homelessness

Court Deal Would Guarantee Shelter for Some Homeless Teens

Alexander Rey Perez advocates for runaway and homeless youth.
Alexander Rey Perez advocates for runaway and homeless youth. Photo: Eileen Grench/THE CITY

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Homeless 16- and 17-year-olds would get beds on demand at age-appropriate city shelters under a legal settlement being considered by a federal judge.

The agreement recently reached by the city and the Legal Aid Society in C.W. v The City of New York stands to cap a six-year-old class-action lawsuit aimed at getting young people the same right to shelter as adults.

The settlement, covering runaway and homeless people ages 16 to 20, also requires the city to provide mental health services and a process to appeal ejection from youth shelters.

Jamie Powlovich, of the Coalition for Homeless Youth, praised the proposed deal for “giving young people a voice and a way to advocate for themselves when they feel like they’re being asked to leave somewhere they found stability.”

Still, she emphasized that while 16- and 17-year-olds would be guaranteed beds in specialized youth shelters, people 18 to 20 would have no such assurance — and even could be discharged as younger runaways claim beds.

Beth Hofmeister, of the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project and a lead attorney on the case, said the legal agreement would “establish system-changing relief.”

“This settlement will ensure that homeless youth in circumstances similar to those of our clients will not have to jump the same hurdles when simply seeking the vital shelter and supportive services they want and need,” she said.

Waiting for Wait Lists

When the lawsuit was filed in late 2013, city youth shelters had just 253 beds — not enough to meet demand after recession-driven funding cuts.

Young people denied a spot in a specialized youth shelter had to fend for themselves in often chaotic adult shelters or on the streets.

Lawyers from the Legal Aid Society and Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP filed suit against the city in the final days of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s last term, asking for a right to shelter on behalf of 11 anonymous plaintiffs.

Some had left abusive homes or struggled with mental health issues. Others faced sex trafficking. But they were linked, they said, in being failed by the city.

Wait lists for youth beds had grown “so long that homeless youth must wait days just to add their names,” the lawsuit alleged.

Many struggled to find shelter for long enough to stabilize their lives, or obtain needed services.

The year the lawsuit was filed, Alexander Rey Perez was sleeping outside in his home state of Florida. He eventually came to New York in search of family, stability and a “safe haven.”

Perez, who is transgender, landed a spot in a shelter run by the Ali Forney Center, which helps homeless LGBTQ youth. He stayed six months.

“We just had homes that didn’t want who we were,” said Perez, a spoken-word poet and a counselor to homeless youth.

“It’s just sort of like, I can’t stay here anymore. Right? Like, I would just live a very horrible life if I stayed here.”

Many More Beds

Even before reaching the settlement, Mayor Bill de Blasio had made big commitments to expand shelters sponsored by the city Department of Youth and Community Development. Capacity is now up to 753 beds, according to Legal Aid.

About 3,000 young people a year spend some time at a DYCD shelter, according to the Mayor’s Management Report. Both the state and city have taken measures in the last three years to open youth shelters to people as old as 24.

But in 2018, Brooklyn Federal Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. agreed with the contention of de Blasio’s Law Department that a state law requiring shelters for young runaways does not apply to those 18 and older.

As a result, the settlement only includes a right to youth shelter for 16- and 17-year-olds, who must be given priority for beds under the agreement.

Asked about the push to exclude 18- to 20-year-olds, city Law Department officials said they are committed to providing services to homeless and runaway youth.

“We are pleased we were able to resolve this case in the best interests of all parties,” said the emailed statement to THE CITY.

Perez has experienced losing a bed to younger peers, leading him to search for shelter elsewhere.

Still, he sees other rights gained as beneficial to everyone living in youth shelters — especially the ability to protest removal for violating rules.

Adult Shelter Concerns

He says conflicts between stressed youth and staff can quickly escalate, leading to ejection in some cases.

“Time flies very, very fast when you’re going through this situation,” said Perez. “And now I’m here and you’re kicking me out and maybe this is the only place I’ve ever had to be.”

Turning to the adult system, Perez says, can be traumatizing for youth, especially those who identify as LGBTQ.

The only time Perez attempted to access an adult shelter — the sole way to obtain a housing voucher — he hadn’t been able to officially change his documents to reflect his gender expression.

Workers kept calling him by the wrong pronouns, he said. (The Department of Homeless Services has since committed to use the pronouns of a person’s choice.)

When he was asked to go through a “body scan machine” and be patted down by a woman, he walked out.

At the Ali Forney Center, he felt surrounded by supportive peers.

“They don’t see you as a lost cause yet,” said Perez. “They don’t they don’t see you as someone who’s too far gone to hell.”

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