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"They said you're old enough to live on your own," she says. "It's true, after 18, you're not young enough to get back into DSS [New York State Department of Social Services] custody or anything like that. But it's kind of weird to me cause I'm used to structure."
Technically, the state is supposed to care for some kids until the age of 21--a promise it made after it was sued by street kids and advocates in 1984. But that's often not what happens. "Foster care will not even look at you if you're 15, never mind if you're 18," says Margo Hirsch, who testified at the hearing on behalf of the New York City Task Force on Homeless Youth.
For kids who've been edged out of the foster care system, the only place left to turn is shelters. But many won't accept people under 21, and most young people are too frightened to go to adult shelters anyway. "Why would a kid want to come into an adult shelter when the only adults they've ever lived with beat the crap out of them?" asks Hirsch.
"Overwhelmingly the kids we see are victims of physical and sexual abuse," says Carl Siciliano, director of homeless services for the Center for Children and Families. "Sometimes they have pretty extraordinary mental health needs as a consequence that were not met in foster care. And they end up homeless and on the streets."
Today's young homeless are especially vulnerable because they grew up in the '80s, one of the most violent times in urban history, explains Siciliano. "The young people we're seeing now were kids during the time of crack and when AIDS was first starting to devastate our cities. The [children of crack addicts] we used to read about in 1987 are now 17 and 18."
"These kids have symptoms like people who have gone through wars," Hirsch says. And they need everything: counseling, medical and legal services to help them. Jean has been trying to get her braces taken off for the last eight years. "They're ruining my teeth," she complains. But dental care is a luxury. The agencies that work with homeless kids are trying to deal with more pressing issues, like keeping kids alive. Advocates estimate that between 15 and 30 per cent of kids on the street are HIV-positive.
WITH A CRISIS CENTER right in the heart of Hell's Kitchen, Covenant House sees some 9000 kids a year and is the largest institution in the city dealing with homeless youth. Covenant House runs a highly structured program, with curfews and demands that send kids on job interviews almost as soon as they get there. Some kids are saved. Others, like Jean, Mary, and Custer, wind up back on the streets.
Custer got tossed out for "inciting a riot," he says. And Jean and Mary couldn't quite follow all the rules. Now they spend time at two day programs they like, SafeSpace and Streetworks. But after SafeSpace closes at 7 p.m. the trio are out on the streets.
Youth advocates, including those at CovenantHouse, want to see a comprehensive system coordinated by the city, with overnight shelters and job training, so that homeless kids too old for foster care and too young for adult programs can get help. And it's not like there isn't any money. Last year the Department of Youth and Community Development spent just half of the $3 million it had allocated for homeless youth and returned the other $1.3 million to the state. The commissioner didn't return requests for an interview.
Once a heroin addict from a middle-class Westchester home, Adam,* 20, has been homeless since his parents told him to leave two years ago. He couldn't afford an apartment, and he found that homeless shelters wouldn't take him because he was under 21. Even a synagogue turned him away. Adam ended up stealing, living on the streets, scared for his safety. "When you're 18, if you don't have a job and a place, you're screwed," he says.
In September, city agencies will get their chance to offer possible solutions at another council hearing. "I just hope that another kid doesn't get murdered, another kid doesn't get addicted to crack, another kid doesn't get HIV while we're working on this," council member Fisher says.