In the eyes of court officials who can determine whether he remains free or on lockdown, Nasheem Heath has mostly made the right moves since, at age 16, he was arrested for pointing a pistol at a random stranger and snatching that man’s necklace and cash.
Heath has not been re-arrested. He has held a seasonal job with a moving company. What he still doesn’t have is a home to call his own or the kind of income that would let him afford it.
“I was angry,” said Heath, now 20, who was a homeless kid on the night in May 2017 when he committed that crime.
Four years into a five-year probation sentence that has kept him out from behind bars and several weeks before receiving his first-ever citation for violating that probation on Oct. 6, he was explaining himself as he sat on a sectional sofa that doubles as his bed in his latest temporary place to stay.
“That’s what it was. I was so angry,” continued Heath, reflecting on his teen-age troubles and the night he assaulted a stranger. “I ain’t got no money, no drugs, so I could just provide for myself and be comfortable.”
He was arrested two weeks after that attack and charged with armed robbery. For that, he spent five months in a section of the jail in Suffolk County, N.Y. that’s reserved for minors.
Upon his release, he entered an alternative-to-incarceration court program for youthful felony offenders and was sentenced to probation.
That October technical violation of probation stemmed from Heath missing five appointments with his probation officer and testing positive for using marijuana.
But his initial crime and arrest story, including the fact that he’s not since committed any serious crimes, fit a familiar pattern to juvenile justice watchers nationwide who study how such social determinants as poverty and neighborhood blight factor into some violent and other offenses.
Among those observers is New York State Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho, who founded Suffolk County’s District Court Felony Youth project to divert 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds such as Heath away from the state prison system.
Despite their crimes, which range from burglary to violent assaults, they aren’t hardened criminals, the judge said. Often, they’re kids who’ve been neglected, abandoned or traumatized from living in highly dysfunctional and sometimes violent homes or in foster care. They’ve been let down or betrayed repeatedly.
“So they take it out on everybody. And that chip on their shoulder, they’re right to have it. Because it’s true — we’ve let them down,” Camacho said.
His special court is modeled after drug, mental health, veterans and other diversion courts. It works by promising youth who plead guilty to the felony charges against them that they will get a reduced sentence and have their criminal records sealed; it almost always comes with a sentence of probation.
In exchange, the youth must stay out of trouble and follow the rules of their probation, including, for instance, getting a job, attending school and not testing positive for illegal substances.
Heath landed in Camacho’s court with problems trailing him. Since he was 11, he’s bounced around Long Island’s Suffolk and Nassau counties, staying with relatives, friends or relatives of friends, with stints on the street in between.
He landed there after running away from home when his mother’s style of discipline became a physical battering that he didn’t think he could bear, Heath said.
“Her voice, to this day, will shut me down,” he said. “I will freeze, like, freeze up, because our mother used to hit us. She really used to hit us.”
He was staying at a friend’s grandmother’s house in 2017 when he went along with a friend’s suggestion to make some money. The house Heath now is staying at belongs to Renita Certain. At 50, she’s a mentoring neighborhood elder.
She and her husband were incarcerated in an earlier and much different life. Their non-profit, Spin the Yard, helps people returning from prison get acclimated. She has taken in dozens of young people, many of whom are navigating some aspect of the legal system.
She knows the expectations and mandates placed on them. She sees how they function on a daily basis, what trips them up and why. Those who get food stamps, rent and other assistance from the Department of Social Services usually lose it when they get a job earning more money than what’s allowed to keep one’s welfare benefits.
They trade one meager income stream for another. If they get a spot in transitional housing for juveniles leaving detention or who are otherwise in the justice system, most of their wages go to that home where they often have to share a room with several people.
Aside from those challenges, juvenile offenders rarely have their often longstanding, family-related emotional and physical trauma addressed. Those traumas are complicated by the fact that many young people in those situations have no stable setting to receive therapeutic or problem-solving help.
A study published in May 2021 in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence concluded that a cohort of 627 youths in the juvenile justice system reported experiencing an average of four out of 17 “traumatic exposures on the Life Event Checklist.”
Lack of Resources
Heath met Certain through the Council of Thought and Action, a local support network run by formerly incarcerated people. The two of them meet weekly to catch up, discuss personal problems and achievements and share resources, job openings and career advice.
After Heath’s probation officer referred him to that group of formerly incarcerated activists and advocates, Yazid Owens, who facilitated one of the council’s support groups, took Heath under his wing.
Owens knew the younger man had developed an interest in barbering after watching other detainees cut hair while he was in jail, pre-trial. Owens had opened his own barber shop, after being behind bars for two decades for a manslaughter conviction.
Owens was the only person who Certain, also a meetings facilitator, saw Heath open up to and trust. “Once we lost Yazid, he just went back into a shell,” she said. Owens died of complications from COVID-19 in April 2020. He was 53.
When a young person loses an adult who was helping them navigate the world and modeling how to be a good adult citizen, they’re at heightened risks for making mistakes that can drive them deeper into the legal system, said Melissa Sickmund, director of research division of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
“But you need to coach them through that, not just throw a flag every time they screw up,” she said.
Too often, she added, probation functions more as punitive surveillance than rehabilitation that might put youth on the right path.
Heath’s take on his troubles
Two years ago, he said, he promised his stepmother he wouldn’t see the inside of a jail cell again, he said. Four days later, while at work, she suffered a heart attack and died.
Heath numbed his grief with alcohol and marijuana. When he received his probation violation on Oct. 6, officials jailed him overnight and released him the next day with an ankle monitor he’s been ordered to wear until December. He cried in the cell that night, he said, pondering that broken promise to his stepmother.
Parental loss often is overlooked as one of the biggest risk factors for a young person ending up on the street or people’s couches, said Casey Trupin, director for youth homelessness at the Raikes Foundation, which funds a range of youth initiatives.
That loss and conflict in the home are among the primary drivers of youth homelessness, he said.
Kids in the juvenile justice system, Trupin added, don’t have the comparative advantage of youth in, say, foster care who, presumably, through publicly funded support programs, get schooled in skills they’ll need to live successfully on their own.
Funding to support young people whose misfortune in the justice system befell them at older ages is far less widespread.
The robbery Heath committed is a survival crime, Sickmund said; and a young person without adult supervision or the means to live is vulnerable.
Heath was dismayed that his parole violation and recent night in jail stemmed, in part, from his marijuana use, which New York laws allows those who are at least 21 years old to use in small amounts recreationally. He missed probation appointments because he had to go to work, he said. He called his probation officer, he claimed, but she didn’t pick up.
Those things weigh on him, he said. He feels like a burden to the people who’ve tried to help him. He also resents when they get frustrated with him.
“Nobody wants to really sit there and talk to me — take care of me like they’re really supposed to,” Heath said. “So I hate everybody when they try to judge me whenever the f— I’m doing something wrong because, like, real life: ‘You don’t sit in these shoes and you don’t really understand what’s going on in my mind.’”
Before he landed on Certain’s couch, he was sleeping in someone’s car. Without a vehicle, reliable carpool ride or adequate public transportation, he was walking two to three hours to get to his job.
The list of what he lacks is much longer, Certain said. He doesn’t know how to budget his money or save it, and she recently helped him open his first bank account.
Heath said he has a condition that makes him tired and weak when he doesn’t eat, but he didn’t know how to apply for health insurance. When he decided he wanted a second job, she had to explain that he couldn’t tell his boss at his first job that he’d need to leave early. He’s obligated to the first job, she explained to him; the second needs to be flexible enough to work around that schedule.
“And they’re not teaching him those things,” she said of the legal system that supervises him. “They’re just saying that ‘This has to be done.’”
Judge Camacho is aware of those realities. He laments the lack of collaboration between courts and social service agencies that, under optimal circumstances, might better serve young people who’ve run afoul of the law. Those are challenges that must be addressed by the juvenile justice and other youth-serving systems.
These days, Heath spends a lot of time indoors, playing video games and animating flowers and dragonflies in a coloring book. He likes working with his hands. He might want to pursue barbering; he’s not sure yet.
His No. 1 goal right now is to make enough money to get — and not get kicked out of — a place of his own. “’You don’t know how it feel,’” he said, quoting rapper Lil Durk’s “Making It Out,” “‘where, everywhere you live, you get evicted.’”
Micah Danney is a 2020-21 John Jay/Tow Youth Justice Reporting Fellow. This story, part of her fellowship project, was first published in the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. The full version can be accessed here.