Nowhere to Go

New York is Hell If You're 18 and Homeless

On a warm Wednesday night in late June, a group of City Council members squeezed into the backseat of a van looking for homeless kids. They drove through Times Square, past the strolls where girls and boys work as prostitutes, and around Port Authority where kids in baggy jeans huddle near the doorway. George Santana, the outreach worker who was driving the van, passed out condoms and flyers to the kids who flocked to his window. What struck the City Council members was that most of these kids looked just like any other New York teenagers. Knowing that they would be sleeping in shelters, on the train, in abandoned buildings, or staying up all night came as a jolt. "What's shocking is not that there's this group of young people, but that we're ignoring them," says City Council member Ken Fisher.

Now, for the first time in nearly a decade, the City Council is taking a look at the problem of street kids. On June 25, Fisher, a Brooklyn Democrat and head of the council committee on youth services, began a series of hearings on homeless youth. According to various estimates, there are 15,000 to 20,000 homeless kids in New York City. Yet there are only about 500 beds in shelters for them. While Mayor Giuliani has been pushing his "quality of life" agenda, clearing away street artists and vendors, the only attention he's given to street kids is extra police sweeps that land them in jail.

Last year, Giuliani commissioned Michael Clatts, a medical anthropologist who has worked with street youth, to study the situation. The report--which detailed in 200 pages the severe bed shortage, government agencies completely unprepared to deal with the number or type of kids, and a potential AIDS crisis-- was mentioned in an AIDS newsletter and on an NPR broadcast in March and was later suppressed. "They were bent completely out of shape in the mayor's office," says Daniel Tietz, the contractor who hired Clatts on behalf of Giuliani's office. "I was essentially told I should call Clatts and tell him 'Any more [leaks to the press] and the city's coming after you.' I had loud arguments about what the fuck is wrong with you? There's stuff in here that all of us can use." No one at the mayor's office was available for comment.

Every year, countless street kids are robbed, beaten, kidnapped, wounded, or killed. And many become prostitutes, panhandlers, drug dealers, or addicts. "They hustle, they pick pockets, they do whatever they have to do," says Santana of SafeSpace, a drop-in center run by the nonprofit Center for Children and Families.

ON A TYPICAL EVENING in Hell's Kitchen Park, a group of these kids sit playing chess, chewing on Cinnaburst gum, and talking about where they want to be. One is Custer,* who, at 21, is too old to be placed in foster care, not willing to go to adult shelters, and won't even think about going back to Bensonhurst. When he was 12, his father used to choke him until he was unconscious, he says. And then when he couldn't contribute his share of his mother's expenses, the tension got to be too much so he took off.

"Most of us are homeless because our families said, 'Fuck you,' " he says. "All I want to do is spread good karma so I can get good things and stop being angry and stop crying. I want to get my shit together. And I want to do it the right way, but unfortunately right now I have to go on the other side of the tracks, " says Custer, who gets by picking pockets. "In order to get what you really want in an expensive city like this, you have to have money. And if you don't have that dollar-dollar bill, basically, you ain't shit."

Mary,* Custer's girlfriend, left home in March, on her 18th birthday. She'd run away from her Bushwick home several times before, mostly because she was beaten by her father and didn't get along with her mother, a crack addict who has AIDS. After Mary left, her younger siblings were scooped up by the city and put into foster care. Because of her age, government agencies didn't bother to look for her. She doesn't have a clue where her siblings are. "I miss my family much, my brothers and sisters," she says. "Last time I saw them I told them if you're ever in a foster home I will find you and I will raise you myself, after I get myself back together. I'm gonna try and go back to school."

A pretty, petite young woman with shining curls who looks 16, tops, Mary worked for a while as a prostitute. But it made her sick to have to trade sex for a place to sleep. Now she makes her living pickpocketing with Custer.

Jean,* who's 19, was diagnosed with clinical depression at 14, after she tried to kill herself by swallowing every pill in her mother's medicine chest. Since then she's gone from program to program, foster home to foster home. Last year, after she finished high school at a home for girls in Massachusetts, Jean came to New York with her younger sister, who was getting abused at home. Her sister was placed with a foster family. But at 18 Jean had "aged out" of the system. Despite her tendency toward severe depression, and the fact that she's on disability insurance, the city and state expected her to make it without help.

"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.

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