New York Youth Shelters and Drop-In Centers Struggle to Balance Safety with Access

Just a few years ago, Maddox Guerilla, now 24, was one of hundreds of young New Yorkers with no safe place to call home. Like many, Guerilla sought refuge in the network of drop-in centers and shelters dedicated to those younger than 25. At the Ali Forney Center, a drop-in hub serving LGBTQ youth, Guerilla joined a weekly support group that soon became a new kind of family — a place where people understood the hard life of a homeless teen and helped them find safety and community.

“If you have a horrible life at home or on the streets, drop-in centers are a place where you can connect with folks who are like you, find resources, get inspired,” said Guerilla, who ultimately moved into a supportive housing program run by the nonprofit. “It’s a form of self care and survival that keeps a lot of us alive.”

But as the coronavirus began racing through the city in March, dozens of youth shelters and drop-in centers were faced with the heartbreaking question of how — or whether — they could continue serving desperately needy youth while protecting current clients and staff. 

With little guidance from city agencies, that impossible calculation quickly came to a distressing conclusion: By the end of the month, as cases were peaking, many shelters had stopped accepting any new clients, and several drop-in centers had shut down or dramatically cut back hours and services. 

Guerilla watched it happen in real time. Now an advocate with the Coalition for Homeless Youth, Guerilla starts every day by contacting shelters and drop-in centers to prepare a list of the latest available beds and operating hours.

“Shelter is the most essential thing, and it completely baffles my mind that they were closed in the moment when people really needed them the most,” said Guerilla, who now questions whether the Department of Youth and Community Development should continue overseeing the youth shelter system. “The agency just kind of turned their backs on us in one of the most crucial times in New York’s history, while so many were left on the street, and had literally a month’s delay responding to COVID.”

Maddox Guerilla, top right, and other young advocates from the Coalition for Homeless Youth sport masks sewn by several drag queens across the state. Photo courtesy of Jamie Powlovich.

While the shelters’ early social distancing precautions may have helped spare homeless youth from the worst impact of the disease itself, advocates say they created an equally serious problem. It is now even more difficult for vulnerable youth to find a shelter bed, and only bare-bones drop-in services are operating. 

And even as New York reopens, the city and state have left service providers largely on their own to figure out how they can best help those living on the street while protecting current residents and the staff that serve them.

The Ali Forney Center reopened its drop-in center in mid-May, but is now offering only “basic triage services” at the door. Clients can pick up bag lunches, water, personal mail, masks, socks and underwear, said Heather Gay, deputy executive director of operations. Staff are also connecting young people to virtual telehealth and case management services. 

Gay said one of her next priorities is finding a way to safely reopen shower facilities. Still, she acknowledged that the pandemic has reduced the center’s ability to serve as a much-needed space for homeless youth to shelter from the elements and connect with others. 

“Normally, they can come any time of day or night for wraparound services, but that is absolutely not what is happening right now,” Gay said. “What a lot of young people want is for our community room to open so they can hang out, but then we wouldn’t be following social distancing guidelines.”

Securing protective equipment and sanitizing products has also been a persistent challenge for providers. Thanks to donations, Gay said, Ali Forney has plenty of masks and hand sanitizer on hand, but products like Lysol wipes and thermometers have remained nearly impossible to find. After waiting “a very long time,” they finally obtained two forehead scanning thermometers in early June. This allowed staff to finally begin doing intake for new clients, after a pause of more than two months. 

So far, Gay said they haven’t seen any symptomatic clients arrive at the drop-in center; she believes the number of COVID-19 cases among homeless youth peaked at the end of April and the first two weeks of May, just before the center re-opened. At one point, youth shelters reported a total of 26 clients with coronavirus symptoms, according to Jamie Powlovich, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition for Homeless Youth.

To make space for clients to isolate in rooms that are typically shared, some shelters had to reduce their capacity. For the past few months, each day has seen just a handful of open beds in shelters designated for 16- to 20-year-olds, according to daily counts compiled by the coalition. Almost none are available for those ages 21 to 24, the older age group eligible for programs funded by the Department of Youth and Community Development; Powlovich said when a stray bed for these young adults opens up, it is typically taken the same day.

Two of the largest shelters, CORE and Covenant House, reported having no available beds for several weeks in March and April; staff said they had not closed intake but rather were already at capacity. 

So far, providers said they had not received any guidance from city officials on best practices for social distancing in a shelter setting, so they’ve been implementing their own changes. At Covenant House, after several clients tested positive for the coronavirus, staff designated several “wellness rooms” where they could isolate from the other 100 youth, according to Deputy Director Renata Alexis.  While standard rooms once held up to five young people, they are now capped at three, and meals are served in each residential unit rather than in the central cafeteria. 

Intake has remained closed at several smaller, privately funded shelters like Sylvia’s Place in Midtown and Trinity Place on the Upper West Side, where the rows of cots set up in a single room leave little room for social distancing. And accessing shelter and services became even more complicated when the city hastily imposed a curfew amid widespread protests of the police killing of George Floyd; Guerilla said at least one shelter initially said they were closing intake because of the curfew, before a higher-up clarified that it should remain open.

The city had initially intended to offer hotel rooms for homeless youth with COVID-19 symptoms beginning on May 1, according to its request for proposals, roughly when providers reported cases among youth had peaked. However, the rooms did not come online until May 18, and were only available to those 18 and older due to the hotel’s concerns about liability for minors. 

For two weeks, the nonprofit The Door operated 19 isolation rooms for ill youth at a hotel near Columbus Circle, with medical support and social workers on site. In that time, only four sick young people used the hotel rooms, Gay said. They quarantined until they no longer showed symptoms, and none needed to be hospitalized. 

“It got open very late in the game, and so a lot of my people had already had COVID by the time they got that shelter running,” said Kate Barnhart, director of the New Alternatives drop-in center in Midtown. “It’s like, ‘Sorry, you missed it.’”

On May 29, the Department of Youth and Community Development terminated its contract for the isolation rooms and directed providers to refer symptomatic youth to hotel rooms run by the Office of Emergency Management. 

The city has not offered any hotel rooms for homeless youth who are not symptomatic, even if they have a known exposure to the virus. And many youth remain outside of shelters, some unable to find an open bed, others worried about their safety in congregate settings or preferring to take their chances staying with friends or sleeping outdoors. With access to resources and human contact at an all-time low, homeless young people may be forced to remain in unsafe relationships or turn to “survival sex” in exchange for money or shelter. 

Typically, city-funded outreach workers visit well-known gathering spots to engage homeless youth, assess their needs and offer services — but this effort, too, has been scaled back in the wake of the pandemic. Safe Horizons, which holds the largest city contract for street outreach, suspended its efforts from mid-March to mid-May, Powlovich said. Now, outreach workers set up tables in designated areas, like a skate park near Yankee Stadium, rather than walking city streets to search for youth in need.

With few eyes on the street and many homeless youth lacking reliable access to a phone, providers say it remains unclear where the young people have gone or how they are faring.

“A lot of drop-in centers still aren’t fully open,” Gay said, “so it’s hard to tell how many youth out on the streets might be in need, or how many symptomatic youth are couch surfing.”

Megan Conn can be reached at mconn@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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