As a global pandemic looms over New York City, one group in particular might be getting left behind: homeless youth.
While the city’s Department of Homeless Services has released guidelines for how adult homeless shelters should respond to health guidelines, the agency that oversees youth shelters, the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), has not released its own.
Some advocates see the agency’s reluctance to put out guidelines for the youth shelters as dangerously negligent.
DYCD’s “complete negligence of the needs of youth experiencing homelessness and their contracted providers regarding the COVID-19 pandemic is dangerous and exemplary of the mismanagement in their agency,” the Coalition for Homeless Youth said in a statement.
Earlier, some teens exhibiting symptoms were either isolated or taken to the hospital.
“For every case that has been called in, they’ve gotten great advice from the Department of Health and they’ve been able to address the matter,” said Randy Scott, the runaway and homeless youth service coordinator for DYCD.
“Now, I think they’re managing very well and the feedback has been good.”
Nevertheless, in the last week, a few nonprofits have taken to opinion columns to express their frustrations with how the city is handling youth shelters.
Michelle Yanche, the executive director of Good Shepherd Services, which offers residential housing for at-risk New York City youth, wrote that the city’s hands-off approach is leaving providers uncertain about whether they can close certain programming for the safety of their staff and not incur huge financial cuts.
While many companies and individuals have the ability to pack up their laptops and head home to weather the storm, “it’s a different reality for those in the social services sector,” Yanche wrote.
“Our staff are the ones on the front lines every day, risking their own health to ensure New Yorkers have what they need when it matters the most.”
Jeremy Kohomban, President of The Children’s Village wrote in amNY about his concerns for the Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., temporary home for roughly 300 children in New York City, with 112 staff members on site.
“We are following government guidelines to ensure that we are taking every necessary precaution, including performing daily sanitation of all our facilities, no small task given our size,” Kohomban wrote.
“But we need to do much more than that.”
Youth shelters are smaller than those used for adults, usually including no more than 20 beds, and it doesn’t make sense to create blanket guidelines since each one is different, according to Scott.
While it’s true that all youth shelters operate differently based on their size and various services, DYCD has the power to control larger decisions such as shutting down certain programming, staggering staff schedules and designating shelters as isolation centers, said Beth Hofmeister, a Legal Aid Society homeless rights attorney.
“Right now, it kind of feels like you have to give all the services or nothing,” Hofmeister said. “But [the DYCD] has an ability to look at the system as a whole to figure this out.”
Scott said that daily communication and following the safety guidelines already set by the New York City Department of Health and the state has so far been successful.
“Everybody is moving at an expeditious rate,” Scott said. “Communication has been at an all-time high. Collaboration has been at an all-time high.”
But Kohomban said that while he has received several long emails from the city agency, they have yet to offer any concrete help. And the city isn’t seeking out input from The Children’s Village in its planning process, he said.
‘We are on the front lines doing this work every day,” Kohomban said in an email. “Why not include us in the planning?
“We have good ideas that should make this more manageable. We are all in this together. Government should not feel that they MUST have all the answers — we have very good and pragmatic ideas as well.”
Youth Shelters ‘Essential Entities’
Since homeless shelters are considered “essential business entities,” all DYCD-funded runaway and homeless youth programs remain open to some degree. For many shelters, this means keeping essential support programs — such as overnight facilities and meal services — open while suspending other in-person services like mental health counseling or community-based workshops.
However, several providers seem to have stopped their nonresidential services.
For instance, The Door, a South Bronx-based organization that provides services to runaway and homeless youth but not shelter, has closed their doors until at least March 30. They’re offering food and hygiene kits that can be picked up at their center.
Calls to several organizations, including Girls Educational & Mentoring Services, Good Shepherd Services and Diaspora Community Services, suggest that their nonresidential services have paused, and administrative staff is working from home.
Keisha Phipps, the vice president and chief administrative officer of CORE Services Group, said the DYCD is publishing daily vacancies so that all providers know what’s available and can connect young people with open beds at any DYCD-funded shelter.
“We’re very collaborative in that space,” she said. “All the providers really work together to make sure that there’s never a young person who doesn’t have a bed. The alternative right now is couch surfing or living on the street, and that’s not even an option right now.”
As Phipps notes, many runaway and homeless youth have faced overlapping challenges including trauma, abuse and neglect in their homes. So continuing as many support services as possible may be essential for some homeless youth, especially during this time.
Staffing has proven to be the most pressing issue for providers, given that many shelters rely on support from interns from graduate social work programs. The closure of city colleges and universities has sent many of these students home.
“You’re dealing simultaneously with a staff capacity issue because of the virus itself, because of child care issues, parents having to stay home with their kids, and now, losing intern staff capacity because of the closing of the colleges,” said Jamie Powlovich, executive director of the Coalition for Homeless Youth.
Phipps said CORE has created an “emergency schedule,” which includes a shift reduction, information about which employees live closest to the facilities and a plan for what will happen in the case of employees calling out of work.
They’re currently looking into cross-training some employees so that they’re prepared to perform operational duties outside their normal roles. But, Phipps said, she’s impressed by how many employees haven’t called out of work.
“We’re saying to our staff, ‘We need you to come to work,’ and they’ve come to work,” she said. “They’ve come early and they stayed late. They understand that this is their responsibility.”
While these are solutions that work right now, in several weeks, when scientists predict the pandemic will begin to peak across the United States, Kohomban says he does not feel prepared: “We don’t have what we need yet.”
What to do with teens who are beginning to show symptoms is still unclear for many providers. For some smaller shelters, it can be difficult to isolate them. Powlovich likens the shelter size to a typical New York City-sized apartment — some shared living spaces have only one bathroom.
“Someone that’s supposed to be quarantined … they still are coming out to a common area that everyone shares, using a bathroom that everyone shares,” she said. “Raising a lot of the same concerns about what this looks like for anyone living in smaller living quarters.”
Symptom of Larger Problem
As youth shelters and DYCD continue to adjust as the pandemic unfolds, Hofmeister urges the city to think about the resources it currently affords homeless and runaway youth.
Before a settlement last November, homeless youth did not have a right to age-appropriate shelter in New York City. Advocates won a long-fought battle with the city last fall for 16- and 17-year-olds to be guaranteed space in youth shelters.
It was a huge win for homeless teens and advocates. After Mayor Bill de Blasio expanded DYCD shelters, there are now nearly 800 beds for runaways and homeless youth. But COVID-19 is laying bare another challenge facing these teens.
The Department of Youth and Child Services funds more than 1,200 community-based organizations, serving more than 337,500 New Yorkers through their programs, according to the 2019 fiscal report from DYCD. But only a small portion of this revolves around homeless and runaway youth.
Hofmeister, of the Legal Aid Society, says DYCD’s response in this crisis highlights the agency’s tendency to put youth homeless services on the backburner.
“This is a symptom of a larger problem,” she said. “The reality is that DYCD may not be focused on this particular part of their portfolio.”
This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story posted this week by the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, reproduced with permission. The full story is available here.