By all reputable predictions, we are only at an early phase of the COVID-19 crisis. Organizations that run shelters, food pantries, and drop-in centers are already facing a confluence of city neglect, staffing crises and exposure to the virus, and as a consequence are steadily limiting and temporarily shuttering services. Runaway and homeless youth (RHY) and programs tailored to serve them, in short supply prior to COVID-19, are facing an unprecedented emergency.
At the time of writing, providers have had to close four drop-in centers, some have rolled services back to the most basic pieces, and still others have ceased overnight hours. Meanwhile, some youth shelters have temporarily closed intake as they reorganize to create isolation units, diminishing the marginal number of beds available. Youth outreach providers continue their work without sufficient safety supplies for themselves or those they meet on the street.
The Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), the city agency charged with administering the homeless youth system, has responded to the crisis slowly and without additional resources. In an email sent last Wednesday, a DYCD Deputy Commissioner told advocates “I am not aware of any separate and additional RHY or DYCD guidance to share.” It wasn’t until last Thursday that DYCD issued its first guidance for providers. Focused more on damage control than substantively aiding homeless youth, city administrators have sought to be seen as working in harmonious collaboration with advocates, even as advocates push uphill to get the most basic assistance.
In a call held with providers last Thursday, it was apparent that DYCD administrators and the Mayor’s Office weren’t even communicating. Participants report that it sounded as though DYCD’s homeless youth unit were not even aware of the need to submit a plan to the Office of Emergency Management (OEM), which would potentially link the RHY system to emergency resources (as of Sunday March 22nd this has finally happened, please see final section below). Only days earlier, DYCD staff had directed one homeless youth provider, short on supplies to clean their facility, to ask the super of their building to borrow soap to clean with. The agency provided no tangible resources to assist.
On Friday, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and head of the Council’s General Welfare Committee, Steven Levin, sent a letter to the Mayor and Social Services Commissioner Banks addressing the urgent needs faced by people on the street and dangerous conditions in the adult shelters, and also included a note regarding the youth system: “We have strong concerns about the guidance and preparation taking place at DYCD shelters…” Homeless youth providers have yet to hear of new guidance or resources.
The state steps in
As a result of the deepening crisis and advocacy primarily by the Coalition for Homeless Youth, staffed by only a single person, the Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS) – the state agency charged with enforcing regulations and facilitating homeless youth programs – issued what advocates believe is the most useful guidance to date, on Friday. The guidance notes that the COVID-19 crisis may cause increases in demand for RHY services, decreases in beds and staff, and heightened demands on the staff who can work.
Though acknowledging the depth of what youth and providers would face far later than is reasonable, OCFS has made a step in the right direction. Under OCFS guidance, individual providers can request relief that allows for adjustments to the physical space of their programs, longer-term transitional programs to assist youth with crisis beds, and to operate over capacity if need be. Unfortunately the governor continues to stay silent as regards any new resources for additional space or hiring for additional staffing.
Context for an imminent crisis
Homeless youth in New York City are notoriously underserved. Despite progressive rhetoric, Mayor de Blasio has followed a troubling and conservative path in aiding the thousands of young people – mostly between ages 18-24 – who have no home, and who face significant dangers in the adult shelter system.
In 2013, at the end of the Bloomberg administration, there were just 253 beds for homeless youth. Facing a lawsuit by Legal Aid and pressure from powerful advocates like the late Lew Fidler, in 2016 the city agreed to expand bed capacity. Advocacy by LGBTQ groups like the Ali Forney Center and Queerocracy, along with the Coalition for Homeless Youth, led to passage of Local Law 88 in 2018, which allows homeless youth programs to serve young adults through age 24.
While a City Council bill had been put forward in 2018 for a right-to-shelter for homeless youth, the Council and the mayor’s office negotiated it down to a far less useful ‘capacity plan,’ which city attorneys stated would simply be an exercise in bureaucratic assessment. As it currently stands, Legal Aid will win their lawsuit for a right to shelter for youth up to the age of 18, but efforts to obtain age-appropriate beds for 18-20 year old’s was successfully fought off by the mayor’s law department.
With no right to shelter for homeless youth and no reasonable count of how many young people are on the street, homeless youth have continued to face a dearth of resources. The city has expanded to a total of 813 contracted beds, with 778 beds currently open. Many youth through age 20 still cannot find an appropriate bed and sleep on the street, without access to a shelter they find safe or supportive. Local Law 88 did not come with additional funding and to date only 25 beds reserved for 21-24 year olds actually exist within the DYCD system.
The Department of Social Services, prioritizing the ever-increasing number of people forced into mainstream DHS shelters by eviction and domestic violence, has persistently stalled on providing homeless young adults rental subsidies through programs designed to serve them. Six years into the de Blasio administration, youth and young adults have virtually no way to sustainably exit shelters, save for a handful of supportive housing beds. Instead, time and again, discharge data shows youth exit shelter into one or another variation of homelessness.
Homeless youth are at particular risk in this crisis. They are known to disproportionately struggle with disabling ailments. Notably, data from a recent survey of RHY programs, coordinated by the Coalition for Homeless Youth, found that an average of 25 percent of youth accessing their services had a chronic or pre-existing health condition like diabetes, asthma or HIV. Around 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQIA, causing them to be targets of bullying or assault in the adult shelters and at severe risk of assault on the streets. These young people are overwhelmingly black and brown and many face persistent experiences with police harassment and arrest for low-level crimes of poverty—like fare-evasion, sleeping on the subway, or survival sex—that pushes them into the carceral systems. In context of COVID-19, this is a recipe for disaster. And that is what youth are facing.
Immediate intervention needed
With the city in full-scale crisis given the rapid spread and high fatality rate of COVID-19, homeless people and those surviving incarceration are likely at much higher risk of infection and death than those with homes and those on the outside of jail walls. The city must take the following steps to ensure that homeless young people survive this crisis.
First, immediately open new shelters for homeless youth serving youth through 24 years old inside the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) system. While DYCD is governed by State (OCFS) regulations where there is no process for opening emergency beds, the DHS system can be expanded on demand. Space for youth-specific beds to get young people through this crisis is available in any number of facilities at the city’s disposal.
One hopeful change is that on March 22nd, DYCD alerted providers that they had accessed OEM resources for isolation beds in hotels, allowing seven- to 10-day stays in “satellite” sites for symptomatic youth below the hospitalization threshold. Unfortunately, this does not address the larger crisis currently faced by the RHY system, which requires far more space than single satellite units. The letter also noted “No protective supplies (PPE) will be provided (ex. masks, cleaners),” which is also what DHS is telling their providers. By requiring providers to obtain their own PPE, the city has shirked its own responsibilities and made it virtually impossible for programs to access safety supplies for their staff or for youth they serve.
Secondly, create new drop-in centers in each borough that run 24 hours a day and allow for social distancing. New drop-ins should provide access to bathrooms, showers and also serve hot meals. Repurposing municipal recreation centers or school buildings may be one approach to this, though there are many other options.
Third, immediately hire social workers and other social services professionals to staff these facilities. Each site should be overseen by a harm reductionist with experience serving homeless youth, and the city should quickly convene existing providers to create a uniform set of guidelines for new staff working in new facilities. The mayor should make a loud public request for social workers and other social service workers who have worked with homeless youth to step up and take these jobs. Another source of staffing may be DYCD and contracted employees who are typically staffed in school settings, but given closures across the Department Of Education can be redeployed to homeless youth programs.
Fourth, immediately work with the existing providers to identify exactly what their unique needs are that will allow them to remain open in at least some capacity to the youth, and provide funding and other support to prevent the continued closing of services. This should include specific attention to what is needed by drop-in centers and street outreach, since they are the gateway to getting homeless youth off the streets.
Finally, the city needs to make CityFHEPS vouchers immediately available to homeless youth in the DYCD system, and ensure youth face no discrimination in supportive housing placement interviews. Housing is healthcare, and there will not be a better time than now for the city to make good on their promise, made over three years ago, to the homeless youth in this city.
Craig Hughes is with the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center