Young and Homeless

by Jennifer Pinkowski

Two of the three 19-year-olds wore sunglasses. The other had a blue sweater but no coat. Because it was a bitter, windy night, it would be comforting to assume they had just flown into New York from some sun-dazzled beach. Instead, they had been on the street for ten days. They were homeless.

Compared to the average homeless adult, these kids looked good. They were well dressed. They were clean. Pride and fashion kept them in $100 shoes and $150 pants.

They sat in silence in a van operated by a group called SafeSpace.

"Yo," Joey Lopez, a SafeSpace outreach worker, said to the kids, his head tilted to the cell phone at his ear. The neon lights of 42nd Street pulsed and throbbed through the van's windows just behind him. "They got space for all of you at Promesa in the Bronx. You want to go?"

Though a few minutes earlier they had pleaded in muted voices to be housed together, they did not respond.

"Yo," he prompted, gently.

The teenager in purple sunglasses answered quietly. "Yeah, we want it."

Lopez stepped off the van and back on to Eighth Avenue to continue his conversation with the Promesa shelter, which had just opened. Though Promesa has only eight beds, the SafeSpace workers still consider its opening a Godsend. Last winter, Jolene Nell had to recommend to some kids that they sleep on the A train, the longest and apparently one of the best-heated subway trains in the system. There were simply no beds anywhere throughout the non-profit network -- which includes SafeSpace's Homeless Youth Services, Covenant House, St. Christopher-Ottilie and Urban Strategies -- that helps homeless youth 18 to 21 years old.

There are few services for people this age. Several city agencies help those under 18. Adult shelters are available for those over 21. There are more than 90 family shelters, which a lone teenager cannot get into.

Recent estimates put the number of homeless youth in New York at around 15,000. SafeSpace finds housing for about 30 of them a month. Another 350 visit the drop-in center every month; close to 3,000 a year use the van.

But even these meager services may soon be cut back. SafeSpace is in danger of losing its lease with its landlord, the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The church wants to use the building on 46th Street that SafeSpace has been renting as its drop-in center for 10 years. Repeated negotiations between SafeSpace and St. Mary's board of directors have yet to yield a solution.

"As of June 1, we will probably be evicted," said Angelica Travaillot, a spokesman for SafeSpace.

In the meantime, the shelter is looking for another location, without much luck. They have neither the money, nor the time. Travaillot figures it would take SafeSpace two years to move completely into a new space: "We would like to figure out a solution without interrupting service."

If SafeSpace shuts down, it will be more bad luck for a population that already has more than its share, people in need of HIV testing, medical examinations, showers and laundry facilities, and "life skills" training, all of which SafeSpace provides, as well as helping them get a high school equivalency diploma and computer training.

Getting a job is the first step to independence, yet only 20 percent of New York City teenagers 16 to 19 years old are employed, according to a recent report by the New York City Comptroller's office, compared to 45 percent nationwide. (Older youth are grouped with general unemployment rates, so it is difficult to know how many 20-and 21-year-olds are employed.)

With the housing market so tight, what landlord needs to risk renting to somebody underage and unemployed?

Even if they could afford rent, many of these young people are still struggling emotionally after a childhood that has done them harm. They have run from bad homes and what they see as unsolvable problems. They have run from foster care. They run from the police, often with good reason; they are doing something illegal.

Sometimes that something is prostitution. Experts call it survival sex. Many male prostitutes got on the street initially because they were gay and were denied support by their families or communities, according to a 1992 report in the Journal of Adolescent Health. A 1988 report published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that 20 percent of male homeless youth in New York City identified themselves as gay, a rate twice that of the general population.

Many of the prostitutes SafeSpace sees are transgendered men. The majority are black. More than 40 percent of AIDS-infected New Yorkers are black males. As many as 20,000 adolescents may unknowingly be infected with HIV.

That is why SafeSpace offers weekly HIV testing in its drop-in center and on its van, and why it sees preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases as the van's main mission. Far more condoms than food or clothing are handed out. The neighborhoods that the van stops in have some of the highest AIDS rates in the city.

When the van left Times Square after midnight, it headed to East Harlem, the neighborhood with the second highest rate of AIDS in Manhattan. Nearly four hours later, the last stop was 14th Street and Ninth Avenue, just below Chelsea, the neighborhood with the most AIDS cases of any in the five boroughs. In between, the van visited the Bronx's West Farms, neighboring Crotona, which has the second highest rate in that borough, and Hunts Point, which has the third highest; and Long Island City, which has the third highest rate in Queens. Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant also has alarmingly high rates, so the van often goes to Brooklyn.

Venturing out to these neighborhoods started to become necessary a few years ago because the "New Times Square" made it more difficult for people from the old Times Square to keep a low profile while selling drugs or sex, thus pushing them into new areas of the city. Still, Times Square -- despite (or maybe because of) the Disney store, theme restaurants and cheery musicals -- remains a mecca for runaway youth.

That is why the service agencies for homeless youth feel the need to stay in the area. It is also why SafeSpace sees its own impending eviction as bitterly ironic, and a palpable threat to the people they serve.

"If we don't catch them now," one counselor said, "they may become that 40-year-old guy in a homeless shelter." If they live that long.

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