OPINION: Respite Centers Would Keep Teens Off Streets, Out of Prison

Although the session has ended without a change to the age of criminal responsibility, we have an opportunity to reconsider how the state can address this issue. The governor has committed to address by executive order the most troubling result of treating 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system: housing them in adult jails and prisons. Now we should turn our attention to an issue that is very much a part of this discussion: finding alternatives to incarceration for adolescents who may otherwise be at risk of homelessness. One way to address this very common problem would be to fund adolescent respite centers.

Adolescent respite centers would be small, community-based centers where parents or police could drop off youth, or where young people could check themselves in, to provide families in crisis with a cooling-off period. Another use for these centers might be as an alternative to pretrial detention in lieu of bail when a youth is not able to return home. During their time at the respite center, youth and families would be connected with services while they determine the best options for long-term placement. Adolescent respite centers would play a vital role in supporting families and reducing criminal justice involvement for adolescents across the state.

There is a severe need for shelter options for adolescents. For example, Covenant House is the only youth crisis shelter in New York City. This places an enormous burden on agencies such as the city Administration for Children’s Services and the state Office of Children and Family Services. ACS currently sends Brooklyn youth to a shelter on Long Island because of the shortage of beds in New York City. At-risk groups include:

• Youth who are kicked out of the home after an intra-family dispute, often involving violence. According to Covenant House, 50 percent of shelter youth reported intense conflict or physical harm by a family member as a major contributing factor to their homelessness.

Youth who return home after time in foster care or a criminal justice facility. Fifty percent of adolescents aging out of foster care and juvenile justice systems will be homeless within six months because they are unprepared to live independently and have limited education and no social support.

LGBTQ youth. Forty percent of the homeless youth served by agencies identify as LGBT, according to a 2012 report by the Williams Institute. LGBTQ youth face social stigma, discrimination and often rejection by their families, which adds to the physical and mental strains and challenges that all homeless people struggle with.

American-raised children of immigrant parents. Culture differences can lead to conflicts that result in parents kicking their children out of the house, leaving the youth homeless. Immigrant LGBT youth are especially vulnerable in this regard because, while homelessness is a pervasive issue for all LGBT people, LGBT individuals from immigrant communities often lack support systems such as other family members or friends that are in a position to give them shelter and help.

Pregnant and parenting teens of all genders. Pregnancy, parenting and sexual activity create tensions at home for young fathers as well as young mothers. Families sometimes kick their teenagers out of the house to express their dissatisfaction with the youth’s sexual activity. Statistics show that pregnancy rates among youth are higher for those experiencing homelessness than their housed peers. One study reports that 50 percent of all unaccompanied female youth have been pregnant, a number which is significantly disproportional to that of the general (non-homeless) youth population. Most unaccompanied youth are sexually active, and many practice “survival sex,” the exchange of sex for food, clothing and shelter, according to the National Network for Youth. Safe shelters could help many young people avoid falling into this pattern and save many from a life of prostitution or worse.

While New York is able to provide some shelter beds specifically for LGBTQ youth, victims of sex trafficking, and pregnant and parenting young mothers, they are not currently equipped to provide housing to the other categories of homeless adolescents across our state, many of whom are adolescent boys of color—the same group most likely to become involved in the criminal justice system.

Right now, many of these young people live in the streets or “couch surf”—sleep on the floors or couches of friends, neighbors or even strangers and move to another couch when they are no longer welcome. A significant number of these children of color have been evicted from NYCHA housing due to involvement in the criminal justice system, after which the family must choose between promising not to allow their child home or facing homelessness themselves. Once this happens, the youth is more likely to be arrested, engage in criminal activity to meet their survival needs, connect with a gang or engage in unsafe sexual relationships or the commercial sex trade. A 2013 study by Covenant House New York and Fordham University found that 1 in 4 of surveyed homeless youth became a victim of sex trafficking or was forced to provide sex for survival needs. Of these victims, about half reported that the No. 1 reason they had been drawn into commercial sexual activity was because they did not have a safe place to sleep.

All of these groups of adolescents and their families could be served invaluably if youth had a safe place to stay while both sides had time to cool off. Many of these youth need never become homeless if they and their families have a neutral, safe place to go where they can mediate their differences, designate a family member the youth can stay with, or collaborate with a case manager about long-term placement options. Another important hope for these respite centers is that they can effectively access resources that homeless youth are entitled to through ACS or Family Court. Due to their incomplete development, adolescents are often unable to navigate bureaucracies on their own behalf and find simple and seemingly apparent solutions. The respite centers could offer a wide variety of services, including attorneys to represent the child in pursuing benefits, services and educational needs in light of his or her predicament.

Adolescent respite centers would go a long way to helping youth avoid arrest and to provide options to judges in order to reduce the impact of the criminal justice system on adolescents.

Andrew Hevesi is chairman of the Assembly Committee on Social Services and Joseph Lentol is chairman of the Assembly Committee on Codes.

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