulnerabilities of being a young person in New York City play out in the housing market. Yet, DYCD’s current interventions do not focus on helping youth access sustainable, affordable housing. If they did, youth relying on the DYCD system would have priority access to rental subsidies.

We must see youth homelessness in context of a larger set of intersectional oppressions that include austerity, racism, heterosexism and tiers of deservingness that pervade policy and housing access. And we must take seriously that, right now, our city is failing to successfully support homeless young people to exit homelessness. Absent a focus on housing and income supports, homeless youth are left largely flailing in attempts to navigate a rapidly gentrifying housing market.

What Is Needed Going Forward

There are a number of steps the City Council and Mayor could take – in this budget season – to assist homeless youth. This is strictly a matter of political will. Indeed, there is one basic truth that transverses homeless youth services in New York City: expectations about increases in services for homeless youth are so small that any improvement makes it appear that a mountain has been moved. Here are some ideas:

  • Place a moratorium on shelter discharges of youth who hit 21 years old: The city should immediately stop discharging youth who leave DYCD shelters when they hit 21, and work with them to find sustainable housing options rather than discharging them to adult homelessness;
  • Fund A Count and Make it count: It has been a decade since the City Council funded a count of homeless youth. In between a lot of things have happened, including the financial crisis of 2008. A City Council funded count should take place in warm months and the Council should mandate its results be taken into consideration in any capacity planning.
  • Add an additional three hundred beds: The Mayor previously committed to and has contracted 300 RHY beds. With the option to increase the age of youth served by RHY providers, the Mayor should immediately commit to another 300 beds. And many of these must be allowed to serve youth through 24 years old.
  • Open 24-hour drop-ins in every borough: With the gentrification of New York City over the past two decades, the RHY population has increasingly dispersed across the boroughs. Each borough should have an overnight drop-in to serve youth from its neighborhoods.
  • Implement permanent housing options: Young people relying on DYCD resources should be granted priority access to NYCHA units, Section 8 subsidies, and given access to local rental subsidies. There should be efforts to ensure disabled homeless youth are given equitable access to supportive housing and that youth in supportive housing who turn 25 or 26 are not evicted, but rather offered another subsidized housing option if they are in need of one. The city’s own research shows that subsidized exits are important interventions for homeless youth.
  • Hire a Job Placement Coordinator: DYCD should immediately hire a coordinator of job placement to assist RHY in being placed in employment that they can use to bring-in income, develop a resume and build their careers.
  • Hire Housing and Benefit Specialists. Youth shelters should be funded with housing specialists and benefit specialists to ensure homeless youth are given a chance for the advocacy that can help them access stabilizing resources, like housing, Medicaid and public assistance. Currently, the city provides no funding for benefits aid to homeless youth.
  • Baseline recently-added services. Ensure that all services added under the De Blasio administration that benefit RHY are baselined in the budget.”
  • DYCD should adopt a harm-reduction and housing first approach. Every effort should be made to support youth and not discharge them from shelter beds without permanent housing. DYCD should incorporate harm reduction practices throughout its system.

In the longer-term, we must figure out a path for a right to shelter for homeless youth. Absent that right, young people will continue without the survival resources they need. A right to shelter for homeless youth is a matter of political will and nothing more.

Craig Hughes is an activist and researcher in New York City. He can be reached at hughes.crai [at] gmail.com