Runaways and Homeless Youth: Why Breaking Records Isn’t Always a Good Thing

21,034: This number is representative of the amount of homeless youth in New York City shelters as of January 2013. It’s no secret that New York City has seen unprecedented growth in the number of homelessness, but more alarming is that the number of children on the streets remains high and continues to increase.

Many of the young and homeless are considered to be “runaway and homeless youth.” Often, these children find themselves homeless for a variety of reasons; some to escape domestic or sexual violence, parental drug use or mental illness, and others for their sexual identity. While there are many reasons these children leave home at such a young age, they become vulnerable to the dangers of street life. Many of these children harbor deeply-rooted psychological issues from abuse, trouble identifying with their sexual orientation (LGBTQ: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or queer/questioning), or substance/alcohol related abuse at home. Children who have been in foster care have a greater risk of becoming homeless at an earlier age, and are more likely to remain homeless for a longer period of time.[1]

Those who are too old for or do not enter foster care, and are too young to apply for social services, face distressing short- and long-term challenges from being forced to survive on the streets. Shelter systems have specific codes and regulations that often prevent youths from staying long-term and past certain ages. To combat the growing homeless youth epidemic in New York, the City’s Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) funds programs to protect runaway and homeless youth and, if possible, reunite them with their families. These programs include Street Outreach and Referral Services, Borough-Based Drop-In Centers, Crisis Shelters, Transitional Independent Living, and Youth Connect.[2] These services are designed to provide at-risk runaway youths with the resources and shelter they need while simultaneously promoting stability in their lives.

Inconsistent budget decisions over the years have severely limited the amount of counseling, beneficial programming, and shelter beds available to these youths. Specifically, the City’s current FY14 Preliminary Budget includes $5.4 million for Runaway Homeless Youth (RHY) services, a reduction of 43 percent from $7.2 million. This cut would have tremendous effects on the youth population, as it could potentially decrease the amount of shelter beds by nearly 60 percent, reduce vital drop-in facilities and centers, and eliminate street outreach services. The year prior, in FY13, the Council restored funding in the final budget, providing $7.2 million to support crisis shelter beds, transitional independent living beds, and drop–in and street outreach services for at-risk, runaway and homeless youth, something advocates hope the Council will be able to do again this year.[3] Because of the unreliability of funding for these programs, homeless youth often cannot find solace in long-term care or counseling, which further perpetuates their vulnerability to life on the street.

Funding for these services has remained moderately flat over the past decade. Although there have been threats of cuts faced in the past few years, proposed reductions have been consistently restored by the City Council each year. However, during this time the overall number of youth served through the RHY programs has declined, even as homeless numbers have reached an all-time high. 50,135 homeless people slept each night in NYC’s shelter system – the first time NYC has recorded more than 50,000 people sleeping each night in municipal shelters, and the highest homeless rate reported since the Great Depression.[4] While demand has increased significantly, the budget has not been appropriately adjusted to meet the needs of our growing homeless population – including youth – and many are turned away. This lack of funding forces many of these young people to remain on the street, unable to access services that provide safety, housing, or a possibly return home.[5]

Runaway and homeless youth programs are proof of New York City’s commitment towards serving a vulnerable population, however, the constant threat of budget cuts and increased demand for services means that we are not meeting the needs of runaway and homeless youth. Show your support of these programs to ensure that these critical services will continue to be a priority in our communities. Urge your elected officials to adequately fund programs that help young people off the streets and into a stable life. Find out more about the range in programs the City offers here and be sure to check out organizations such as Safe Horizon in case you know a young person in need of counseling, treatment, or other services.

Contributed by Marisa Semensohn of the Human Services Council. 

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About Human Services Council

The Human Services Council strengthens New York's nonprofit human services sector, ensuring all New Yorkers across diverse neighborhoods, cultures, and generations reach their full potential.
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