New York City’s Patchwork System for Homeless Youth Heavy on Crisis Response, Weak on Prevention and Coordination

New york city homeless youth de blasio
Homeless youth drop-in center in New York City. Photo courtesy of the Department of Youth and Community Development.

A team from the University of Chicago think-tank Chapin Hall is about to publish one of the first comprehensive surveys of a hard-to-track segment of homeless New Yorkers: Youth and young adults on the streets alone.

The study, funded by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of Economic Opportunity and reviewed by The Chronicle of Social Change ahead of its release today, describes a “growing commitment to ending youth homelessness” in the city, but also a challenge that “continues to outsize the city’s response.”

Fifty-three young people who spoke to the authors say the system sometimes forces wrenching choices on them, whether they are staying in youth and adult shelters or transitional housing. Said one youth, of the stringent reporting times for shelters:

There’s moments where you have to choose between your job and the bed. Because if your schedule does not correspond with the curfew, and the time, it’s based on the discretion of the shelter whether or not they’re going to give you that bed.

Other young adults describe a dark experience in the adult shelter system.

“It just makes me feel icky … sleeping [at the shelter] at night and you have to watch your stuff. You don’t know who you’ll be around,” one youth told the authors, who describe safety and security concerns, especially for LGBTQ youth.

Working with City Hall’s custom research arm, the Center for Innovation through Data Intelligence, Chapin Hall authors noted extreme disparities among at least 4,500 youth younger than 25 who are homeless on a given night in the city. Nearly all of them, 95 percent, identified as racial minorities. Forty-two percent identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer or questioning. More than half of youth experiencing homelessness were also parenting children. And each of these groups are more overrepresented in New York City’s homeless counts than elsewhere in the country.

Meanwhile, only 29 percent of youth homelessness nonprofits who participated in the study said they had any structure for youth voice and leadership.

“Young people must be a part of [these agencies’] designs, so that they reflect their needs and their needs are met. It doesn’t make sense to develop programs based on assumptions,” said Jha’asryel-Akquil Bishop, a co-author on the Chapin Hall study and an advocate who has experienced homelessness in New York City.

Homelessness has been one of the key issues of Mayor de Blasio’s tenure, with debate erupting again this spring in response to sharply negative assessments he’s received from homelessness advocates. Distinct from the growing number of homeless single adults and families who have been the focus of that discussion, youth who have run away or been kicked out of home have gradually started to receive more attention this decade.

In 2010, the federal government launched a 10-year effort to relegate youth homelessness to a “rare, brief and non-re-occurring” experience, handing out $77 million to date to 22 communities to streamline their systems.

As the new Chapin Hall study notes, the housing market has not cooperated with those plans in New York City. From 2005 to 2017, over 425,000 apartments renting for $900 or less (in 2017 dollars) disappeared from the market, while apartments going for over $2,700 per month more than doubled. The vacancy rate for units renting for $800 or less was a fraction of a percent in 2017.

The team of six authors, led by Chapin Hall’s Matthew Morton, offered a cautious assessment based on surveys and conversations with nearly 100 service providers, policymakers and youth involved in the city’s patchwork system. They write that new supports developed by the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) for foster youth in their late teens and early twenties offer lessons for the separate community of public and private agencies serving homeless youth.

“[Our] assessment surfaced the lack of a formalized system of coordinated care for youth experiencing homelessness in NYC, which several stakeholders contrasted to a more unified system of support available to youth transitioning out of foster care,” write the authors. One stakeholder cited the Dormitory Project, a collaboration between ACS, New York Foundling and City University of New York that is expected to provide 200 foster youth attending college this year with housing and intensive coaching and support. Last April, the nonprofit New Yorkers for Children, in partnership with ACS, launched the YV LifeSet program, which will serve 350 young people over three years with education, employment and housing supports.

Toward that end, the Chapin Hall team recommends a single agency or office be given formal responsibility for coordinating the city’s efforts for homeless youth. Currently, responsibility is shared between the Department of Youth and Community Development, the Department of Homeless Services, The Department of Education, the ACS-run juvenile justice and foster care systems, and the dozens of nonprofits that work with those agencies.

The city’s primary homelessness prevention vehicle, HomeBase, launched in 2008, could also use design tweaks to work better for youth, the report said.

“Young people still very much experience the city services as fragmented programs,” said Morton, in an interview with The Chronicle. “They are constantly having to go into different programs and repeat their stories and see what help they can get from individual organizations. If they don’t get it there they have to go to the next organization.”

The authors advise that the city should make permanent what are now temporary coordinating positions: senior consultant for youth homelessness, a position in the Mayor’s office held by Cole Giannone, and the Youth Homelessness Taskforce, which was created by Mayor de Blasio last June.

“For those of us who have never experienced homelessness, it can be easy to underestimate the challenges and service barriers that drive housing instability,” wrote Giannone, a longtime former staffer at the Ali Forney Center, which serves homeless LGBTQ youth in the city, in a response letter included with the study. “It is therefore crucial that the city embed youth and young adults who have experienced homelessness into the policy making process. This assessment represents an important step in that direction.”

Stakeholders also called homelessness prevention a “major gap” in the city’s approach, which emphasizes crisis response and “triaging.” Said one of the interviewed service providers:

I don’t think we have a prevention system for young adults. I don’t even think prevention exists for young adults in the way it exists for the adult system. And I think it would have to be very different than the adult system. It’s not like [homeless youth] just walking off a cliff, right? They are walking away from bad situations.

While older adults often become homeless as a result of domestic violence and eviction, the study describes how young people experience a wider range of crises that are more likely to involve family conflict, especially for LGBTQ-identifying youth. Reaching those families early enough to prevent escalation is a challenge.

Upon reaching the far side of these crises, the authors found that youth often don’t have a roadmap to sustainable housing.

“One of the things that we didn’t anticipate was, if they were in a shelter or transitional living program, we assume young people had supports to exit into housing stability,” said Morton. “But it was surprising to hear several young people ask for more housing specialists in shelters or transitional programs that had expertise in navigating affordable housing options.”

The city has ramped up its investments in the homeless and runaway youth population, including with the construction of Marsha’s House in the Bronx, the first ever Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelter for LGBTQ young adults. The city is also planning to create 1,700 supportive housing units for youth through the NYC 15/15 plan, and has created hundreds of additional shelter beds for runaway and homeless youth through DYCD.

A series of new 24-hour drop-in sites have also been set up for youth, including specifically for LGBTQ youth, to help direct them to these and other resources. Yet, youth who spoke to Chapin Hall described the stable housing slots as a rare enough resource that being granted one felt like “winning the lottery,” leading the researchers to conclude that permanent housing pathways remains “the most prominent gap in the system.”

“The report contains broad research and ideas, and we are currently assessing all of its recommendations in the context of existing efforts,” said Laura Feyer, City Hall spokesperson, in an e-mailed statement.

The report – What Will It Take? A Youth Homelessness System Assessment in New York City – is available on Chapin Hall’s website.

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Michael Fitzgerald, New York Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Michael Fitzgerald, New York Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 106 Articles
New York Editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at or follow on Twitter at @mchlftzgrld.