“If you don’t do good, you will be homeless” was what Maddox Guerilla was taught in school. Guerilla, co-coordinator of the New York City Youth Action Board and Community Coordinator of the Coalition for Homeless Youth, was one of six panelists at the July 15 virtual discussion “Let’s Talk About It: Youth Homelessness in New York City,” on the experience and impact of housing instability and homelessness on the youth and young adults of New York City. Co-hosted by THE CITY, RxHome, Graham Windham and the Coalition for Homeless Youth, the panel included homelessness experts and covered several reasons for housing insecurity in youth beginning with classrooms. With an eye on recent mayoral primaries, the group also discussed what improvements New York’s next government administration can make.
Guerilla believes the solution to the homelessness and youth insecurity problem all begins with reforming our education system, which he says is beyond flawed for instating an ideology that ostracizes the homeless. He thinks children should be taught that providing resources and equipment as preventive measures is the best way to deal with housing instability.
Impact of Family Dynamics and Substance Abuse
“Homelessness is driven by primarily two things—affordable housing and people’s level of income” said Joe Westmacott, a panelist and the assistant Director of Housing and Benefits Resources at Safe Horizon Streetwork Project. Through the Streetwork Project, the nonprofit Safe Horizon offers healthcare, daily necessities such as meals and clothing, legal assistance and other resources to homeless youth through drop-in centers and roving street outreach teams.
Other reasons offered by the panelists for the continued rise of housing instability included family dynamics and histories of substance abuse. In a study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than half of the youth interviewed during shelter stays said their parents either told them to leave or knew they were leaving but didn't care. Another survey found that 46 percent of runaway and homeless kids had been physically assaulted by a family or household member, and 17 percent had been forced into inappropriate sexual behavior by a family or household member.
“If you’re a young person who experiences homelessness with your family as a child, you are more likely to become a homeless young adult,” said Cole Giannone, a panelist and Senior Advisor for Youth Homelessness at the NYC Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services.
Panelist Tamaine Hamilton, Youth Leadership Council for the NYC Administration for Children’s Services, shared his personal experience of homelessness and how his parents’ relationship with substance abuse led to housing instability. Both his parents were mostly absent and experienced housing instability themselves; they were also serious drug users, causing young Hamilton to be alone on the streets.
“The system doesn’t do enough proactive work, it's more reactive,'' Hamilton said. He talked about how he had been completely clueless to the resources available to him when he was homeless. He also discussed how a lack of adult support in relation to his behavioral issues left him even more adrift.
Lack of Housing Vouchers and the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD)
The panel went on to discuss how one of the leading causes of youth homelessness is the lack of supportive housing and vouchers. According to Guerilla, less than 2 percent of homeless youth usually find housing in New York, leaving most without a roof over their head.
Due to safety risks, most teenagers prefer not to stay in a homeless shelter, therefore disqualifying them from using CITYFEPS vouchers. The CITYFEPS Rent Supplement Program assists qualifying families with children who are at danger of entry into shelter or who are already in shelters to obtain a permanent home. People under 18 years old make up 40 percent of the total homeless population in New York, out of which 7 percent belong to the LGBTQ community and face the most sexual abuse and harassment in shelters.
The panel also discussed the homeless experiences of the homeless youth that many New Yorkers are unaware of, such as physical and sexual abuse. Young women especially are more vulnerable to crime and violence including sexual assault; hence, homelessness drives them to seek out alternatives to the streets, even if those choices carry major hazards of their own.
Youth homelessness is very different from adult homelessness, as the youth are mainly dependent on adult caregivers for their needs and when social relationships with their support system are disrupted and possibly ruptured, they have fewer life skills to cope. Therefore, a youth-focused strategy—and the services that support it—must be unique as compared to the adult sector. The panel argued that the system needs to be more understanding of the unique needs of teenagers such as mental health resources and conflict resolution training to avoid black marks on their criminal record that would be flagged when applying for employment or housing.
In New York, the Department of Youth and Community Development manages the issue of youth homelessness. The program is smaller and more inclusive than the Department of Homeless Services, as it has smaller high-quality youth and community development programs such as educational services and after-school programs. DYCD is afforded a stronger sense of community than DHS, according to Beth Hofmeister, another panelist and a staff attorney with The Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project. However, the city allocates more funds to DHS than DYCD, leading to few shelters built by the latter, therefore limiting the services the youth can receive.
DYCD launched a new pilot program on July 1 to provide 50 housing vouchers for homeless youth, which were snatched up in the blink of an eye. There is a huge discrepancy between the number of resources supplied by DHS and DYCD, and the demand of homeless youth. Yet another hurdle to receiving consistent housing: As soon as individuals turn 21, they are shuffled from DYCD’s jurisdiction to DHS’s, which is notoriously more difficult to navigate.
The panel received confirmation from the city administration that DYCD will soon be receiving 600 vouchers for housing under the city’s federal aid package along with additional resources to address the complexity of the issue.
Looking to the Future
“I fundamentally believe that people and the government want to make things better,” said Hofmeister; she believes there just needs to be better cooperation between the two. She suggests the next mayor of New York should communicate more directly with the people to tackle the issue of homelessness.
Some changes which the panel suggested for the next mayoral administration included incorporation of a Summer Youth Employment Program to provide youth with a stable source of income. SYEP is the nation's biggest youth employment program, providing career exploration opportunities and paid work experience to NYC youth ages 14-24 each summer.
“At Streetwork, we have 30 different funders because there is nobody who adequately and fully funds services for homeless youth,” Westmacott said, highlighting the urgent need for funding of youth homelessness programs and resources.
Other changes include the provision of section eight vouchers, as these allow tenants to only be required to pay 30 percent of their monthly salary in rent. The remainder of the rent and utility bills are paid to the landlord by the Public Housing. The panel also advised that youth should be made more aware of their rights and provided legal advice in order to not get duped by scheming landlords, an issue faced by many New Yorkers.
The panel additionally suggested the need for a program which had a sole focus on dealing with systematic racism, better provisions for safety for the youth at shelters, and more options for affordable housing such as apartments/subsidized housing provided by New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) for individuals with low and moderate-income. NYCHA provides quality and affordable housing in a safe and secure living environment throughout the five boroughs.
Tamaine Hamilton ended by saying he strongly believes we should “further empower non-profit organizations like Graham Windham’s” and that we need to raise awareness to remove the stigma around homelessness. (Graham Windham, founded in 1806 by prominent women including Eliza Hamilton, is today New York’s oldest and most respected private-owned family and youth development center. Its programs assist over 4,500 local children annually.) Teenagers need to be educated about the resources and tools needed to deal with housing instability as a preventive measure. At the end of the day, no youngster should have to sleep on the filthy and chilling streets of New York.
For more about THE CITY's reportage and events, visit thecity.nyc or follow @thecityny on Instagram. To learn more about DYCD and what you can do to help homeless youth, visit its NYC government page here or follow @NYCYouth on Instagram.