By Ariel Zwang
November 3, 2017
For homeless youth, turning 21 may not be a joyous occasion.
When a young person turns 21, they are immediately ineligible for youth shelter services in New York City. Unfortunately, this means that if they are in youth shelter on their 21st birthday, they have to leave the day after. It’s a heartbreaking situation every single time.
As providers of youth shelter, Safe Horizon, does our absolute best to make sure that young people have somewhere safe to go when they age out. That’s why our Streetwork Project drop-in centers support homeless young people up to age 25. It’s so incredibly important, even if it’s just during the day, that homeless young people have a place to wash their clothes, get some good food, or even get some sleep if they have been up all night.
But we know we have to do more. We have to change the systems that negatively affect homeless young people if they are truly going to reach their full potential. There is some hope. Members of the New York City Council have introduced bills to increase the age of eligibility for crisis shelter to 25 years old and increase the length of stay from 30 to at least 90 days. We urge the full City Council to vote on these important measures immediately.
To better understand the scope of the issue and the daily realties that so many homeless youth face, I sat down with Sebastien Vante, a coordinator at Safe Horizon’s Streetwork Project. He talks about the very compelling and shocking reasons why homeless 21-25 year olds still need youth shelter; the safety risks that youth face in the street—and in adult shelters—and why homeless young men of color especially need more resources.
We know that asking homeless youth to achieve stability by age 21 can be unrealistic. What do you think is more realistic?
We need to reevaluate what we consider “youth.” Think of it from more of a developmental standpoint, as opposed to, “You’re 21, you’re an adult now.” Just because a person is 21 doesn’t mean they have it all figured out, especially if they had a past that was unstable or if there was abuse. They may be 21, but developmentally and emotionally they may be more like a 16 year old.
Raising the age and length of stay for youth shelter — I think that would be really helpful in giving more time for young people to heal and mature.
What are some misconceptions about homeless youth?
A lot of people get stuck with this image of what they consider “homeless.” If you walk through our drop-in, many of our young people will completely shatter that image. A lot of the young people at Streetwork go to school, and even work two or three jobs. The economy is hard, housing sucks, things happen, and our young people reach out to our program for services. They are doing their best.
I know young people who ride the train back and forth after work (Uncle ACE is a common nickname for the A, C and E line) because they have nowhere to stay, come here take a shower and go right back out to work, to then ride the subway back and forth again to come back here and do the same thing over and over again. You would have no idea — these are people that you are probably sitting next to on the train. You have no idea that this is a young person who is street homeless.
Can you describe the systemic challenges that homeless youth face?
It’s not a crime to be homeless, but I feel like it’s de facto criminalized. There are laws that prevent people from sleeping on a park bench or sleeping on the street. Just being homeless puts youth at a high risk of police involvement. It’s a big barrier for our young people, specifically our young men of color. Many resources are directed toward LGBTQ homeless youth, which is important, but an unintentional impact is that straight-identified young men get overlooked, although they actually make up a large share of young people who are homeless.
Trauma is at the center of everything we do at Safe Horizon, and it also pervades every area of life for a survivor. Can you talk about how Streetwork is addressing trauma?
You can definitely see trauma play out in the way our young people interact with us, each other, and social services. Some of our young people have spent time in foster homes, or have been sexually or physically assaulted, and that really plays into how they maneuver. So often, they just do not trust easily and are on guard.
Luckily there’s a space like Streetwork, where we can build trust with them over time and in the process offer everything in-house that they may need, like mental health services, hot meals, legal assistance, obtaining public assistance, housing advocacy, and more.
What should people know about Streetwork?
We minimize barriers for our young people. We also operate on a harm-reduction model, where we meet our young people where they are. We try our best to be non-judgmental, to be very client-centered. We don’t set the goals for our young people; they set their own goals and we assist them in reaching those goals.
Back to the age limit. The common question I hear is “Why can’t a 21-year-old homeless young person just go into adult shelter?” What do you say to that?
Yes, once you age out at 21, you’re only eligible for adult shelter. That is an option. But a lot of the young people that we serve say, “I’d rather sleep on the street, I’d rather ride the train. I am not going into an adult shelter.” Because for some of our young people, it’s a nightmare. I’ve heard a lot of stories of our young people being robbed, sexually assaulted, physically attacked in adult shelter. They don’t feel safe.
Safety is so important. How can young people reach their full potential when they do not feel safe?