A young person tested positive for the fast-spreading coronavirus at a New York runaway and homeless youth shelter today, the same day program directors implored city leaders to pay attention to the dire situation for youth living on the streets.
“We have significant concerns that the city is not doing everything it can to prevent the exposure and potential death of the youth that it has the responsibility to protect,” stated the particularly blunt, unsigned March 23 letter, sent to the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) on behalf of a dozen shelter providers who contract with the agency. “In the end, their fate, good or bad, will be on the city.”
Sheltering Arms Chief Executive Officer Elizabeth McCarthy said in a hasty phone call Monday late afternoon that the young man who became infected at the shelter her agency runs had been isolated, but provided no additional details.
“Most providers are still pretty frustrated and have not felt the kind of flexibility and support we’ve felt from other agencies,” McCarthy said, referring to DYCD. “I reached out to [the agency] and it was kind of like ‘OK here’s the form you need to fill out.’”
The isolated youth’s case underscored the urgency McCarthy said they feel at Sheltering Arms, which has been hit by coronavirus infections across its programs, including an adult with developmental disabilities in a group facility, a foster parent, and a staff member.
More than 2,000 youth were served by the nonprofit’s Queens drop-in center in 2018.
The March 23 letter from the Coalition for Homeless Youth to Mayor Bill de Blasio and DYCD Commissioner Bill Chong states that agencies serving homeless young people have yet to receive much guidance on keeping their shelter clients and staff safe and cared for – over a week since the city declared a state of emergency.
With growing numbers infected throughout her agency, McCarthy said she is desperate for permission to close a Far Rockaway drop-in center so she can shift staff to an overnight facility in Jamaica. But she has not been able to talk to anyone at the Department of Youth and Community Development. Both of the centers can’t keep enough staff on duty due to illnesses and unmet child care needs.
With drop-in centers also closing due to the pandemic, access to an already fragmented system of care for homeless youth appears to be quickly narrowing.
City agencies share responsibility with dozens of nonprofits like Sheltering Arms to care for youth who are homeless. In a report last year before coronavirus upended the system, the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall urged New York City to designate a single agency to run the system of care for these fragile populations.
“[Youth] are constantly having to go into different programs and repeat their stories and see what help they can get from individual organizations,” said Chapin Hall researcher Matthew Morton, in an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change last year. “If they don’t get it there they have to go to the next organization.”
On Saturday night, the city had just 54 shelter beds for runaway and homeless youth between the ages of 16 and 20, according to a count distributed by the Coalition for Homeless Youth. There were no available beds designated for homeless youth ages 21 to 24.
Agencies providing runaway and homeless youth services have already shut down programs in New York City, which the mayor has called the epicenter of the global pandemic.
“Due to the lack of support by the city, most programs have closed completely, or significantly limited their hours and the services they are able to provide,” the letter from homeless service providers stated. “We know that these decisions did not come easily, and the providers are not to blame for doing what they feel is best. The city is to blame for not being proactive in its approach in addressing the pleas from providers about needing supports and guidance, pleas that were mostly answered with silence or unhelpful responses.”
“One of the analogies I’ve been using is that the current situation is like being on an airplane: We need the providers to put on their air masks before they’re able to help others,” said Jamie Powlovich, who heads the Coalition for Homeless Youth.
The providers’ four-page letter went on to demand written responses to 23 questions, including how cash-strapped nonprofits would obtain medical and cleaning supplies, and where homeless youth discharged from emergency rooms should go if there are no shelter beds or places they can stay that are isolated from others.
Plans have been floated to utilize empty hotel beds, but nonprofits also have little idea how those would be staffed. With young people suffering from coronavirus entering hotels, for example, absent enough protective masks and equipment for staff, how would those ill young people be cared for? And if they are returned to the streets, with drop-in centers closed, what about basics like bathrooms, showers and hot meals?
“We are very concerned that we’re actually past the point of providers being able to sustain the services on their own,” Powlovich said.
Megan Conn can be reached at email@example.com and Michael Fitzgerald at firstname.lastname@example.org.