As New York City continues to contend with an historic homelessness crisis, the agency tasked with serving homeless youth has gradually increased its shelter capacity, providing temporary accommodations for hundreds of teens and young adults.
Advocates and some local lawmakers, including Speaker Corey Johnson, say there is much more the city can do to help so-called “runaway and homeless youth” find shelter and access permanent housing, however.
The Department of Youth and Community Development now operates 753 shelter beds for young people between ages 16 and 20 across the city, a 22 percent increase from the beginning of the last fiscal year, and a 500-bed increase over what existed when Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014. DYCD has opened another 25 beds for young adults ages 21 to 24, with 35 more beds — for a total of 60 — funded but not yet available for young adults in need of a place to stay.
“We’ve reached a point where any young person shows up and needs a bed, we can find a bed,” says DYCD Commissioner Bill Chong. “No 16- to 20-year-old has to go to an adult bed in a [Department of Homeless Services] shelter.”
The City Council has pushed the de Blasio administration to expand shelter services and capacity for young people experiencing homelessness, an issue once again in current budget negotiations.
The DYCD shelters provide crucial services to young people during a developmental phase psychologists refer to as “emerging adulthood.” The youth shelters offer life skills training, job coaching and guidance as basic as reminding teens to zip their coats before heading outside.
“I have learned how to actually cook and that is one of the greatest gifts I could have ever received because you need to learn how to cook to be independent,” says Q, a 20-year-old aspiring physician who stays in one of five Lighthouse youth shelters run by the organization CORE Services Group. “It’s great to have a place where I can leave my clothes at and have a place to go to sleep and wake up refreshed and ready.”
Q, who asked not to use her last name, says she has stayed at five other shelters over the past 15 months. None of the adult settings provided the services she needed to succeed, she says.
CORE’s Lighthouse residence are among 495 DYCD-funded Transitional Independent Living beds, which allow people under 21 to stay for up to two years. Another 258 Crisis Service Programs beds enable young people to stay for up to 120 days.
“I never had a connection with my family so being at Lighthouse was home to me,” says Denise, another 20-year-old CORE client. “They cared for me. They wanted to see me do better.”
Despite the increase in beds for young people experiencing homelessness, there is still a significant need for age-appropriate shelter in New York City.
The city’s 2019 point-in-time homeless youth count identified at least 7,374 homeless young people ages 24 and under, with 97 percent staying in shelters, most operated by the Department of Homeless Services.
An untold number of young people experience homelessness without seeking shelter from city agencies like DYCD or DHS. They spend their nights “doubled up” with friends or other associates — crashing on a couch in an apartment where their name does not appear on the lease or exchanging sex for a place to sleep, for example.
A January report on the state of New York City homelessness by Johnson and Council Social Services Committee Chair Stephen Levin calls on the city to add even more short-term crisis service and longer-term TIL beds, which provide a home-like environment for young people.
The two councilmembers have also recommended creating 40 new beds for homeless young people ages 21 to 24, “since there are already reports of waiting lists” for the 60 beds that have not yet opened.” DYCD says the agency is assessing demand as the new beds for 21- to 24-year-olds open.
The report’s ultimate goal is to move young people from shelter to permanent housing. Johnson and Levin both support enabling people in DYCD shelters to access city housing vouchers that pay rent for a year at privately owned apartments.
“We need to take immediate steps to provide appropriate services and supports that enable people to exit homeless shelters more quickly and easily, or avoid them in the first place,” Johnson and Levin write in the report, titled “The Case for Change.”
Access to vouchers is also a major focus for advocates, especially as the Council and mayor engage in budget negotiations.
“They should immediately provide homeless youth relying on DYCD programs access to local rental subsidies like CityFHEPS, including those young people who only access drop-in sites, as well as priority access to NYCHA and Section 8 vouchers,” 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.
Hughes says the city should also allow young people who rely on DYCD services to have access to units set-aside for homeless New Yorkers in Housing Preservation and Development-funded apartment buildings.
Chong, the DYCD commissioner, says his agency also supports access to vouchers, though he would not say when that could become a reality.
“That’s one of the recommendations from ‘Turning the Tide,‘“ Chong says, referring to Mayor de Blasio’s plan for addressing homelessness. “We’re working with DHS and [the Human Resources Administration] to figure out eligibility and what’s the best way to execute it.
“I think the city has said we’ll do it but the question is working out all the details,” he adds. “But it’s not within my control.”
DYCD also cannot control the opening of the new beds for young adults between ages 21 and 24, Chong says.
The state Office of Children and Family Services regulates youth shelter space, size and location, which inhibits DYCD’s flexibility to open new sites, Chong says. At the same time, however, the state has not provided new funding to expand programs.
“This is the irony: we’re regulated by the state and they say how we should do it, but they don’t provide any money,” Chong says.