A discussion with young adults (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photograph)
New York City Department of Youth & Community Development (DYCD) shelters and drop-in centers are specifically designated for youth and young adults ages 16-24. Yet, those same youth, when between the ages of 18-24, are not eligible to receive housing vouchers unless they move into a Department of Homeless Services (DHS) adult shelter. For its entirety, the de Blasio administration has withheld critical housing vouchers for young people in DYCD programs rather than provide a viable solution for permanent affordable housing to these individuals. When will it end?
The time for a solution is now – no more band-aids. Year after year, Safe Horizon’s Streetwork Project witnesses youth in this age group cycle in and out of homelessness because they cannot readily access a housing voucher at the very facilities created for them. Our own overnight youth shelter cannot issue housing vouchers to our clients, a true disadvantage to them, and we must direct them to a DHS shelter to go through the “proper channels.”
This ineffective policy is hurting these youth in the worst possible way. Housing is a right not a privilege. To that end, access to housing vouchers and priority access to NYCHA apartments for this age group cannot be put on hold by the city administration any longer. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened this urgency, especially when it comes to safety.
Our clients feel safer in DYCD shelters among their peer group. DYCD shelters were created specifically for young people because of their unique needs. This age group is at a different stage developmentally, socially and emotionally. DYCD youth facilities have staff trained in youth and adolescent development to support and address their needs as we prepare youth towards independence. It is critical to have this particular age group in a setting where staff is skilled in addressing their behavioral health within this specialized focus.
As a resource to young adults seeking safety, stability, and housing, we are faced with the harsh reality of having to tell them we cannot provide them with a housing voucher and have them go down the “rabbit-hole” of obtaining one which in some cases can take years.
A transgender client who recently came to our overnight shelter and felt safe staying with us had to make the tough decision to leave and go to a DHS shelter to possibly obtain a voucher. She is under 21, single with no children; criteria that makes it twice as difficult for her compared to others. Being transgender, she has already experienced rejection from her community. Being homeless and transgender, she is also at greater risk of harm on the streets, as well as at a DHS shelter, which is most often not equipped with the same staff or resources to make her feel safe.
The longer someone is homeless, the prolonged exposure to the violence and poverty only intensifies mental health needs, placing an unnecessary strain and burden on communities. For those who end up on the streets, public survival behaviors such as petty crime, substance use, and sex trade activity, often result in avoidable harm on communities, particularly those of color. Bias and discrimination against poor and homeless young people begets stigmatization, oppression, and consequential outcomes such as drug overdose, incarceration, and dissolution of families.
The ripple effect of leaving DYCD shelters to go to DHS shelters for the purpose of obtaining a housing voucher is another unnecessary step that further exacerbates the city’s homelessness crisis. Providers who offer shelter and services to homeless youth want to work in tandem with the city administration. Eliminating inefficiencies of the system, streamlining processes, making it less complicated to navigate the system, and leveling the field of eligibility for young adults are the keys to getting them into housing. Lack of investment in homeless youth does not benefit the adults they are to become, and it does not benefit the city they call home.
Equal access to vouchers and priority for NYCHA housing is a right for these individuals. They face the same challenges as others being homeless. Though age discrimination is deemed illegal by landlords, why are these young adults being subjected to it as a result of the systems created to assist them?
As New York City transitions into a new mayoral administration for the start of next year, a sound and resolute policy for providing housing vouchers and priority access to NYCHA housing to young adults while in DYCD shelters and programs is imperative. One simple step to accomplishing this is to have all DYCD and DHS shelter and program administrators report to one primary contact in the administration. This alone can streamline communication and align policy-making for equality to be a priority instead of division.
Everyone deserves a home. Everyone deserves an equal chance at obtaining housing. New York City’s young adults deserve to know that is a fact and an easily attainable reality for them, not an abyss of red tape that serves no one.
Carolyn Strudwick, MSW, is Associate Vice President of the Streetwork Program at Safe Horizon. On Twitter @SafeHorizon.