Opinion

New York City’s runaway homeless youth deserve better services

Joe Prachatree/Shutterstock

For most young people, turning 21 is ceremonious. It's a rite of passage into adulthood celebrated with spirits and friends.

But for runaway and homeless youth utilizing New York City's specialized youth shelter system, turning 21 carries a much different and daunting significance. Per existing law, homeless young people can only stay in specialized youth shelters until the age of 21, at which point they must leave the home-like environment and tailored services of youth shelters and move to single adult shelters.

ZG, a Legal Aid client who just turned 21, recently made this transition. A young transgender man, ZG previously had access to runaway homeless youth drop-in centers, emergency crises shelters and transitional independent living programs where he felt safe and better positioned to start the path of self-sustainment. In youth housing, ZG was able to finish high school, regularly access medical care, and even sleep normal hours.

Since turning 21, life has been much tougher for ZG. Because of his smaller size and gender identity, ZG does not sleep at men’s shelters out of fear of being targeted and harassed. As a result, ZG struggles to find short-term rooms or couches to crash on. He is now cut off from the services that were building him a foundation to eventually live successfully as an independent adult. 

ZG's situation is not unique. Many of his peers share his story and the same fears of adult shelters. These places are often not appropriate for individuals who are still trying to stabilize after difficult childhoods and time on the street. These transitions are even more dangerous for lesbian, gay, transgender and gender non-conforming youth. Approximately 40 to 60 percent of the runaway homeless youth population identifies as LGBTQI. 

Compounding this reality is the fact that the adult brain is not fully developed by age 21 but continues to transform well into the late twenties. Early research shows that trauma can slow or modify standard brain development as well. This is also why targeted services and treatment for young people are so important. 

RELATED: Will de Blasio break the cycle of homelessness?

In April, New York state enacted enabling legislation allowing localities to expand how programs service runaway homeless youth. Albany has done their part, and now it’s time for the city to do ours. 

This is why the New York City Council recently introduced a package of legislation that will be heard Thursday in committee, which deals with this issue in a comprehensive way.

Specifically, if signed into law, this legislation will:  

  • Increase the age eligibility for runaway youth to access RHY programs from 21 to 25.
  • Extend the periods of time youth may remain in runaway and homeless youth shelters.
  • Require the city to provide shelter services to all runaway and homeless youth who request such services.
  • Report on the description and size of the RHY population as well as service needs population and other important data to help formulate tailored policy and programs.
  • Streamline the intake and assessment process connecting youth quicker to adult services and shelter programs when they age-out or time-out of RHY programs.

The Legal Aid Society also has a pending class action against the city to secure some of these changes.

On a small scale, Legal Aid has seen how the additional time in runaway homeless youth shelters benefits clients. The lawsuit’s 11 plaintiffs were given unlimited stay at these shelters and access to the specialized youth services. From this experience, many gained the confidence and skills needed to transition into adulthood, including finding long-term housing. Most of the current runaway homeless youth programs and services infrastructure work well, but more youth need access to it for longer periods of time. 

Runaway and homeless youth comprise one of the city’s most vulnerable and deserving communities. Many are in precarious situations through no fault of their own and yet demonstrate the same incredible potential and spirit that defines all New Yorkers. New York City must raise the age on this issue to provide our young people the full lot of services they deserve.

Corey Johnson is a member of the New York City Council. Beth Hofmeister is a staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society.

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