Runaway and homeless youth who visit any of New York City’s overnight drop-in centers are now prohibited from “resting” there — and the providers have been ordered to remove any cots or resting places, THE CITY has learned.
The Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) last month told the nonprofit providers of services for the city’s five overnight facilities to stop allowing those served — desperate New Yorkers between the ages of 14 and 24 — to get any shut-eye at the locations.
The Jan. 13 order, confirmed by service providers and city officials, was a sudden change five years after the city began expanding these centers to operate 24 hours a day. The first was the Ali Forney Center in Manhattan in 2018.
There is one overnight youth drop-in center for each borough: in addition to Forney, there’s Cardinal McCloskey Community Services in The Bronx, SCO Family of Services in Brooklyn, Sheltering Arms in Queens and Project Hospitality on Staten Island.
They do not officially operate as homeless shelters or residential facilities, so visitors technically are not allowed to sleep. But the centers were previously allowed to have cots and other places for young people to rest after coming for services and help, according to multiple providers.
The Coalition for Homeless Youth, an advocacy group representing 60 agencies across New York state that work with runaway and homeless youth, sent a letter Wednesday to DYCD Commissioner Keith Howard explaining their concerns with the sudden change.
“One of the vital services that the [centers] offer is providing youth a safe place to rest,” wrote Jamie Powlovich, the coalition’s executive director, in the letter shared with THE CITY. “For many of the youth, the short periods of rest that they get in the [centers] is all that they have.”
Powlovich said Thursday that the no-sleep directive came “literally out of nowhere” and could harm the young people the centers work with.
“On a human level, it just makes no sense,” she said, adding that some providers said the new policy has “become a deterrent for young people coming inside, which is the exact opposite of why they were funded in the first place and what we believe should be DYCD’s mission.”
A spokesperson for DYCD said the services at the drop-in shelters “continue uninterrupted, around the clock.
“Guidance sent by DYCD to drop-in providers last month indicated that services can continue at the centers, however young people sleeping overnight will not be permitted,” spokesperson Mark Zustovich told THE CITY. He did not explain why the practice had changed.
Unlike the DYCD-funded youth shelters which are regulated by the state’s Office of Children and Family Services, drop-in centers do not fall under any state oversight.
“The New York State Office of Children and Family Services does not certify drop-in centers in New York City to provide residential services,” said Solomon Syed, a spokesperson for the state agency. “OCFS has been in communication with DYCD regarding this program model and is actively exploring solutions on how to best safely meet the needs of youth.”
Avenues for Survival
During the last fiscal year, 4,317 young people received services either at a drop-in center, a “crisis services program” or in “transitional independent living” support programs, according to DYCD.
But the city’s eight drop-in centers are where most young people go first for help, according to multiple providers: Over 1,700 young people visited a drop-in center last year.
There they can find food, clothing, showers, laundry and case management — and previously, a chance to lie down and rest. Once the most urgent needs are met, staff at the drop-in centers help connect youth with longer-term services.
Joe Westmacott, the assistant director for housing and benefits resources at Safe Horizon Streetwork in Manhattan, a drop-in center that is not open around the clock, said there are major systemic issues that lead young people to rely on the overnight drop-in centers.
“Young people cannot access appropriate shelter placements on demand,” Westmacott told THE CITY. The city’s Department of Homeless Services operates three shelters for young people between the ages of 21 and 24, and there are long waiting lists for these sites, he noted.
The most immediate need for people at his center is housing — and they often “rely on the overnight drop-in centers as a stopgap,” he added.
Long-term housing can be difficult to find; just this week a lawsuit was filed on behalf of formerly homeless young people who were rejected from apartments in The Bronx despite having housing vouchers.
“Nobody thinks that [the drop-ins] should be operating as de facto shelters but the solution to that is to create resources that young people need to move into appropriate shelter, rather than to penalize and punish street homeless youth who have nowhere else to go by not letting them close their eyes or relax and rest,” Westmacott said.
One social worker, who works overnights at the Ali Forney Center and asked that his name not be used, told THE CITY that the clients they serve often have nowhere else to go.
“Those in positions of power making these kinds of decisions for young people going through one of the worst times in their life are completely heartless,” he said in a text.
Powlovich told THE CITY that banning rest at the drop-in centers could push more youth back to the streets.
“If they’re not coming inside, we’re going to go back to pre-24-hour drop in centers: where young people are on the streets, in the parks, turning tricks — all the ways young people are surviving,” she said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the state’s OCFS oversees drop-in centers.