Saving Homeless Youth Shelter Beds Down to Wire

BY PAUL SCHINDLER | With budget negotiations in Albany hurdling forward toward the potential of an on-time April 1 final package, advocates for homeless youth as well as the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) fear there may not be time to avert a significant cut in funding for emergency shelter programs.

In Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposal, the $4.7 million in state money that funds emergency homeless youth beds in the current fiscal year –– $1.4 of which went to New York City –– would be zeroed out as a dedicated revenue stream.

Emergency shelter facilities for what, in government parlance, are termed runaway and homeless youth (RHY) funded out of the existing revenue stream would instead be bundled with eight other state programs and compete for money from a block grant. According to DYCD figures, however, the total funding for the nine programs in that block grant would decline from $85 million in aggregate dollars in this fiscal year to $35 million next year.

As Cuomo, Legislature move toward deal on budget, advocates, city fear cuts of 50 percent or more

In budgets passed by both the Assembly and the Senate, the block grant model was rejected in favor of retaining the current nine revenue streams. However, at best, the Legislature proposed maintaining only about 50 percent of the current funding level, which would mean a decline from $4.7 million to $2.4 million statewide –– and from $1.4 million to $700,000 in the city.

DYCD and Carl Siciliano, who runs the Ali Forney Center, which provides housing and social services to homeless LGBTQ youth, agree that such a cut would mean the city would lose 19 beds out of only 252 currently available on an emergency basis for kids on the street.

A 2007 survey completed by the Empire State Coalition found that roughly 3,800 youths are living on the streets on a given night in New York City, with one-third or more of them LGBTQ-identified. That figure may well have climbed given the economic reversals that intervened since then.

Describing the prospect of a best case scenario out of Albany meaning a 50 percent reduction, Susan Haskell, DYCD’s assistant commissioner for Vulnerable Youth and Special Needs Youth, described the prospect of the best-case scenario out of Albany meaning a 50 percent reduction as “scary” and a “disproportionate” hit, and said, “I’m not sure people really understand the impact of this sort of cut. I just think it’s important for people to know this population is not part of other systems the government has set up, such as juvenile welfare.”

Haskell acknowledged that some youth served by emergency shelters have had run-ins with the law –– with drugs and survival sex work widely known as particular risks –– but she emphasized that getting youth off the streets and stabilizing their lives, at which point they can access other transitional living arrangements, is critical in helping them avoid getting caught up in a more serious way with the criminal justice system.

The beds that DCYD are able to fund, in part through funds the state provides, provide the first step toward more positive “youth development” that offers an opportunity for a productive life, Haskell said.

In comments on the afternoon of March 25, as the buzz of a budget deal coming perhaps as early as that day swirled in political and media circles, Haskell, asked if time to lobby on the issue is evaporating, said, “That’s what I fear.”

Late that afternoon, however, the Daily News reported that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, an observant Orthodox Jew, had left Albany, saying he would return Sunday morning, with no deal yet in place.

Brooklyn City Councilman Lew Fidler, who as chair of the Youth Services Committee has been a staunch advocate on homeless youth issues –– often sparring, in fact, with DYCD –– said he remains hopeful that in the final budget negotiations, the Assembly and Senate might actually up their ask for RHY shelter funding. He acknowledged, however, that it is unusual in a negotiating setting for one side to ask for more favorable terms than they did originally.

Fidler said that on March 18 he met with State Senator Diane Savino of Staten Island and Assemblywoman Amy Paulin of Westchester, both Democrats who chair the Committees on Children and Families in their respective chambers.

“I made a very personal and impassioned plea that 50 percent was not enough,” Fidler said. “I think they were sympathetic.”

Fidler noted that Savino’s career prior to her time in the Senate included advocacy on this issue and that he has known and worked with Paulin for many years.

At a March 25 budget hearing, Fidler told advocates in attendance, “Don’t go to Albany in the next 24 hours and ask for only half a loaf.”

Asked whether lobbying was required over the weekend to make sure the arguments are heard in time, Fidler said of reports that a budget deal is near, “I am 100 percent sure that it is imminent.”

A spokesperson in Paulin’s office, noting the $2.4 million in statewide funding included in the budget the Assembly passed, offered no prediction on where things might settle out.

Though Gay City News and a spokesperson for the governor traded messages, no statement from the administration was available as of posting time. (This story will be updated to reflect any comment from the governor’s office after the evening of March 25).

Ali Forney’s Siciliano was vociferous in condemning the potential cuts, saying they were “unconscionable, inhumane” and would “endangers the kids.”

He explained that emergency shelter, where youth are generally only allowed to stay for 30 days while they are stabilized and given help in finding other –– often supportive transitional –– housing, has a typical turnover of ten residents per bed each year. A loss of 19 beds, then, could rob close to 200 homeless youth of the opportunity to come in from the cold and start down a more promising road. DYCD’s Haskell offered that same analysis.

Siciliano also noted that Covenant House, a Catholic-run facility that dwarfs any other shelter efforts in the city, now has a waiting list, something it didn’t have when the Empire State Coalition did its 2007 census. He warned that the number of kids living on the streets of New York each night, after nearly three years of economic sluggishness, could well be significantly higher than 3,800.

Ali Forney –– which offers 32 spots in longer-term transitional housing for LGBTQ young people, many of whom experienced harassment and even violence in facilities not tailored to queer youth –– has 12 emergency beds on top of that in two facilities. Siciliano fears that the state budget cuts could force him to close up at least one of those units.

He was particularly critical of Cuomo’s original proposal to do away with a dedicated revenue stream altogether, arguing that approach would make it impossible for DYCD to advance funding to programs for which it knows it will be reimbursed from Albany, throwing the entire system into chaos.

Haskell talked about the importance of protecting the gains the city has made in recent years in addressing the problems of homeless youth.

“The challenge would be maintaining the system that has strengthened in the last four years,” which she said has managed to diversify housing opportunities so that specific populations among the young –– she mentioned LGBTQ and Orthodox Jewish youth as well as those who were victims of sexual exploitation as examples –– can find shelter where they feel safe and welcomed.

Late last spring, a mayoral commission established to study the needs of LGBTQ homeless youth recommended that over the next five years the city increase the number of regulated shelter beds –– in both emergency and transitional settings –– geared to that population by 200.

By cutting 19 beds in emergency shelters serving both LGBT and the general homeless youth population, Haskell said, the city is losing ground rather making any headway.