Council Votes to Shelter Homeless Youth Up to 24

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Ali Forney Center executive director Carl Siciliano at a late 2015 press event. | GAY CITY NEWS

By unanimous votes on March 7, the City Council approved three measures aimed at strengthening shelter options for homeless youth in New York, including a long contested move to raise the age limit for eligibility in youth shelters to include those 21 to 24 years old.

The State Legislature last year authorized localities to provide youth-specific shelter to such young adults, but to date the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) had publicly resisted that expansion, citing cost and the complexity of contracting with qualified service providers.

This week’s Council vote indicates its ability to override any potential veto by Mayor Bill de Blasio, but three sources with direct knowledge of conversations with the administration on the matter told Gay City News that both the mayor and DYCD now support the expansion of youth shelter to those 21 to 24 and could be ready to implement it by next January.

Sources say de Blasio administration, intransigent to date, embraces reform long pushed by advocates

Neither de Blasio’s office nor DYCD, however, has responded to several requests over the last two weeks to clarify their position on the legislation.

The Council action on March 7 involved three separate measures. Intro 410-A, sponsored by Speaker Corey Johnson of Chelsea, requires DYCD to develop a plan for housing all runaway and homeless youth (RHY) and to report annually on their status.

In a written statement, Johnson said of his measure, “There are few crises more heartbreaking than that of youth homelessness. Sadly, this is a crisis that disproportionately impacts the LGBTQ community, of which I am a proud member. We must do everything we can to help all of our young people… Every young person who needs shelter deserves access to youth-specific services and this plan will set the framework for getting us there.”

Bronx Councilmember Vanessa Gibson sponsored Intro 490-A that extends the duration that RHY can spend in emergency housing, from 30 to 60 days in crisis centers and from 18 to 24 months in transitional independent living facilities.

“By extending shelter time limits, we are giving runaway and homeless youth much needed stability and providing them with an opportunity to make the good and healthy choices that will keep them on the pathway to success,” Gibson said in a written statement. “These are young people who are alone, abandoned, and often fleeing abusive situations at home. It is our fundamental responsibility to remove every barrier to young people’s success.”

Out gay Bronx Councilmember Ritchie Torres was the sponsor of Intro 556-A, which requires DYCD to implement shelter services for young adults 21 to 24. The agency’s current programs require young people to leave its facilities by the time of their 21st birthday.

“I’m convinced that expanding the safety net of shelter to those in greatest need from 21 to 24 years old will have a real impact in saving lives,” Torres said, in a written statement. “Homelessness leaves runaway youth vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation, contact with the criminal justice system, STDs and, worst of all, suicide.”

Advocates for homeless youth hailed the Council action as much-needed relief in their efforts to address the city’s RHY crisis.

“I am overjoyed by the passage of the RHY bills, and am especially jubilant by the passage of the bill to raise the age,” Carl Siciliano, founder and executive director of the Ali Forney Center, which serves homeless LGBTQ youth, said in an email message. “I have been calling for this for 20 years, since Ali Forney was murdered at the age of 22. Raising the age will greatly reduce the suffering of homeless LGBT young people on our city’s streets; it will save lives. I am profoundly grateful to Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Member Ritchie Torres for their compassionate leadership in sponsoring the bill. I am also deeply grateful for the many members of our LGBT community who joined us in advocating for this, and am especially grateful for the many young people who had the courage to advocate for one another.”

Jamie Powlovich, executive director of the Coalition for Homeless Youth, in an emailed statement to Gay City News, said, “Today’s unanimous vote in favor of three City Council bills that will drastically impact the lives of homeless young people in NYC is groundbreaking. CHY applauds Speaker Corey Johnson and his colleagues for their leadership in making long overdue changes to the DYCD homeless youth system. It is unfortunate that in a city as progressive as NYC we had to pass laws to force the administration to do something that could have been done voluntarily, but are extremely grateful for the dedication of the City Council to do the right thing on behalf of the countless homeless young people and providers who have been pushing for these changes for several years.”

“New York’s runaway and homeless youth — some of our city’s most vulnerable — must have unfettered access to shelter, and we’re glad to see widespread Council support for that concern today,” said Beth Hofmeister, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project, which, working with Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP, has pushed the city for years to acknowledge this population's right to shelter. “We laud Speaker Corey Johnson and the City Council for championing this legislation, and urge Mayor de Blasio to enact these reforms immediately.”

The push to expand the age range for serving homeless youth gained momentum in the years since former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in 2010, convened a commission to study issues facing the RHY population. That commission’s report, released by DYCD, advocated raising the eligibility to 24, but the issue languished, even with the determined efforts of a coalition of advocates working as the Campaign for Youth Shelter.

In a February 20 letter to de Blasio, the City Council, and DYCD Commissioner Bill Chong, roughly 20 organizations and Democratic political clubs, reiterating the history of the issue dating back to 2010, noted that the state had in January issued regulations based on last year’s authorizing legislation and urged the city to “immediately implement” the higher age for eligibility.

“For a number of years, the goal of raising the youth shelter age has been a cornerstone of our New York City LGBT Community’s efforts to protect homeless LGBT youth,” the letter stated. “We have advocated for this change because the current mechanism for sheltering young adults does not work for most LGBT youths in the 21-24 age group, who fear violence and harassment in the adult shelter system, thus forcing many to sleep in the streets and subways and even to resort to survival sex.”

The letter concluded by arguing, “New York City will not fully succeed in the goal of becoming a safe and supportive environment for homeless LGBT youth until the age is raised.”

Separate from the advocates’ action, Speaker Johnson and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, on February 7, wrote to DYCD’s Chong protesting the agency’s recent letters to service providers that the age of eligibility would not be raised. Johnson and Adams urged Chong to reverse course and also institute an immediate moratorium on discharging youth in shelters when they reach 21.

Noting that legislators in Albany — led by Democratic Assemblymember Helene Weinstein of Brooklyn and Staten Island Senator Diane Savino, a member of the Independent Democratic Conference — had acted at Adams’ “urging and request,” that the state had since issued the authorizing regulations, and that Johnson, Gibson, and Torres’ legislation was pending, the two wrote, “It is hard to believe that our City, known for its compassionate and progressive policy toward young people who are not able to find love and shelter at home with their families, would lag behind so many other jurisdictions — including State and Federal law — in raising the age for youth shelter to 25. Research has established that a young person’s mind and abilities remain in formation and transition through their 25th birthday. It is clear that forcing youth to return to the harsh realities of homelessness at the age of 21 is penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

Clearly, Johnson’s Council colleagues agreed — at least all 48 whose votes were recorded this week. In more than four years in office, de Blasio has never vetoed legislation from the Council, and reports of his coming around on the issue suggest he is not likely to begin on measures that enjoy unanimous support.