John McCarten

A pro-SYEP rally on the City Hall steps in 2018. The de Blasio administration had expanded the program, but its move to cancel and then restore it this year is still rippling through the youth services sector.

On the second day of the summer youth employment program at Queens Community House last week, executive director Ben Thomases was still trying to match teenage applicants with program slots. 

Which was a problem. A problem that, Thomases said, “sits squarely on the shoulders of the de Blasio administration.”

The partial restoration of the summer youth employment program (SYEP) in the city budget approved in late June seemed like a reprieve. “The FY2021 budget will save summer,” read the June 30 press release from Speaker Corey Johnson. “The Council has secured $115.8 million to bring back the Summer Youth Employment Program and the COMPASS, Beacon, and Cornerstone summer camp programs.”

The restored SYEP, however, is a very different beast from its pre-pandemic form. COVID-19 changed it from a work-experience program in which youth aged 16 to 24 performed up to 25 hours a week of paid work at 13,000 sites across the city, to an online-only effort offering career exploration and training modules. And city budget cuts sliced the program’s scale by more than half, from serving 74,000 students in 2019 to just 35,000 this year.

Those shifts would have made for a challenging summer anyway. The late approval of SYEP, however, has forced providers into a scramble to serve students in deep need of engagement after a spring without school. 

“It’s been really stressful. I won’t lie. You can’t create a program overnight,” says Nora Moran, director of policy & advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses, an organization that advocates for the city’s settlement houses, many of whom operate SYEP programs.

Reshaped by COVID and cuts

SYEP, which in a typical summer provides six weeks of minimum-wage work for young people aged 16 to 24 and career training and internship experience for 14- and 15-year-olds, plays a critical role for New York City youth. It offers a valuable introduction to the workplace, a way to engage youth during the hazy days of summer and puts money in teens’ pockets—cash that can help cover basic needs in low-income households. Last year 151,000 kids applied for 75,000 slots.

The pandemic struck just as providers were gathering applications for the summer 2020 program. Once COVID-19 shuttered schools, it was obvious that an in-person SYEP would be impossible. Yet SYEP providers and advocates assured the administration that they were capable of delivering an online program. “There was a lot of contingency planning going on,” Moran says.

Nonetheless, City Hall announced on April 7 that it was deep-sixing the program. “Out of an abundance of caution for our young people, providers and worksites, we have made the very difficult decision not to operate the Summer Youth Employment Program this year,” Department of Youth and Community Development Commissioner Bill Chong said in a letter to providers.

“SYEP has been a New York City institution since 1963 so we did not arrive at this decision easily,” Chong continued. “Unfortunately, the uncertainty over how COVID-19 will continue to affect social distancing guidelines, worksite availability, and provider and site staffing as we head into late spring and summer makes it difficult to ensure that SYEP can be operated safely and efficiently.”

The move meant providers would not be compensated for the staff time they had spent getting programs up and running. According to Moran, some providers had to furlough or lay-off staff, or transfer them to other programs. 

More important, the cancellation meant that tens of thousands of teens would miss out on valuable experience and a stipend. De Blasio’s move set off a fierce advocacy campaign to save the program, and advocates say by early June it was obvious there was going to be a restoration. But it wasn’t until the end of the month that it became official.

A scramble

Advocates slam the mayor for cancelling the program in the first place—presumably to apply its $164 million cost toward closing New York’s yawning budget gaps—but they also fault him for not moving faster to let providers know that there would be a program after all, so they could plan accordingly.

“All the advocates were telling them we can provide remote programming. The decision to zero it out and use the excuse of the health issues was a poor decision to begin with,” Thomases says. “And then, as the political pressure mounted and mounted and it was clear there be a restoration, the stubborn refusal to do that was mind boggling and damaging to the lives of thousands of young people in New York City.”

“You can’t do that with summer programs. It’s just negligent,” he adds. “If you play games with the budget, you make it difficult to execute the program.”

Providers had to relaunch the application process. Even though fewer than half as many slots as normal were available, interest in the program swelled. Before the COVID-19 shutdown, the city had processed 95,975 applications for SYEP. The summer program has received more than 136,000.

The providers also had to finish creating an online curriculum and hire staff capable of providing it—a skill set that their regular SYEP staff members might not have had. The challenges of the shift to online learning might have been too much for five providers, who decided not to participate in the SYEP “summer bridge” program, according to DYCD.

“The fact that we lost two-and-a-half months of planning because of the budget dance was very difficult for providers,” Moran says. 

The agency defended its handling of SYEP’s launch. In a statement, DYCD said:

“DYCD understood the challenges to the provider community caused by the late funding and restart decision and made every effort to work very closely with the provider community to make sure they are part of the program restart process and the development of the SYEP Bridge model. Prior to the budget passage DYCD held a series of conversations with leaders in the field and the provider community at large to ensure that the new model was in line with community and provider needs. Allocation and capacity surveys were sent immediately after the budget was passed and the first SYEP Summer Bridge provider meeting was held immediately after budget passage. Throughout the entire restart process we encouraged the providers to keep an open dialogue with DYCD and have strived to address all expressed concerns with policies and procedures of the new program model.” 

For youth advocates, the unusually rough treatment of SYEP during the budget process reflected the low political priority attached to programs for kids.

“What the cancellation–and last minute restoration–made clear above all is that there is a lack of leadership around youth services in New York City government right now,” says Lazar Treschan, vice president for policy & impact at Here to Here. “We clearly have more work to do to convince our public leaders of the importance of youth employment programming.”

A different sort of summer

The online offerings are a mix of resources. At Queens Community House, they include career exploration tools, customer service training and panel discussions about navigating the workforce. 

“One of the benefits has been simply occupying teens over the summer. That is delivered by remote programming,” Thomases says. “Another benefit is starting the process of having them think about themselves as people who will have jobs and careers and for whom jobs and careers will be essential parts of their lives.” 

Adding to the disappointment over the way summer 2020 has rolled out is the fact that New York City’s SYEP program had been expanding and improving. The program had doubled in size between 2013 and 2019, and city spending has increased six-fold over the same period. And under a revamp to the program that began last year, there was a new focus on getting teens in NYCHA or with foster-care or criminal-justice involvement. “The city definitely tried to recognize that there are pockets of people who can’t reach the program and might need a different approach in order to participate,” Moran says.

Moran is worried that those gains will be lost as the program moves out of the summer of crisis. Even more of a concern, she says, is the possibility that the city will be tempted to move SYEP online permanently in order to save money. “That’s definitely a worry of ours—that there will be an avenue for the city to cut corners on the program and keep it remote.

DYCD says that’s not the plan. “We definitely plan to return to an in-person model as soon as social distancing guidelines allow but will be happy to take some of the best practices and lessons learned from this very challenging and very different year into the next,” says an agency spokesperson.

Beyond the worries about the shape of the SYEP program are concerns about the population it serves. Moran says some youth workers have reported a sense of hopelessness among participants—a “general sense of detachment and despair.” This was evident even back in April, when the cancellation was announced. Some providers said teens in their orbit had shrugged their shoulders in resignation. Says Moran: “It was like, ‘Everything’s cancelled.’”