Mayor Bill de Blasio promised homeless youth in early 2017 they would soon gain access to the same housing vouchers their elders get to help them pay rent on their own apartments.
Nyella Love is still waiting.
One year before the mayor’s pledge, Love’s mother kicked her out of their home, at age 17. Since 2018, Love’s been living in shelters run by the Ali Forney Center, an organization for homeless LGBTQ youth.
On Saturday, Love turned 21. Preparing for the big day, she spent an afternoon last week running determinedly around midtown Manhattan, making stops at the DMV and the post office, and to pick up a new pink jacket.
“Some friends are organizing a party for me,” she said from the steps of the Eighth Avenue central post office, adjusting her red, wide-brimmed hat.
But, she said, she wasn’t very excited about her birthday because it means she had to leave her Ali Forney shelter, which currently houses youth younger than 21.
While she’s found another residence to temporarily house her, she’s seeking a permanent home of her own. She wants to avoid the adult shelter system, which can be a particularly unfriendly environment for transgender people like her.
But because she’s been living the youth system funded by the city Department of Youth and Community Development, Love has not been able to access vouchers to help pay rent on an apartment.
The Department of Homeless Services, which runs the adult shelters, controls access to the vouchers and relies on them heavily to help its own shelter residents find permanent housing. So far, the only way for youth to access housing aid is to move into an adult shelter.
In the year ending in June, 655 young people exited long-term youth shelters like Love’s. DYCD determined that just 9% secured their own apartment — while another 10% ended up in the city’s notorious adult shelter system.
Annual Promises, Unfulfilled
Starting with the release of de Blasio’s “Turning the Tide on Homelessness” agenda in February 2017, homeless youth had been led to expect imminent help in getting their own apartments, through city programs such as the Family Homelessness & Eviction Prevention Supplement, or CityFHEPS.
Through programs targeted to adults and families, those subsidies help about 6,000 households a year leave or avoid homeless shelters, according to Department of Homeless Services figures compiled by the Coalition for the Homeless.
“In 2017, the city will … expand these rental assistance programs to include, for the first time, youth living in Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) youth shelters at risk of entering Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelters,” read the mayor’s homelessness plan.
The mayor recommitted the following year “to connect certain eligible young people transitioning out of DYCD shelter” with CityFHEPS. This January, a mayoral task force “to prevent and end youth homelessness” urged the administration to devise a process for referring young people to housing aid.
This July, while announcing new support services for homeless youth, the mayor’s office said it was still working on connecting homeless youth with the housing vouchers.
“We keep hearing it’s coming, it’s coming it’s coming,” said Beth Hofmeister, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project.
City sources say a rollout plan is in the works.
“The city is determining the final policy on CityFHEPS rental assistance vouchers for young people transitioning out of DYCD-funded shelters,” said Mark Zustovich, a spokesperson for the Department of Youth and Community Development.
One of the advocates quoted in de Blasio’s July news release cheering the mayor’s commitment to get vouchers to youth expressed skepticism about the administration’s followthrough.
“I think what’s happening now is that there’s a lot of smoke-screening happening, a lot of announcements or press releases or declarations of huge investments in homeless young people,” said Jamie Powlovich, executive director of the Coalition for Homeless Youth. “In reality … that’s not really what’s happening.”
The de Blasio administration has added hundreds of new shelter beds for teens, while a 2013 lawsuit filed by Legal Aid demanding a right to age-appropriate shelter for youth remains pending.
Research released by the mayor’s office around the time of the “Turning the Tide” rollout highlighted the importance of housing assistance in young people’s successful transition into adulthood. It found that youth who exited any type of shelter with the help of housing aid were significantly less likely than others to end up in jail or homeless shelters within two years.
Those findings are consistent with what Craig Hughes has seen as a benefits advocate at the Urban Justice Center.
“If they haven’t gotten housing by the time they’re 21, they’re more likely to become increasingly involved in survival behaviors,” such as panhandling and high-risk sex work, said Hughes.
They look to make fast money, he added, in hopes of avoiding the adult shelters, which he described as “overcrowded and chaotic.”
In the adult shelters, said Hughes, “There are real safety risks, which is particularly the case for LGBTQ youth, and for younger people in general.”
’A Very Sad Birthday’
A law passed last year steers those leaving the youth shelter system directly into appropriate adult shelters instead of forcing them to enter through often chaotic intake centers.
Still, 21 is “actually a very sad birthday for them,” said Hofmeister — the day most must leave behind specialized youth facilities that have nurtured them into adulthood.
While recent changes to state law allow residents to remain in youth shelters until they turn 24, New York City so far has few beds for those older than 21.
“I’m always struck by it,” said Hofmeister. “I tend to reach out to my young clients often on their birthday, and I happen to be someone who loves birthdays. But it’s not a happy day when they age out of a place they feel safe and accepted and affirmed.”
Love said an apartment would allow her to do more than just help herself. She hopes to serve as a model for other transgender women like her, and “show them that whatever they go through or been through they can get over it and be better. And be normalized.”
She fantasizes about what a space of her own would look and feel like.
“A little room, a window, light, I would love a fireplace,” said Love. “I can’t really be my full self when I don’t have a space that’s built for me.”
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