New York City shelters for homeless and runaway youth have turned away dozens of young people this summer because of lack of space, shelter operators and advocacy groups say. Advocates attribute the problem to the economic downturn, which they say has made it more difficult for older adolescents and young adults to find the jobs and housing necessary to become self-sufficient. "Programs around the city are either totally full, or turning away people," says Margo Hirsch, executive director of Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services, an organization that advocates on behalf of runaway, homeless and street youth. "It's definitely related to the economy. Young people who could marginally hold on to a job and stay with relatives, maybe paying a little rent, can't do that anymore."
Streetwork, a program of the nonprofit organization Safe Horizon that serves homeless and runaway youth ages 16 to 21 in Manhattan, turned away 33 young people who requested shelter in April, 26 in May, and 40 in June, according to the agency's vice president David Nish. Last year, he adds, they turned away no people during those three months.
A group of 10 young people who were turned away one day this summer returned the following day, saying they'd spent the night in Central Park, says Nish. "Young people are coming to us looking for beds, and we don't have anywhere to refer them," he says.
Covenant House, which has an emergency shelter in Manhattan for young adults from ages 18 to 21, turned away 46 young people in June, according to Hirsch. "Normally we would accept anyone who came to the door, and we can't do that at this point," says Nancy Downing, Covenant House director of advocacy.
Covenant House reports a 40 percent increase in young people seeking shelter since October 2008. For a few months, the shelter tried to accommodate everyone by increasing the number of young people housed on each of the shelter's five floors from about 45 to about 75. However, in March, staff reduced the number on each floor back to 45. "We simply don't have the funds to increase our staff to be able to accommodate the larger numbers," says Downing. Because of a tight budget, Covenant House has been forced to close programs designed to help prevent homelessness among youth, Downing says.
"It's almost a moot point for us to do referrals at this point, because everyone is full," agrees Frances Wood, an administrator at Sylvia's Place, an emergency shelter in Manhattan for gay, lesbian and transgender youth under the age of 24 run by the Metropolitan Community Church of New York. "Everyone is overflowing and has a long waiting list. It's a really frustrating situation."
She says Sylvia's Place has seen an increase in teens seeking shelter and is housing about six more young people each month than usual. Wood says they have also turned some people away in recent months, although she didn't provide statistics. She adds that she has seen more young adults who don't identify as gay or lesbian asking if they could stay there, for lack of other options.
Legally, young people ages 18 to 21 are eligible to enter adult shelters, but in practice, the adult shelters frequently refer people in that age range to Covenant House, advocates say. Runaway youth under the age of 18 who were abused or neglected at home are potentially eligible for foster care, but in practice it is difficult to get older adolescents placed in the foster care system, says Hirsch. Indeed, 16- and 17-year-olds have a legal right to leave home on their own, without a parent's consent, for as long as 30 days if they enter a shelter for runaways.
Susan Haskell, assistant commissioner for the city's Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), which funds services for runaway and homeless youth, says the crisis shelters for youth have been operating at 100 percent capacity for the past several years. She says the number of crisis shelter beds doubled from 60 in 2006 to 113 last year. When demand outstrips supply, the shelters give priority to 16- and 17-years old and often refer 18- to 20-year-olds to the city's adult shelter system, she says.
Covenant House receives funds from both private and public sources, and private donations have decreased recently, Downing adds. The City Council increased DYCD's budget for runaway and homeless youth from $4.6 million last year to about $5.9 million for the fiscal year that began July 1. City Councilman Lewis Fidler, D-Brooklyn, who has advocated for more money for homeless youth, says the funds were approved in June and should be distributed in August. He says the increase will help but will not solve the problem. "The pie here is not big enough," he says.
Before the current recession, more young people may have made the fragile transition to self-sufficiency by relying on the hospitality of relatives, friends, and parents, advocates say. But as adults lose their jobs and sometimes their homes, fewer families may be willing to support children after age 18, says Nish.
"Right now a lot of young people who would be able to enter self-sufficient adulthood are really being delayed in that process because competition is much fiercer, availability of jobs is much less," says Theresa Nolan, director of New York City programs for Green Chimneys, a nonprofit agency that runs a wide range of youth programs. Budget cuts at nonprofits, meanwhile, make it more difficult to serve young people in need. Green Chimneys has temporarily closed 10 beds in its 20-bed program for homeless gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender young people because of city budget cuts. (Nolan hopes to be able to reopen those beds in August with new city funding.)
A 2007 survey by the Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services estimated that there were 3,800 homeless people between the age of 16 and 24 in New York City on any given night. Of those, about 1,600 had spent the night sleeping outside, in an abandoned building, at a transportation hub, or in a car, bus, train, or another vehicle. Another 150 spent the night as a sex worker, according to the survey.