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NYC Pride Guide Features Carolyn Strudwick and Safe Horizon's Streetwork Project

Carolyn Strudwick Streetwork Project NYC Pride Guide Holiday 2018

NYC Pride Guide Holiday 2018
By Nikkita Thompson
December 20, 2018

In 2018, Safe Horizon celebrates its 40th anniversary of serving New York City’s homeless community. Launched in 1984, Streetwork Project has grown from one drop-in center to a comprehensive structure seeking to serve homeless youth in a variety of ways. Carolyn Strudwick, Associate Vice President of Streetwork Youth Programs, is a long time change agent for young people that are experiencing homelessness. At the Harlem Street Drop-In center, Carolyn gave us a deep dive into Streetwork’s solution for homeless youth. The drop-in center on 125th Street buzzed on a sunny, fall Tuesday. Lunch was almost ready to be served in the sun-drenched center. Carolyn and her colleague Joy led us to the conference room which was overrun with sewing machines and fabrics. “Don’t mind the clutter,” said Carolyn. “We are preparing for our Kiki Ball so it looks like an episode of Project Runway in here.” Carolyn and Joy explained how excited the clients were for the Kiki Ball, as many of the clients identify within the LGBTQIA+ community and were familiar with the city’s thriving Ball scene.

Tell Me About Your Journey to Safe Horizon

When I first started, it was the mid-90s and we were called Victim Services. We were just a storefront in Hell’s Kitchen on Tenth Avenue. I did outreach as a case manager in the Times Square area before it was revitalized. It was a very painful time in the city, where young people were forced to leave home because of violence, poverty, and abuse. It was during the crack epidemic, so many communities were really ravished which caused young people to be removed from their homes and be placed in the system, mainly foster care and New York City Administration for Children’s Services. Many of the young people that we did outreach to were either aging out of foster care or running away from foster care placement.

What Drew You to Work with Homeless Youth at Streetwork Project?

Something that really drew me to Streetwork and social work, in general, was that we’ve always had a social justice approach to our services. It’s not like we’re coming to save somebody; we don’t claim we can save you. Rather, we focus on the individual to build trust with them so we can provide resources and services. Streetwork has always been very diverse and though we do not solely focus on the [LGBTQIA+] community, we interact with many kids including gay and trans youth. We look at the role society plays in perpetuating poverty, racism, homophobia, and violence. It’s about addressing those systemic issues and meeting the needs of young people in crisis.

How Has Streetwork Project Grown Over the Years?

Over time the program has evolved and built itself. Streetwork was positioned in midtown for quite a few years and then we opened up a drop-in center on the Lower East Side. We also had a location on 38th and Eighth Avenue as well as a residential location. We’ve always had an outreach component since the program started. Through the drop-in centers, young people can come every day to get their needs met in a variety of ways. Clients show up voluntarily and participate based on what they identify their needs to be. There are a variety of needs met based on case management services, which can start from basic needs around food, clothing, and shelter to seeing a psychiatrist, therapist, medical, legal … everything under one roof.

What are Some Reasons Youth Experience Homelessness in New York City?

Statistics show that youth are homeless because of a history of incarceration due to juvenile detention, domestic violence in the home, sexual abuse and physical abuse. All these events are traumatic experiences that young people are trying to cope and navigate through. These behaviors are often self-destructive to themselves and others, but that is the result of trauma. Because our society is homophobic, it is twice as hard for young people who identify with the queer community. Their mental issues may be brought on by the media, everyday discrimination, being bullied, difficulty getting a job and numerous other factors. And yes, being trans is even harder with the lack of funding to help our youth transition. We try not to be punitive. We try to come from a place of understanding because they’ve already been through the system, so they are expecting a punishment as a result instead of someone sitting with them and talking it through.

What is Streetwork’s Approach to Addressing the Causes and Effects of Homelessness Among Youth?

We look at social work with an anti-oppression lens. We look at the role society plays in perpetuating poverty, racism, homophobia, and violence. We talk about racism, how it shows up in the work that we are doing and how we are helping people access our services. It is not coincidental that nationwide, young people of color make up a disproportionate amount of youth dragged through the system. Domestic violence transcends all race and social class but people of color are more likely to be taken away and placed in the system when it happens in the home. We talk about those disparities in the system. We also take a look at us as staff showing up to do the work; what are we as staff bringing into that process. All of that is tied to the success of our program.

What Was the Inspiration Behind the Transgender Support Group What’s The T?

Support groups are essential for building positive youth development and building self-esteem. We find this even more true for trans youth. I am a cisgender, lesbian-identified woman. And even though I am a lesbian, there is still privilege because of my cisgendered identity. Having that privilege allows me to fit into society. So you have trans youth who are constantly asking, “well, where do I fit in?” They are told that they are against nature in every way. Many of our trans female clients have issues with self-esteem and struggle with being able to pass. It’s good to have a community where trans folks can come together and share. We have these resources and know-how to create a safe space for them to talk about their issues because we have trans staff to facilitate those conversations. It’s really about finding community and connectedness.

How Has the Landscape of Homelessness Among Youth Changed Since You Started Working at Safe Horizon in the ‘90s?

Youth are still homeless, that has not changed, but these are not young people who have homeless written all over them. It’s not like it used to be per se. We used to walk the streets around 42nd Street-Times Square, actually see young people out there, because of how the environment was at the time. Are young people still trading sex for a place to stay? Yes. We call it “couch-surfing.” They may be staying with a friend, they may be staying in an unsafe space to have a place to stay for the night. Homelessness is still out there. Youth are still sleeping on the trains. We still have outreach teams at Hunts Point in the Bronx and on Queens Boulevard. The piers used to be a large outreach area for us, but they built up the pier so homeless youth don’t frequent that area too much anymore. A lot of young people make connections through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, so social media has changed the form of how they hook up, communicate or even access resources. One of the restrictions [New York City] had in the past was that only youth under the age of 21 could go into their crisis shelters. The drop-in centers were not as strict with the age limit, but the crisis shelters did not provide services for those who were past the age of 21. Now we know that at the age of 21, young people still need a bit more time and support and cannot be considered full grown adults. Safe Horizon has advocated for them to raise the age which they did this year. They set aside some funding for beds that would go towards young people between the ages of 21 and 24.

Can You Share a Memorable Moment From Your Outreach Experience?

Often times in the work, I wonder, “What is the impact?” And I’ve found that in our graduation ceremonies, the memorable moment is when they say that they found a family. Kids who used to be my clients will call me back and say, “Thanks for putting up with me.” Many of them tell me about the children that they have now and will call to ask for advice on raising their children because we are sort of that surrogate parent to them. That is where you can tell that you’ve made an impact. You know you did something good when clients are calling you back to ask you for parenting advice or just general guidance.