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Options for Homeless Youth in New York City

Read more about how we advocate to raise the age and extend the length of stay in emergency youth shelter.

Streetwork Project Uptown Drop-In Center

By Joean Villarin
November 20, 2017

At Safe Horizon’s Streetwork Project, we work with young people facing a tremendous obstacle to achieving stability in their life – stable housing. In this article, I will explain why having a stable home is so important, what housing options are currently available, what restrictions are in place and how changes to restrictions on age limits and length of stay could improve the outlook for this vulnerable population.

The Effects of Being a Homeless Youth

Young people can become homeless for many different reasons. Some are fleeing abuse at home, some have family members who are unable or unwilling to support the youth’s mental health needs. Others are kicked out because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Others are homeless due to life circumstances such as the death of a caregiver or other tragedy.

However homelessness happens, being a homeless youth can be a particularly dangerous experience. Young people who are homeless are vulnerable to crime and abuse. If a young person has nowhere to go, they run the risk of interfacing with law enforcement as they sleep on the streets and subways, or sleep in abandon buildings. They may have their belongings stolen and are more at-risk for being taken advantage of by others. They may be faced with decisions to participate in survival behaviors that can jeopardize their physical and mental health, such as trading sex for shelter. The pressure to participate in sex trade may increase a young person’s exposure to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Some youth may resort to substance use as a means of handling underlying or newly developed mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, or other diagnosable conditions.

For a young person in school or employed, lack of steady shelter puts them at risk of not completing their educational goals or losing vital income as they struggle to maintain normalcy in their lives.

Housing Options for Homeless Youth

Young people are able to access youth shelter services, but only if they are 20 years old or younger. There are only a handful of crisis shelter beds available at a given time in the city and right now, there is a 30-day-limit for each person who is able to get into placement. At Streetwork Project, we can only house 24 youth at a time, for 30 days, which isn’t much time at all for someone who is trying to establish stability in their life. I can’t imagine being expected to obtain a place to live, go to school, get a job, and secure benefits in a month or less, and yet this is the expectation placed on youth with no stability and limited access to safe spaces for shelter.

Given the small number of beds, the eligibility limit based on age, and the unreasonably short time they can seek respite, a lot of young people are left without a place to go.

When a Young Person Turns 21

When a young person turns 21, they are immediately ineligible for youth shelter services, many being discharged on the eve of their birthday. Many youth-oriented service programs provide daytime services that include: case management, legal, medical, psychological and mental health services, food, showers, and other concrete services. However, many of the youth are left without a safe place to sleep at night.

Many of our clients are unable to access youth shelter because they are over the age limit (over 20 years old). While adult shelter services are available for them, youth often opt out of using them because, unfortunately, many youth experience increased exposure to violence in the adult shelter system. Youth are also at greater risk of been taken advantage of by those in the adult shelter because young people are less experienced or comfortable navigating systems on their own. Because so many feel unsafe accessing adult shelter services they are left to fend for themselves on the streets or in other unsafe settings.

Implications of Raising the Age Limit and Length of Stay for Homeless Youth

A change in the policy to allow people to access youth shelter services until age 25, and for 90 days, could be a real game-changer for our clients. This adjustment would be such a relief for youth in crisis who are struggling each night to find a safe place to sleep. This would allow many of our clients to seek shelter at a youth program that understands and supports them better than the adult shelter system, which is an easy place to get lost in the shuffle.

I believe increasing the age limit and the amount of time young people could stay in crisis shelters, from 30 days to 90 days, would give more young people an option to feel safe and supported while working toward stability in their lives; this would likely give young people the ability to focus on a greater number of objectives that would allow them to thrive, such as seeking a job or working on education goals, or applying for supportive housing or transitional living programs.

Take Action

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. Click here to stand for homeless youth.

  • Joean Villarin

    Joean Villarin is the Assistant Director of Drop-In and HIV Services at Safe Horizon Streetwork Project, a Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) services program that provides support to unaccompanied homeless youth in New York City. She has worked with vulnerable youth populations for nearly two decades and has held previous roles as an intervention/prevention specialist, outreach worker, senior case manager, and sexual health coordinator. Joean has been a Streetwork Project team member since 2005, and is dedicated to serving initiatives that embrace the spirit of social justice and anti-oppression, the philosophy of harm reduction, and the development of youth empowerment.