A Group Portrait Emerges Of the Young and Homeless

A survey of homeless youth yields the first new estimate of this population in more than two decades.

By: By Tram Whitehurst

The most comprehensive study of youth homelessness in New York City in decades was released recently, providing what some say is the first realistic account of one of the city’s most vulnerable and misunderstood populations. According to a report by the Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services, on any given day there are more than 3,800 young people under the age of 24 living without a home – and up to 13,400 or more over the course of a year.

Those involved in the project say the report should finally give both public officials and service providers a point of reference on the issue of youth homelessness, and hope the new information will lead to improved services for homeless youth. Previous estimates, after all, had put the number of homeless young people at more like 20,000.

“This study answers a lot of questions we had and confirms a lot of what we were thinking,” said City Councilman Lewis A. Fidler, the Youth Services Committee chairman who was responsible for allocating funding for the report. The difference, Fidler added, is that now the information is there in black and white for everybody to see.

One of the report’s most striking findings, say youth service professionals, is the significant overrepresentation of certain marginalized populations among the ranks of homeless youth in the city—particularly those who identify themselves either as black, or as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), or those who have experience in the foster care and criminal justice systems. Almost half of respondents identified as black and close to a third identified as homosexual or bisexual. More than a quarter reported time spent in foster care, jail or prison.

“The doors are opened and they’re let out without any preparation for living the next day,” said Margo Hirsch, executive director of the Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services.

Additionally, half of the young people interviewed for the report did not have a high school diploma or GED. “Many of these young people haven’t been in school past the third or fourth grade,” said David Nish, associate vice president of youth programs at Safe Horizon, a city-based nonprofit that operates a homeless and "street-involved" youth program. The average age of respondents was 20, and their average duration of homelessness was over two years.

The study was conducted last summer by volunteers and youth service professionals who surveyed homeless youth at runaway shelters, transitional living programs and on the street. Both the report’s authors and professionals in the field acknowledge that it was not a comprehensive count—many think the report significantly undercounts the homeless youth population—but they say it provides a good estimate considering the study's limited funding and the significant challenges of identifying homeless youth.

“One of the things young people are very good at is fitting in. It’s much harder to identify youth homeless on the street,” said Hirsch. She recalled one young homeless person who used to get dressed up to sleep on the subway, so as not to let on that he was homeless.

New York City has never had a clear picture of its homeless youth population. Prior to the release of this report, many youth service professionals assumed there were 20,000 or more homeless youth, a figure taken from a 1984 study. Last year, the Department of Homeless Services’ street count identified just 700 homeless youths. The authors of the Empire State Coalition report use the 945 youths surveyed to make a set of extrapolations, including the figure of 3,800 homeless every night, and anywhere from 7,600 to more than 13,400 homeless over the course of a year (because people move in and out of that status).

The difficulty of counting speaks to the unique nature of youth homelessness, which isn’t always as clear-cut as adult homelessness. For example, rather than living on the streets, many young people “couch surf,” staying with friends or sex work clients on a day-to-day basis. Homeless youth can also become homeless for different reasons than adults—they may have run away to escape domestic violence or sexual abuse, or for LGBT youth, been thrown out of their house by families who don't approve of their sexual orientation.

Homeless youth advocates hope the report will draw attention and funding to what they consider to be an overlooked problem. There are currently only 500 beds in the city available for a population of thousands, said Carl Siciliano, founder and executive director of the Ali Forney Center, which serves LGBT homeless youth. “Every homeless youth in New York City deserves to have a bed. That is the fundamental issue,” Siciliano says.

Nish at Safe Horizon agrees: his organization sees about 450 homeless youths every month, but only has 36 beds to offer.

At the city's Department of Youth and Community Development, which funds 93 crisis beds and 95 transitional beds, the Empire report is not affecting programming yet. "We're not really in the business of assessing outside studies," spokesman Ryan Dodge said. "It's useful in that it's another perspective."

DYCD Director of Youth Initiatives Robyn Causey says her agency publicizes its youth homeless services the best it can, and the contractors who administer the shelters have never told her they've had to turn anyone away. "We feel that our continuum ... is adequate," said Causey, pointing out that the spectrum of services also has grown in recent years. There are five youth drop-in centers in the Bronx where there used to be just one, and there soon will be four certified crisis facilities throughout the city instead of one, she said. The Runaway and Homeless Youth budget is $10.8 million in the present fiscal year; City Council provides the largest chunk of that.

Advocates would also like to see more funding for community-based services and permanent housing, and more effort on the part of the Administration for Children's Services and juvenile justice centers to prepare young people for living independently after discharge. Councilman Fidler says he will continue to press the issue in City Council. “Every one of these young people is somebody’s kid,” he said. “On the basis of human compassion, this should be something we work on with a strong commitment.”

- Tram Whitehurst