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‘Raise the Age’ A Vital Victory for Homeless Youth

The New York City Council voted for the age for youth shelters to be raised to 24. We are hopeful more young people will find the support they need to thrive.

The New York City Council unanimously passed a body of bills that impact homeless youth. One of those bills raised the cutoff age for emergency youth shelters from 21 to 24. Below is one story that shows the strength, resilience, and desire to succeed despite the many unfair barriers placed in the way of homeless youth and reminds us why we advocate for policy changes like those passed today.

'Raise the Age' A Vital Victory for Homeless Youth

March 8, 2018

My Story – By Alyssa Fernandez

Four years ago I was panhandling outside New York City’s Columbus Circle, right next to the Trump International Hotel. The people who passed me rarely acknowledged me. I felt disposable. In fact, many of them would look at me with disgust and say, “Go back to where you are from. Don’t you have a family member you can stay with?

The truth is, my step-dad changed the locks. He always made his dominance clear: “This house is not a democracy, it’s a dictatorship,” he often shouted. Growing up in that house, I got stitches and bruises, as did others in my family. Taking drugs was the only way I felt that could cope with the abuse I experienced and witnessed in the house that should have been a safe haven. By age 14, I was in rehab for addiction.

My house felt like a prison, and on my 18th birthday, I finally escaped. Since then, I’ve learned that domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness nationwide. In NYC, 34% of homeless youth report that fleeing mental, physical or sexual abuse was the primary reason for their homelessness.

The other homeless teens I met when I came to New York were also running away from something worse than sleeping on the street. I wish I could say it got easier after meeting others like me, but it didn’t. The homeless system for youth is deeply flawed and many of my friends have fallen through the cracks; some have even died.

In order to make a better future for ourselves, young people need a safe and stable place to lay our heads at night. But finding housing takes time, and getting kicked out of a youth shelter on your 21st birthday does not in any way accelerate the process. It takes time to become stable, and it’s much more complicated than “Save up, move out.” That’s why I am glad the City Council voted unanimously to raise the age for youth shelters to 24. I hope Mayor DeBlasio will soon sign this important bill into law.

I remember when I learned about Safe Horizon and their Streetwork Project, a program for homeless youth. A case manager told me that Streetwork has a crisis youth homeless shelter, and someone was praying for me that day because there was one bed open starting that night. I rushed over to the shelter. I was so nervous because I was accustomed to being treated as a 2nd class citizen. But as soon as I walked in, I felt like I mattered. The case manager there asked me, “What’s your goal?” It’s a standard question she had probably asked thousands of times, but it really had an impact for me.

I whispered, “…to be happy.

In that moment, I realized that I never knew what it felt like to be happy. I was not really living but existing, surviving, in a way that made it nearly impossible to enjoy anything in the moment.

Today I have stable housing, two beautiful children, and my loving husband. It has been a long process to get to this point, and the staff at Streetwork were my advocates when I was too exhausted or overwhelmed to advocate for myself. They were constantly rooting for my family and I, and we won.

But for four years I moved from shelter to shelter, slept in abandoned buildings that Hurricane Sandy destroyed, and dodged bullets in a city-sponsored apartment in Queens with my then 7-month-old daughter.

It takes at least a year to be approved for supportive housing. Once you’re deemed eligible, you spend 6-12 months finding an open apartment, then another 2-3 months to get an interview. After an interview, you could wait 2-3 months just to get a rejection letter.

My hope is that raising the age to 24 will give homeless young people the support they need to thrive.