Young New Yorkers sleeping in youth homeless shelters and those leaving foster care will soon have direct access to housing vouchers, thanks to a pair of bills the City Council passed Tuesday.
The vote followed years of activism by housing and youth advocates who argued the current system — which forces young people to become homeless and seek refuge in often-dangerous adult facilities before applying for vouchers — is inhumane.
Making it easier for youth to get housing help represents “seeing young people as individuals that are capable and deserving of their own apartments,” said Jamie Powlovich, executive director of the Coalition for Homeless Youth.
“This is a step in the right direction,” she added.
One piece of legislation, co-sponsored by Councilmembers Stephen Levin (D-Brooklyn) and Deborah Rose (D-Staten Island), will require the city to count time a young person has spent in youth shelters toward their eligibility for rental assistance.
This will essentially cut out a current requirement that youth first have to enter adult shelters to access the city’s recently boosted housing voucher program, CityFHEPS.
The second bill in the package — nearly identical in language — will give foster youth the ability to use time spent in foster care towards eligibility for housing assistance.
“This is going to mean young people aging out of the RHY [runaway and homeless youth] system or foster care will have another dependable housing option they didn’t have access to,” Levin told THE CITY. “All too often we’re just leaving young people hanging at times of very great need.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign the bills or let them lapse into law. Laura Feyer, a mayoral spokesperson, said the administration supports the measures.
The legislation offers an opportunity to rectify a history of a “parsing of resources” by the city Department of Homeless Services that favored adults, said Craig Hughes, a social worker at the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project.
“It should also be acknowledged that it took [de Blasio’s] entire mayoralty to get to this place, and that on its own is an indictment,” he added.
A Long Battle
As THE CITY reported in 2019, teens and young adults in unstable housing situations have long decried the requirement that they first enter the adult shelter system to get in line for housing assistance. De Blasio had promised in 2017 to end the practice.
Homeless youth currently are allowed to stay in shelters run by the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development until they turn 21. When they leave, many consider the adult shelter system too dangerous and choose to couch surf, live on the street or stay wherever they can find refuge.
Experts note that entering a chaotic adult shelter can be a particularly difficult for youth who identify as LGBTQIA+ — and who make up a disproportionate amount of homeless young New Yorkers.
Legal Aid only last year won a long-fought lawsuit demanding a “right to shelter” for minors in New York City — a right adults have held for decades.
And in May, THE CITY revealed that de Blasio secretly backslid on his 2017 promise when he signed and hid an agreement in 2019 that kept steering young people to adult shelters.
Even with recent temporary wins over the summer — including a 50-voucher pilot program and a year’s worth of federal aid housing aid aimed at youth — no long-term solution existed.
Meanwhile, a mere 1% of homeless youth who left shelters went directly into their own apartment last year, according to the DYCD.
‘Equals in the System’
Liz Sutter, 23, who became homeless in 2018, bounced around various shelters and was “house-hopping” until she recently moved into a studio apartment in Brooklyn as part of a supportive housing program.
“I’m grateful to be in my own space, but I still am somewhat traumatized from my experience being in the shelter systems for so long,” Sutter said. “I don’t feel settled.… I feel like any time this could be taken away.”
The new legislation would’ve given Sutter better options had the law been around when she was younger. She hopes it’ll benefit others.
“We’re one step closer to being treated as equals in the system, not looked down upon or as less than, and more so to hopefully a stable life, a stable future, a better life than what we’ve experienced,” she said.
Elizabeth Garcia, who works with foster children and homeless youth at Good Shepherd Services, said that both populations had often been forced to unintentionally “compete with each other” for housing and other resources.
“They’re all young people in need of long term housing support, and what system they’re coming from should really not matter,” Garcia said. “It should actually be irrelevant.”
Sutter said she hopes the City Council move heralds more help for youth experiencing homelessness.
“This is just one piece of the pie when there’s so many other pieces to connect,” she said. “I just want the city to do better.”