Maria was 19 years old when she gave birth to her first daughter and brought the new baby from the hospital to a tiny room in a Harlem family shelter.
“It was literally the size of a closet,” she says of the space she shared with her then-boyfriend and their infant. “We couldn’t even fit a bouncing chair.”
She would have preferred to stay at the youth shelter where she lived before giving birth, she says. There, the staff would remind her to zip her coat in the cold, and the organization running the shelter provided group therapy and job training. But she had to move out when she was seven months pregnant because the shelter could not accommodate her, her boyfriend and their child.
“There are no shelters really tailored toward homeless youth families,” she says. She asked to use a fake name for this story because she and her abusive boyfriend broke up and she is concerned about domestic violence. “If there was, we’d have a lesser chance of relapse.”
The Department of Homeless Services shelter in Harlem failed to meet the unique developmental and practical needs of young parents, Maria says, highlighting a gap in services for thousands of unstably housed families headed by young people who, like Maria, aren’t very far removed from their own childhoods.
A patchwork of nonprofits funded by the Department of Youth and Community Development run daytime drop-in centers and supportive programs, as well as shelters for single unaccompanied young people between ages 16 and 24, but they cannot provide housing for the vast majority of young families.
DHS shelters, on the other hand, can provide a place to sleep and some programs for families, but they tend to lack key services for young parents who have never lived on their own before, let alone while raising infants, says Coalition for Homeless Youth Executive Director Jamie Powlovich.
“Young people have needs developmentally. They’re in a different place than [older] adults,” Powlovich says. “So they need to be given access to the right to [youth] shelter and have more intensive services.”
A ‘crisis of young families’
The service gap for young families exists in the context of New York City’s dual affordable housing and homelessness crises, where Black and Latino families with children, typically headed by single mothers, make up the vast majority of New York City’s staggering homeless population.
Parents also account for the majority of homeless unaccompanied New Yorkers under age 25, according to city data.
“We have a family homelessness crisis, but to some extent we have a crisis of young families,” says Craig Hughes, a social work supervisor at the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project who is writing a doctoral dissertation on the city’s history of youth homelessness.
From 2015 to 2018, parents made up the majority of homeless, unaccompanied young people identified in the city’s point-in-time “Youth Counts.” The 2018 count — an effort that involved city agencies, shelter providers, community organizations and schools — identified 2,422 “parenting youth” with 2,810 children of their own, compared to 2,141 lone, unaccompanied youth.
In 2019, the Youth Count estimate of homeless parents under age 25 decreased to 1,856, according to data presented at an August meeting of the New York City Coalition on the Continuum of Care, a homelessness prevention task force. More recently, there were 2,057 families headed by 18-to-24-year-olds with children in DHS shelters, according to the Department of Social Services.
Those tallies “don’t even include the young people experiencing homelessness in more hidden ways that make them harder to count,” however, according to an independent assessment commissioned by the city and published in May. “Still, they represent thousands of young people every day who experience trauma and lack the stability and support they need to thrive during a key developmental period.”
Stormy Toro is one of those young parents contending with a lack of stability and support Toro, 24, lived with her husband at an adult family shelter in Harlem until his arrest earlier this month. The shelter kicked Toro out while her husband is in jail — it’s a shelter for families without children, like couples or parents with adult children — so she went to New Jersey to visit her mother and her young son. But the day after Christmas, she had to leave her mother’s home, too.
The shelter in Harlem provided some stability as she and her husband worked to find an apartment where they could live with Toro’s son, she says. Losing their spot was a major setback.
“I got everything we worked so hard for and in a couple of hours I have to rewrite my whole blueprint basically,” she says.
Toro, an intern at Safe Horizon’s Streetwork Project, says she will likely move to a shelter for single women. She says she may seek shelter through a youth services provider, but space is limited, especially for parents and their children.
Despite the thousands of homeless families headed by teens and young adults, there are only 87 beds and cribs for families at seven sites in the city. The locations are funded through DYCD and only apply to single mothers and their children. Fewer than 60 mothers and children are currently staying at the sites, DYCD says.
The few dozen beds for young families are time-bound. The mothers and children can stay up to 120 days in 28 “Crisis Services” beds, or up to two years in 59 “Transitional Independent Living” beds operated by nonprofits like Covenant House and Children’s Village. Last fiscal year, 207 young mothers used the beds, DYCD said.
Powlovich says many young parents are missing out because they don’t know about the programs, or their potential benefits.
“The youth system in general is definitely less well known, and we are constantly pushing how there needs to be more awareness of youth services,” Powlovich says, adding that information-sharing largely depends on the shelter provider or individual social service staff members.
The city-commissioned assessment of youth homeless services found that parents accounted for the majority of the 914 young people who received subsidized housing through the Department of Social Services in 2018.
Nevertheless, the report criticized the city for gaps in communication between agencies and determined that “services do not appear to consistently account for the developmental needs of the parent as a youth, in addition to the needs of a family.”
For more than a year, 23-year-old Rhanesha Harris says she lived in a DHS family shelter in the Bronx without knowing about the young adult programs she and her two daughters could access.
“If you don’t ask, they won’t tell you,” Harris says of her experience with DHS and the Human Resources Administration. “I found out being in a work program. They told me about transitional child care, they helped me find a job, gave me Metrocards. They mentioned programs that HRA will never tell you about.”
By the time a new case manager turned her on to the programs, she was getting ready to move out of the shelter using her Special One-Time Assistance voucher, she says. The family of three now lives in an apartment in Newark, though she says she worries the landlord won’t offer them a new lease when the voucher expires.
“I have a good amount of money in the bank if any crap does unfold,” she says.
The unique needs of young people
Young homeless families typically lack the social supports that many other teens and young adults take for granted, says Hughes, the Urban Justice Center social worker. The lack of support compounds another issue: Young people who earn incomes that would allow them to afford an apartment face discrimination from landlords based on their age, their race, their family composition and their homeless experience.
“They don’t have the guarantors that kids coming from NYU do,” Hughes says. “Even if they get their own housing, they need guidance, much like how people rely on their parents for how to deal with a landlord.”
Young people new to the workforce tend to earn relatively low wages, he says. Income that would go toward rent has to also cover the cost of formula, clothes, a bassinet, daycare.
“There are difficulties in getting a foot into the labor market.” he says. “Young people are trying to make ends meet for their family and many of them can’t.”
New York City has a unique right to shelter for people experiencing homelessness, but that right extends only to adult and family shelters operated by DHS.
That means young adults between ages 18 and 24 — a period many psychologists consider a distinct developmental stage known as “emerging adulthood” — typically enter the DHS system. DHS says there are no heads of household under age 18 in its shelters.
There are a few hundred DYCD shelter beds for homeless young people without families, but advocates like Hughes and Powlovich have called on the city to establish a right to “age-appropriate” shelters for young people based on their developmental needs.
After a few months in the Harlem shelter, Maria and her family signed a lease on an apartment, but that fell through when a violent break-in and robbery compelled them to leave. They returned to the DHS family intake center in the Bronx and, after an onerous process and several denials, they got placed in another shelter in Brownsville, where Maria gave birth to her second child, a boy.
Maria broke up with her abusive boyfriend and, two years later, she and her two kids finally secured an apartment in a supportive housing program in the Bronx. Maria, now 25, is working and earning good money, she says, but she struggled as she navigated early adulthood and parenthood without stable housing. She got help from the Streetwork Project.
“I don’t have family to guide me through adulthood, to set up resume, set up ConEdison, learn how to become a mother so my case manager is like a mom figure,” says Maria, who emancipated from her parents at age 17 and became homeless after leaving college during her freshman year. “I’m an actual adult now, but it took six or seven years to get there.”
Allyson, a 21-year-old homeless mother, has lived with her husband and 1-year-old son in a hotel-turned-shelter in Central Brooklyn since leaving her abusive father’s home (Allyson asked not to use her full name to prevent discrimination as she searches for an apartment). She and her husband work as dog-walkers and earn a decent income, she says, but she and her young peers are still struggling to make it in New York City with kids in tow.
“The majority of homeless families I meet are young mothers in my situation — 20, 21, 23,” Allyson says. “People think of someone homeless on the street, but they could have just got evicted. Imagine living in New York City as a kid? It’s hard to live here.”
An uncertain path to permanent housing
Homeless young parents trying to access permanent housing typically find DHS shelters their best option, even if they lack age-specific services, Powlovich says. “For a lot of parenting young people, it doesn’t make sense to access youth shelter because the reality is, when their time there comes to an end, they end up going to adult shelter anyway,” she says.
City leaders have resisted creating a right to age-appropriate shelter and young adults, including parents, who do not enter the DHS system remain locked out of CityFHEPS housing vouchers that cover the cost of rent up to a certain monthly amount, depending on household size.
“There’s a paternalistic belief that someone who is 18, 19, 20 either can’t handle their own housing or doesn’t deserve it,” Hughes says. “Young people need supports, but that shouldn’t be a barrier to housing.”
Eligibility may change, however. Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced a policy shift that would allow people to bypass the DHS system to access housing vouchers. The city’s 2017 “Turning the Tide on Homelessness” plan indicated that people in DYCD shelters would be able to access the housing assistance, though that has not yet happened.
Powlovich obtained a heavily redacted document titled “Proposed CityFHEPS Eligibility Rules for DYCD Runaway and Homeless Youth,” from DYCD via a Freedom of Information Law request, suggesting the city may soon expand access, but any bits of information on the document are covered by black bars.
For Maria, the mother of two who lives in the Bronx, permanent housing has been life-changing.
The family secured an apartment in a supportive housing site and are no longer rocked by uncertainty or bound by the restrictions or of shelter life, she says.
“My kids now walk to school, they know the neighborhood,” she says. “I’m seeing how my children grow.”
But Allyson, her husband and their son are waiting for a landlord to accept the housing voucher they obtained in the adult DHS system. They’re working as dog walkers, taking turns so someone can be with the baby at all times.
Inside their shelter-hotel room, they cram their food into the minifridge and watch vermin scurry across the floor or die under the bed. Allyson doesn’t put her son on the floor “because the mice might bite him or touch him,” she says.
Meanwhile, her son is not meeting developmental milestones in a typical timeframe, she says. She worries about her family’s health and future.
“I didn’t grow up struggling,” Allyson says. “I grew up in an unfortunate situation, but we were never struggling, so for me when I come in here — we’re in a hotel mind you, a very small room, with mice in the room — it gets hard.”
City Limits’ series on family homelessness in New York City is supported by Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York and The Family Homelessness Coalition. City Limits is solely responsible for the content and editorial direction.