Lack of Shelter Beds in New York Leaves LGBTQ Youth At Risk During Pandemic

youth homeless shelter
Young LGBTQ residents of the Trinity Place shelter sleep on folding cots shown in this file photo. (Courtesy of Trinity Place).

Last week, a 19-year-old with nowhere to stay in a city being ravaged by coronavirus made a desperate phone call to Trinity Place, a 10-bed shelter for LGBTQ youth on the Upper West Side. 

But shelter staff had already made the difficult decision to stop accepting new walk-ins, in the hopes of protecting the nine young people already making the church their temporary home. Rev. Heidi Neumark, who leads the Lutheran congregation that shares the space with Trinity Place clients, called “every place she could think of,” but couldn’t find anywhere for the teenager to go. Another one lost to the unknown. 

As the number of people with COVID-19 infections flew past 50,000 in New York City this week, the collateral damage has fallen on the most vulnerable residents. Although they make up an estimated one-third of homeless youth in the city, it has become nearly impossible for young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer to find an available bed in a shelter. On Tuesday, there were just seven open shelter beds for teens and young adults ages 16 to 20 across the city, according to a count by the Coalition for Homeless Youth; just two beds were in a shelter focused on supporting LGBTQ youth. There were no open shelter beds of any kind for those ages 21 to 24.

Covenant House and CORE, two providers that run nearly half of the roughly 750 youth beds funded by the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), have closed all new intakes. No new clients are being accepted this week at the 124-bed Ali Forney Center or a smaller midtown shelter, Sylvia’s Place, both nonprofits serving LGBTQ homeless youth. 

“It’s chaotic, not everybody even knows who’s up and who’s down. I’ve been calling all over and I’ve gotten absolutely no answer about what homeless youth programs are supposed to do,” said Kate Barnhardt, who runs New Alternatives, a drop-in center for LGBTQ youth in Midtown. Many of those she serves have grown up in foster care, and continue to struggle as a result. “I feel like the government, DYCD, could have done a better job. If they issued guidelines early on — here are the circumstances under which you should stay open or close, here’s what you need to modify, and here’s some safety equipment and some extra money — we might have been able to keep more capacity functioning.”

With so few youth beds available, Barnhardt has been referring more young people than usual to the adult shelter system run by the Department of Homeless Services, despite concerns that those shelters are less suitable. “They’re problematic in many ways — not LGBT-friendly, not all that appropriate for young people, and also very risky in terms of the virus, because those shelters are big,” she said.

There are other challenges as well. At a time when even hospitals have a dire shortage of vital equipment for medical staff, agencies serving homeless youth have struggled for basic protective gear. 

Unable to find bleach near New Alternatives in Midtown, Barnhardt recently had to lug it by the gallons from Brooklyn. The center received their first face masks late Wednesday — not from the city but from an activist she knows from her days working to fight the spread of AIDS. Still, Barnhardt worries the new masks have arrived too late for many homeless youth who have already been exposed. 

To underscore that concern, Barnhardt has already heard from two clients who have tested positive for COVID-19. One may have been infected while jailed on Rikers Island, where there are more than 300 confirmed cases among staff and the 4,600 inmates, including convicted movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. In a sign of the brutal toll the global pandemic has taken on New York, some Riker’s inmates are being paid $6 an hour to dig mass graves, The Intercept reported Thursday. 

Like most Americans with dry coughs, fever and difficulty breathing, homeless youth who have coronavirus symptoms but are not in critical condition are unlikely to receive a test. According to New York City guidelines, “outpatient testing must not be encouraged, promoted or advertised,” leaving the prevalence among LGBTQ young people living on the streets unknown. What is known, however, is their susceptibility to infection, due to their often-unmet health care needs and common underlying conditions.

At the New Alternatives drop-in center, 30 percent of clients are HIV-positive and some have full-blown AIDS, director Barnhardt said, health conditions that can be compounded by homelessness and mental illness, leaving young people “very, very endangered.” The trauma and extreme stress that many homeless LGBTQ youth experience can also weaken their immune systems, said Neumark at Trinity Place. 

New Alternatives is now monitoring several clients with symptoms of coronavirus who were turned away by hospitals where they sought care. One woman has severe asthma, and Barnhardt said she is worried she could get worse quickly and need a ventilator, a lifesaving device in terribly short supply. 

Hospital staff told another young adult to assume he was infected, Barnhardt said, but he was nonetheless sent back to the men’s shelter where he had been living in Brooklyn. Under protocol established last week, the young man could have been eligible for a bed in the isolation units the city has set up in hotels for homeless adults.

But so far, hotel rooms are not being offered to those in the youth shelter system, DYCD confirmed by email. The agency said it is working with the Office of Emergency Management to secure hotel beds for homeless youth and will soon begin soliciting providers to manage the isolation sites.

For now, young people who are sick are supposed to isolate at whichever shelter they are staying in — if they’ve managed to find a bed.

Rather than enter an adult shelter, some LGBTQ young people are opting to sleep outside, or on the trains, where they feel they have a better chance of remaining isolated. Other youth are turning to friends, or to family members with whom they may have strained relationships.

“We’re finding a lot more doubling up with family members who they hadn’t seen for a while,” said Aruna Krishnakumar, who directs teen health services at Callen-Lorde, an LGBTQ health center. “A lot of what the case managers have been doing is safety planning around staying in one place, though it may not be an ideal place, rather than going around from place to place.”

homeless youth dancing
A current resident of Trinity Place tries to stay healthy by doing a Zumba class inside. (Courtesy of Trinity Place)

The contagious nature of coronavirus means even the city’s few havens for LGBTQ youth are no longer safe spaces. At Trinity Place, 90 percent of clients are black or Latino and most have lived through unspeakably hard times. At the shelter, they sleep on rows of folding cots. Now, a curtain separates a small raised stage area being used as a makeshift quarantine space for one resident who’s sick with an unknown illness. That person uses one bathroom, while the other nine residents share another bathroom with a single shower. 

Staff and residents recently came up with a set of guidelines for social distancing to keep each other safe. And they are trying to stay active by jumping rope and doing zumba workouts inside. When they want fresh air, they step into the small garden behind the sanctuary. 

Last week, Trinity staff and other youth shelter providers met with city officials, hoping for guidance on where to refer homeless youth, especially if they become ill. Instead, Neumark took away a different message.

“After exhausting so many people and government agencies, we just realized we’re on our own — there’s no magic place where people who are homeless can go and quarantine,” she said. “It would be a miracle if not a single one of these youth becomes ill with coronavirus.”

Megan Conn can be reached at mconn@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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Megan Conn, New York Reporter, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Megan Conn, New York Reporter, The Chronicle of Social Change 21 Articles
Megan Conn is a reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach her at mconn@chronicleofsocialchange.org.