Three weeks ago, about a dozen young New Yorkers gathered near City Hall. Their plans to rally on the steps had failed because they didn’t have a permit; instead, they set up shop outside the metal barricades that surround the building.
The group — there to advocate for legislation that would alter the experience of being young and homeless in New York — was used to improvising. The members each had their own stories of homelessness, which they shared with the crowd and then repeated inside City Hall, as testimony for local officials.
And for the first time, it seems like local government might be listening.
Following that hearing, the New York City Council will vote today on “raise the age” legislation to increase the maximum age for access to the youth homeless shelter system to 24. Currently, the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) funds youth-specific shelters for young people between the ages of 16 and 21. Once they turn 21, however, they’re expected to transition into the adult shelter system, run by the Department of Homeless Services.
While the three-year age extension might sound trivial, a dedicated group of advocates has spent a decade pushing for it after watching countless clients struggle to adapt to the city’s adult shelters after turning 21. They believe homeless youth between 21 and 24 years old — many of whom were kicked out of their homes due to their sexuality, or experienced homelessness as children — are young enough to need specialized services but “are treated like the unwanted, unloved stepchildren by the city,” says Carl Siciliano, executive director of the Ali Forney Center, which provides LGBTQ-centered youth shelter and services.
“The hesitation of young people transitioning to an adult shelter begins at the intake and assessment phase,” says Jamie Powlovich, executive director of the Coalition for Homeless Youth. “They see these shelters are intimidating places. They’re large, there’s less support, there’s less proactive engagement in case management.” Most youth shelters hold around twenty beds, she says; the majority of adult shelters begin at fifty.
New York’s youth shelters also cater better to LGBTQ needs. It’s estimated that up to 40 percent of the runaway homeless youth population in New York identifies as LGBTQ, and Siciliano points out that in adult shelters, they often become targets for sexual harassment. He has watched these young homeless adults turn to sex survival work, couch surfing, and sleeping on streets and subways to avoid the system altogether.
The youth who testified at the City Council hearing attest to the dread that comes with your 21st birthday when you’re homeless in New York. “I only lasted a few days,” Alexander Jacobs, 22, tells the Voice of his attempt to enter an adult shelter. He moved to New York in the wake of Hurricane Harvey “to build up my life,” but found himself unable to afford housing. Inside an adult shelter, he says, he felt targeted and threatened because he is gay.
Kaashif, 31, identifies as gay and has struggled with mental illness. He estimates he has cycled through as many as five adult shelters, as “I’ve been threatened, sexually harassed, several times.”
Alexander Rey Perez, 23, decided he couldn’t live with his mother after coming out as transgender, then found he was not allowed to stay at a youth shelter because of his age. His attempts at entering the adult system only added to his anxiety — identifying as trans, he says, complicated placement in a gender-based shelter. When he did visit a men’s shelter, he suffered a “full-blown panic attack” facing a metal detector, fearing he’d get patted down. “For a person of trans experience, that’s like your worst nightmare,” he says.
This year has brought political changes that promise to address such fears. The 2018 state budget included reforms that will allow counties to increase the maximum age for youth housing to 24 years old. Then Corey Johnson became Speaker of the New York City Council in January and turned his attention to the issue. He and other legislators sponsored a bill, introduced to the City Council last month, that would allow adults up to age 24 to be eligible for youth housing. Two other bills were introduced, one that would extend the length of time a homeless youth can stay at a crisis shelter, and another that would require the DYCD to develop a plan to provide shelter to all runaway and homeless youth who request it.
According to a study by Legal Aid, young people given unlimited stay at youth shelters, with access to specialized services, have a better chance of gaining the confidence and skills they need to transition into adulthood, which includes the ability to find long-term housing. Advocates also watched the “raise the age” matter gain attention as our understanding of youth shifted, with research showing the adult brain is not fully developed by 21 but continues to grow into individuals’ late twenties.
“For a long time, these teens were not seen as sympathetic as young children,” says Kate Barnhart, executive director of New Alternatives, an organization that offers case management and other services to homeless LGBTQ youth. “There was a stigma they are difficult to work with, they might have mental health or behavioral issues.”
Barnhart continues, “There’s been a change in the culture, where people are realizing — due to the employment situation in the country, also the lack of affordable housing — a lot of people are at home, being youth, well into their twenties.”
Still, the city has been slow to turn its attention to homeless youth, even as New York’s homelessness crisis has intensified. The DYCD has no clear data on how many youth age out of shelter and decline to transition to the adult system. At February’s hearing, a tense exchange came when Speaker Johnson asked if DYCD representatives knew how many homeless youth lived in New York City. The agency’s best estimate was “a couple hundred,” according to deputy commissioner Susan Haskell. (The DYCD did not respond to numerous requests for comment.) For the youth present, it cemented a familiar feeling — that they had fallen through the cracks.
DYCD reps also testified to concerns of budgeting for more youth beds if the bills pass — though the state budget included reforms for the city to raise the youth shelter age, it did not allocate any money to do so. Speaker Johnson committed to budgeting city funds at the hearing, but did not return requests to confirm this. “I want you to have the resources you need to reach these young people,” he told DYCD reps. “I don’t really care what amount of money it is — City Council will push for it in the budget.”
If City Council votes in favor of these bills, the young people’s fate will then rest with Mayor Bill de Blasio, who would need to sign the legislation into law. A spokesperson for the mayor, Jaclyn Rothenberg, says “we are reviewing the bills, but remain deeply committed to supporting runaway and homeless youth, which is why we’ve invested over $20 million to keep them safe,” referring to funding for enhanced services for drop-in centers, an increase in supportive housing for young adults, and other new programs under the city’s NYC Unity Project. She points out that the mayor’s office is on track to triple the number of beds available to runaway and homeless youth (up to age 21) by 2019 and is working on a streamlined transition process into the adult shelter system.
Still, the majority of young people aware of the bills worry that they won’t pass, and are concerned that city government doesn’t appreciate the unique struggle that comes with a 21st birthday. “It feels like DYCD has a lot of excuses…like it involves too much work to deal with us,” says Perez, who secured supportive housing in Brooklyn after declining to stay in an adult shelter. Since he became involved with Ali Forney Center to advocate for raise the age legislation, he has dreamed of working in advocacy full-time while saving enough to rent his own apartment.
In his City Council testimony last month, Perez read a poem. “One of the lines in my poem was that ‘you can’t meet me where I’m at if you don’t know where I’m from,’ ” he says. “I wrote the poem on the subway, outside, in different places.” He continues, “I didn’t want to deliver a prepared speech. I wanted people to hear that this experience is real, these are issues me and my peers think and talk about, and we’ve suffered together.”
UPDATE 3/8: Powlovich reports that all three Raise the Age bills passed the council unanimously on Wednesday, and now head to the mayor’s desk for his signature.