Alone & Sleeping on the Street: Happy Holidays

BY CITY COUNCILMAN LEW FIDLER | I want you to close your eyes. Picture a 15-year-old child, out on the streets of New York City, late at night with no place to go. Some horrible situation has made living at home impossible. Unable to go home, the child finds whatever comfort one can possibly find in a bus shelter. Hungry and needing food and a place to stay, this young tender creature considers the options — couch surfing, sex work, an act of criminal desperation, or starvation and exposure.

Now, before you open your eyes, pretend that it’s your child.

As melodramatic as all of that may sound, that is the story for approximately 3,800 runaway and homeless youth in our city on the average night. That’s a shocking number, especially in this day and age in a city that prides itself as one of the world’s most civilized places.

Yet this Thanksgiving, in one of the cruelest actions imaginable, the Bloomberg administration cut funding for our youth shelter bed programs by $1.5 million. Ho ho ho and happy holidays.

Over my nine years chairing the New York Council’s Youth Services Committee, we have held 18 hearings on issues related to runaway and homeless children. Partnering with the Department for Youth and Community Development, we have increased the number of shelter beds and their diversity. For me, the goal is a moral imperative — to find a hospitable and appropriate shelter bed for every child who needs one.

We are miles and miles from that end.

Today, despite having added capacity to the program, there are still far too few shelter programs. There are a scant 114 emergency or “crisis” shelter beds. Most programs have 100 or more kids on their waiting list, kids who have come in from the cold in the hope of getting their lives together, returning to school, or getting some vocational training, only to be told that there is no room at the inn.

Who are these kids? Many are fleeing a home environment where they have been physically, sexually, or emotionally abused. Some have a parent or parents who are drug abusers. Many have “aged out” of the foster care system. They come from diverse ethnic backgrounds. One-third to forty percent identify as LGBTQ. Some are pregnant. Hard times? No doubt. Bad choices? Sometimes.

Still, each is a child, a child almost always without proper parental guidance, love, and support… and every one of them is one of God’s children.

As a parent, I cannot fathom anyone who cannot feel the pain of a child who has been denied love and support in the one place that every child should be entitled to it, in their family home.

But if you can’t wrap your mind around the sheer human tragedy and find compassion in your heart, then as a taxpayer, look at your wallet. Left on the street, every one of these kids is more likely to develop a mental disability, become HIV-positive, or end up a burden to the criminal justice system. And the cost of dealing with any one of those things is more than the cost of a shelter bed program.

I am not one of those elected officials who think we can spend money we don’t have. Nor am I willing to raise the only tax over which the Council has control — the property tax — and drive more families into home foreclosure. So, cutting spending is a must.

But doing it on the backs of our very most vulnerable population — children who are without their families, sleeping on subway grates at night — is morally wrong.

In a budget of more than $60 billion, there’s got to be a better choice to make.

Feel the pain of a child. Multiply it by 3,800. Then go home and hug your child. But first, let City Hall know that in the most civilized city in the most civilized country in the year 2010, letting 3,800 children sleep on the streets every night is just not acceptable.

Call it the holiday spirit. Call it simple human decency. Just call City Hall.

Lew Fidler, a Brooklyn Democrat, is the City Council’s assistant majority leader and has been the chair of the Council’s Youth Services Committee since January 2002. He has held 18 hearings on the subject of runaway and homeless youth (RHY) and has championed the cause of expanding the capacity and diversity of the RHY shelter bed system in New York.

His work in this area has been honored by RHY organizations such as the Ali Forney Center, Rachel’s Place, and Inwood House.

For further information, contact Fidler’s City Hall office at 212-788-2182 or his Brooklyn district office at 718-241-9330.