Starting to bring homeless kids in from the cold

PROGRESSBY BRAD HOYLMAN  |  Imagine sleeping on the streets this winter, one of the coldest on record. That’s been the bitter reality for hundreds of homeless children across New York State, who were turned away from shelters this year in record numbers because of overcrowding and forced to resort to desperate measures to stay warm.

Since 2008, the number of annual instances of kids turned away from specialized youth shelters has skyrocketed by tenfold — from 573 to more than 5,000, according to the most recent data from the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. This past winter alone, shelter providers across New York refused entry to at least 400 children because of a lack of beds.

Brad Hoylman.
Brad Hoylman.

A 20-year-old I met recently — I’ll call him Frankie — is one of these kids. Kicked out of his aunt’s house because he’s gay, Frankie is part of the roaming group known to West Siders as “pier kids,” since they hang out along the Lower West Side waterfront in warm weather. Winter is brutal for them because of the shortage of youth shelter beds. The evening I met him, Frankie was preparing to sleep on the basement floor of a drop-in center of a church on Christopher St. while temperatures outside hovered below freezing.

A cement floor beats a night in the cold. For those not as lucky as Frankie, turning tricks gives them a warm place to spend the night. This heartbreaking phenomenon, called “survival sex,” was highlighted in a report last month from the Urban Institute. As one teen forced into the sex trade by homelessness said in the report, “All I know is just that I was starving. I was hungry, I was cold, so I did it.”  Up to a quarter of homeless youth in New York City have traded sex for shelter, according to experts.

Johns can be seen perched outside youth shelters, waiting to solicit kids refused entry through shelter doors.

As outrageous as this depravity is, the government response has been anemic. Since 2008, funding for New York’s homeless youth shelters has been cut from $6.3 million to $2.3 million — a 66 percent decrease, when accounting for inflation.

There are positive signs. Mayor Bill de Blasio added 100 additional youth shelter beds to the city’s budget last year, including some exclusively for L.G.B.T. kids. His 2016 budget includes $3.4 million more for shelter beds and an additional $1.3 million in funding for similar initiatives.

And there’s more good news. I’ve been proud to be part of a broad coalition of elected officials and advocates who have been championing more state funding for homeless youth. We launched a campaign at the start of the state budget cycle called #5000TooMany to reflect the number of times kids are turned away annually from shelters due to overcrowding. We held rallies, started petitions and even enlisted the support of singer Miley Cyrus, who sent a letter to Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders in Albany that was viewed nearly a quarter million times on Instagram.

Our efforts paid off. In this year’s budget, funding for homeless youth shelters increased appreciably for the first time since 2008, by more than $2 million, nearly double the funding.

Hundreds of new youth beds can be created to alleviate overcrowding. The new funds will strengthen the social safety net, as well, for a variety of wraparound services that vulnerable street kids need, like H.I.V. testing, addiction counseling, mental health services and legal help. Shelters can also put kids on the pathway toward more permanent transitional housing, plus education and training opportunities to make them productive members of society, saving taxpayer money in the long run.

More resources are needed in future years, but this year’s budget lays the foundation to begin to help kids like Frankie — homeless through no fault of their own — who are just looking to come in from the cold.

Hoylman is state senator, 27th District (West Village, Hudson Square, Noho, East Village, Stuyvesant Town, Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, Lincoln Square)