The city’s overnight drop-in centers for homeless and runaway youth, which are serving a rising number of young people, received a jarring message last month: “Effective immediately, providers are required to discontinue the practice of allowing youth and young adults to sleep overnight.”
At least one of the centers has responded in turn: no.
Alexander Roque, who runs Ali Forney, a Manhattan center that serves L.G.B.T.Q. youth, said “they would have to shut us down and put me in handcuffs” before he would comply with the directive.
“If the city threatens us and takes away our funding, I will continue to let our clients sleep, because that’s what’s at stake, their mental health is at stake,” Mr. Roque said.
The drop-in centers, operated by five city-funded nonprofits, are not homeless shelters, but there is one in each borough open 24 hours a day to serve teenagers and young people between the ages of 14 and 24. They provide food, laundry, education and career services, among other things. And, though they do not operate as official homeless shelters, many had also provided cots or other places for young people to sleep.
The directive has sent providers and clients into chaos, at a time when the population of young people served by the programs is soaring. In the first four months of fiscal year 2023, a total of 1,445 youth and young adults received case management services at the drop-in programs, an increase of 48 percent from the same period the previous year, according to the preliminary mayor’s management report published in January. (Three of the drop-in clinics included in the data were day clinics that did not offer 24-hour services.)
Last week, drop-in center providers spoke with department officials in an unsuccessful attempt to reverse the directive.
The city says the ban — issued Jan. 13 by the city agency that oversees them, the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development, and first reported by the news site The City — helps ensure the centers are in compliance with state law and not operating as “unlicensed shelters.” Clients are still permitted to “rest” at the centers, according to the directive.
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“Our aim is to meet health and safety standards and avoid regulatory issues,” Keith Howard, the department’s commissioner, said in a statement.
The centers are funded through contracts from the city and expected to direct clients to one of the city’s 50 residential programs, which are run by the Department of Youth and Community Development, not the city’s main homeless agency, the Department of Homeless Services. These programs have 813 total allocated beds, including 753 for young people ages 16 to 20, and 60 for ages 21 to 24 according to the department.
Only 45 are currently available for the older age group after the city cut ties with one provider in November 2021. The 15 remaining beds are expected to become available in April, the department said.
“The city has a responsibility to ensure that young people are safe, which includes ensuring our drop-in centers are being used as they were designed,” Mark Zustovich, a department spokesman, said in a statement.
The city added 300 beds for 16- to 20-year-olds over a three-year period starting in 2016, but the number of overall youth beds still falls far short of the need, advocates for homeless youth say. Many young people avoid the adult shelter system because of safety concerns, and providers say the drop-in programs are critical for young people in crisis as the overall homeless population in the city has hit record levels.
“Everybody can get a referral right away,” said Susan Haskell, the deputy commissioner of youth services for the city agency. “It may be to D.Y.C.D.’s system, it may be to D.H.S.’s system, it may be to other housing options.”
State Representative Linda Rosenthal, a Democrat representing parts of the Upper West Side and Hell’s Kitchen, said the directive is “impossibly cruel.”
“The city needs to do more to pave the way for housing for these people,” Ms. Rosenthal said. “Getting rid of cots is not a housing plan.”
Gabriel Calix, 25, spent seven years sleeping off and on at a drop-in center run by Sheltering Arms, a nonprofit, after his mother moved to Atlanta with her boyfriend when Mr. Calix was 18, eventually leaving him with nowhere to live. It was at Sheltering Arms where he internalized a series of words painted on the black stairs leading up to its Jamaica, Queens, branch: love, joy, hope, believe, achieve, goals, lead.
Mr. Calix was stunned when he learned of the directive banning young people from sleeping at the centers: “Now that they can’t sleep here, where are they going to go?”
Further complicating the situation, Sheltering Arms, which also provides foster care, mental health treatment and housing programs, will close its doors this spring after 200 years of operation, as first reported by Gothamist. The nonprofit is closing because of “financial challenges,” it said, including millions of dollars in late payments from the city’s Department of Education and declining revenue related to low enrollment rates and staff turnover.
Sheltering Arms said it has signed a contract with Rising Ground, a nonprofit that provides services for children, adults and families in the city, to absorb the majority of its staff and programs. Rising Ground is expected to take over Sheltering Arms’s contract with the city and run the drop-in center at the same location.
Mr. Roque, the president and executive director of the Ali Forney Center, said he estimated his staff serves about 20 clients every night at its drop-in center in Manhattan.
He said that on a recent call with providers, city officials listened and apologized for the abruptness of the directive. But when he later emailed for clarification on the status of the directive, he got a four-word response: “The directive still stands.”
“How do I go to 20 young people tonight and tell them, ‘The directive stands. Wake up. The directive stands. You can’t sleep,’” he said.
In May 2013, Samirah Crawford, who was then 20, came to Ali Forney at a moment of desperation. Her mother had kicked her out of the home.
Ms. Crawford, who is bisexual, said she was scared of the city’s adult shelters, because of poor experiences at shelters growing up. After Ali Forney became the first drop-in center in the city to offer overnight services in 2015, Ms. Crawford began spending evenings there.
There weren’t always beds available — Ms. Crawford spent some nights in parks and on trains — but when she walked through the Ali Forney doors she felt safe. Now 30, Ms. Crawford has worked various roles at Ali Forney since 2019. She’s alarmed by what the directive could mean for the center’s clients.
“I was embraced with so much love and care,” Ms. Crawford said. “It was very important because those were some of the most fragile times of my life.”
Racquel Jones, program director of Sheltering Arms’s Jamaica drop-in center, said some young people who used to to sleep overnight are spending evenings on trains and in abandoned homes.
Mr. Roque said he doesn’t want his clients to have to make that kind of choice. For now, at Ali Forney, the cots remain out.
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