Visibly frustrated with two city agencies responsible for preventing homelessness among young adults aging out of foster care, a New York City Council member said in a virtual public meeting Tuesday he would force changes through legislation to grant easier access to housing vouchers for youth with no home to call their own.
Councilmember Stephen Levin, a Brooklyn Democrat, pressed officials with the Administration for Children’s Services and the Department of Social Services on how many runaway, homeless or aged-out former foster youth had been provided rental assistance since a new voucher program launched in late 2018, but got no concrete answers.
According to city data from two years ago — well before the coronavirus pandemic added once-unthinkable new obstacles for vulnerable young adults — nearly two dozen youth ended up in homeless shelters within a year of leaving foster care. Unknown is how many more ended up couch surfing, their precarious circumstances left unrecorded.
“To me that’s the tip of the iceberg,” Levin scolded city officials. “I’m seeing what we’re catching in reportable data. But we’re not seeing the rest of that iceberg underwater.”
In defending the city’s efforts, Erin Drinkwater, a deputy commissioner for Social Services, said her agency was continuing conversations with the child welfare agency, “and really making sure we are targeting this resource to these vulnerable populations.”
But given efforts of the past year that he called ineffective, Levin said he would revisit legislation he proposed over a year ago that would clarify eligibility for the program, known as the City Fighting Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement. Rather than having to spend 90 days in a homeless shelter to receive a housing voucher, Levin’s bill would make clear any person younger than age 25 is eligible, simply for having spent time in foster care. Levin, the council general welfare committee chair, also agreed Tuesday to add runaway and homeless youth to his proposed reform bill, in response to advocates’ warnings that failure to do so could further exacerbate disparities in treatment for former foster youth and runaway and homeless youth.
The vouchers cover monthly rent that exceeds 30% of a household’s income, on apartments costing up to $1,265 per month for one person, or more for larger households.
“I’ve totally run out of patience with this issue,” Levin said, referring to the agencies’ apparent inability to connect youth with the housing assistance. “I gave them a year, I kept my word, and I’m done with that. We have to move forward on this legislation.”
In 2018, 620 New York City youth between the ages of 18 and 21 aged out of foster care, according to city data. More than 60% were women, and more than 90% were identified as “African American” or “Latinx.”
Yet, even as the number of youth aging out has dropped dramatically since the 1990s along with the overall foster care population, they face deep challenges finishing their education, launching professional lives and securing stable housing. Left on the streets, they can be vulnerable to exploitation and victimization.
The problem for some youth, according to one young person who testified Tuesday, is that they feel pressured to enter homeless shelters — even if that means leaving safer but temporary options — in order to become eligible for some city housing supports, such as the voucher program Levin’s bill addresses.
Chelsea Velez testified at the City Council meeting Tuesday that she did not qualify for supportive housing when she aged out of foster care because she had a child. Her foster care agency didn’t help her apply to traditional public housing, she said, and then a living arrangement with a relative fell through.
She described how she ended up in a shelter, an experience she described as “disruptive and scary.”
“Some youth in care know that there are some city subsidies programs that are only available to people who are homeless,” said Velez, who is now a youth advocate with the pro bono law firm Lawyers for Children.
She said one of the organization’s clients, “Sierra,” also acted on that belief.
Sierra experienced a broken adoption and applied for public housing after turning 18 in foster care, Velez described. Two years later, in July 2018, pregnant, frustrated and scared, Sierra still didn’t have housing and left foster care solely to enter a shelter in pursuit of a rental voucher. Less than two months later, she got her voucher.
“No young person should be forced to enter the system” that way, Velez said.
Tuesday’s hearing, which focused on children who grow up in foster care without ever finding a permanent home, also highlighted city achievements since an interagency task force was created in 2016, involving youth, parents and commissioners from several city agencies. Successful initiatives that have resulted include an increase in the number of foster youth placed with relatives or close family friends, now 41% and up from 30% of all foster youth. Older foster youth are also now provided with mentors through the Fair Futures program.
In a recent interview, former foster youth Anthony Trotter, 25, said he was pleased with the work he participated in with other members of the city’s foster care task force. But, he added the problems are complex and he and his colleagues have not found all the answers.
“Did we come up with a black-and-white plan to fix that?” he asked, of the housing instability foster youth face. “No, it’s a problem that has to be continuously addressed.”