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A person finds refuge at a Harlem subway station during the coronavirus outbreak, May 12, 2020.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Homeless Shelter Youth Face the Streets During Pandemic

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When Alejandra was asked to leave a homeless youth shelter in Harlem during chilly daytime hours after arriving in late March, she would ride the subway.

“I would take the train, get off at a stop, and then come back again,” the 17-year-old from Venezuela told THE CITY in Spanish.

She was just one of many homeless youth given shelter overnight but then booted out and forced to fend for themselves all day, even amid the statewide pandemic-driven stay-at-home directive, advocates say.

Alejandra, who asked that her full name be withheld, recalled that on warmer days, she would sit in a plaza or a church garden, watching her favorite Netflix show: “On My Block.”

In late 2019, Alejandra endured the trip alone from Venezuela to the United States. On March 27, she was kicked out of a rented room and joined the city’s ranks of people experiencing homelessness at a time when social services are being taxed by the COVID-19 crisis.

Before the virus hit, teens like Alejandra could have stayed at shelters at night and gone to drop-in centers during the day for services.

But in a system already wanting for resources and contending with virus-spurred staffing upheaval, advocates say, drop-in centers and shelters have struggled to provide for vulnerable youth.

‘Essentially Stranded’

The city’s Department of Youth and Community Development says that all of its residences for runaway and homeless youth are operational.

But the reality, amid the COVID-19 crisis, falls short of their needs, young homeless people and their advocates say.

“Many youth shelters have not been able to keep young people inside during the day. Schools are closed, they’ve lost their jobs, so they’re essentially stranded,” said Samantha Norris, supervising social worker at the Safe Passage Project, which provides free legal services to immigrant children. “It’s been an extremely concerning situation.”

While the city has expanded the youth shelter system from 253 beds in late 2013 to a pre-pandemic count of 777, advocates have long argued that homeless young people are consistently undercounted.

They say an ongoing shortfall in the patchwork of programs, beds and services available is now exacerbated by the current crisis.

Even before the virus, many shelters did not operate around the clock, “because they can’t afford to staff their facilities 24 hours,” said Kate Barnhart, the executive director of New Alternatives for LGBT Homeless Youth, a privately funded drop-in center in Hell’s Kitchen.

Some financially strapped programs, she added, end up working out of shared spaces overnight and compete for space with other services during the day — such as a church that splits the space between the shelter and a food pantry.

As of Friday, only one of five city-funded 24/7 drop-in centers for youth, in Jamaica, Queens, is operating on its normal schedule and taking new clients, according to the Coalition for Homeless Youth. Another, in the South Bronx, is overnight-only.

The Safe Horizon shelter where Alejandra was staying in Harlem would normally send homeless youth to a nearby drop-in center during most days for socializing and a variety of services, like counseling and showers.

But now the center — once open eight hours a day, six days a week — now only offers services, such as lunch and laundry, at the door, a sign on the plate glass indicates. Even then, it has scaled back to just 16 hours a week, according to the coalition.

A Harlem drop-in center for homeless youth has been providing limited services during the coronavirus outbreak, May 12, 2020.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Safe Horizon acknowledges social distancing measures and a shortage of personnel have hemmed it in.

“Managing unforeseeable staffing limitations as a result of the pandemic, we have had to scale back our drop-in services during this time for staff and client safety,” said Laura Vialva, a Safe Horizon spokesperson, adding: “Our staff has worked tirelessly to respond to young people’s needs during this crisis.”

Vilava said Safe Horizon has meanwhile expanded the shelter’s hours of operation as much as staffing allows.

An Arduous Journey

Alejandra, a determined ballet dancer, came to New York with dreams of finishing high school and attending a prestigious dance academy like The Juilliard School.

But a family friend who had agreed to take in Alejandra wouldn’t sign her up for school, and sent her to work in the kitchen of a Japanese restaurant. When the friend later kicked Alejandra out, she moved into a Queens room, suggested by her boss, for $560 a month — still unsure of how to begin school on her own.

Still, Alejandra found moments of joy in between work. On Thursdays, her day off, she would attend ballet classes at Broadway Dance Center.

“It was the best thing in the world,” she said. “I think they were the best $15 I’ve ever paid.”

But soon after, the coronavirus shut the city — and the restaurant she worked at. She could no longer pay her rent.

The person she was renting from quickly kicked her out. With her closest family thousands of miles away, and no one to turn to, Alejandra found herself with no place to live.

“I don’t understand how people could see the situation we’re still in and not pause rent,” Alejandra told THE CITY. “I was obviously going out to the streets.”

Many young people who experience housing instability are sleeping in homes that aren’t their own, advocates point out.

“If you’re staying at somebody else’s place you’re at their mercy and you’re not protected by any sort of moratorium on evictions,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of homeless youth nonprofit SchoolHouse Connection. “So what we’re seeing nationally … is that youth are being told to leave. Because people are home all day now. So the tensions are even higher.”

Finding Strength in Memories

The week before Alejandra was kicked out, Coalition for Homeless Youth Executive Director Jamie Powlovich formed a team of volunteers to call every youth shelter and drop-in center in the city to get updated bed numbers.

Those volunteers were once homeless youth themselves. On May 6, their survey showed 24 beds available. Just nine were for those who identify as female.

The city’s Department of Youth and Community Development’s bed count from that day differs markedly. The agency told THE CITY that it had 100 beds available last Wednesday, even with 8% taken offline to comply with social distancing and isolation requirements.

Department spokesperson Mark Zustovich pointed to new official guidance from the state allowing for new flexibility in staff training as well as the number and types of residents allowed in shelters. He added that providers can seek additional funds from the agency to help deal with staffing shortfalls.

Alejandra has since moved to a group home in the foster care system. This month, she started remote high school. She says when things get difficult, she thinks of her grandmother, who recently died of cancer.

“She was a very strong person, I never saw her flustered by any situation,” said Alejandra. “She never gave up.”

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