November 11, 2015

Safe Havens, Not Mean Streets:
Respite Centers for Troubled Youth 

By Amy Albert

One of the greatest crises facing youth charged with or convicted of juvenile offender crimes is homelessness. When the young person returns home after a period of incarceration, the trauma that he experienced may create tension leading to intra-family disputes. According to the crisis intervention center Covenant House, 50 percent of adolescents aging out of foster care and the juvenile and criminal justice systems will be homeless within six months. When youth are kicked out of the home they have very few options because many are unprepared to live independently.

There is a severe need for shelter options for adolescents in New York City. The Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) runs a range of services for runaway and homeless youth. DYCD only has two crisis shelters that serve at-risk youth under 21, Covenant House and Safe Horizon Streetworks Overnight, both in Manhattan. There are other limited crisis shelter options for LGBTQ youth, victims of sex trafficking, and pregnant and parenting young mothers. Unfortunately, the majority of our juvenile offender clients are teenage boys who don’t meet these criteria.  New York City’s youth homeless crisis also places an enormous burden on the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) to house youth in the foster care system. Those group and foster homes are in short supply. 

Right now, too many of our clients live in the streets or sleep on the floors or couches of friends, neighbors, or even strangers. Homeless youth are more likely to be arrested, engage in criminal activity to meet their survival needs, or engage in unsafe sexual relationships or the commercial sex trade because they need a place to sleep. 

A 2013 study by Covenant House and Fordham University found that one in four ofsurveyed homeless youth became a victim of sex trafficking or was forced to provide sex for survival needs, such as food or a place to sleep. Of these young people, about half reported that the number one reason they had been drawn into commercial sexual activity was because they did not have a safe place to sleep.   

Such young people (and their families) could be invaluably served by safe places to stay while both sides had time to cool off after a disagreement – places where families can mediate differences, figure out a family member the youth can stay with, or collaborate with a case manager about long-term placement options. In that spirit, New York State Assembly members Andrew Hevesi and Joseph Lentol published an opinion piece in City & State calling for the creation of respite centers with State social services funds earlier this year.

Adolescent respite centers should be open 24 hours a day, seven days per week. Voluntary stays in such centers by young people should be limited to no more than six weeks. Clinical social workers would be available to evaluate an adolescent’s and family’s needs; nurses would be available to assess health needs, including reproductive health issues such as pregnancy. During their time at a shelter, youth and their families would have the opportunity to create a long-term placement plan along with a case worker and receive referrals to appropriate services. Staying in the center would not automatically trigger an ACS intervention, though licensed clinical social workers would be mandated to report abuse or neglect in such cases.

Schools, police, medical professionals, emergency medical technicians, defender organizations, and social service providers would be encouraged to refer potential families to adolescent respite centers. Centers should be located throughout the state, in urban, suburban, and rural areas. They would provide safe shelter space for youth in the communities they live in. 


Amy Albert is a staff attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services, a public defender organization that annually represents people who are too poor to afford attorneys in over 40,000 cases per year.

(This posting is a lightly edited reworking of testimony given to the New York City Council Committee on Juvenile Justice on September 25th, 2015.)

Photo by: Alexander Bryden