One of the things I enjoy most about the holidays is spending time with my children, now ages 20 and 25. It is therefore hard to imagine that there are approximately 5,000 youth ages 13-24 in New York State who are homeless this Thanksgiving and don’t have a family to share the holidays with this year. Instead, many are living on the streets, forced to trade sex for shelter and food. Some become victims of predatory adults, sex traffickers and others who subject them to constant danger and abuse.
While doing research for a recommendation to the Governor’s Task Force to End AIDS by 2020 that I and other task force members are submitting, I was shocked to learn that the last time New York City did a major policy overhaul for youth services was in 1978, with some tweaks in 1980. Imagine – the state has not updated youth services policy since before the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Youth end up homeless for many reasons, including abuse and neglect by parents or other guardians; rejection by family due to the youth’s gender identity or sexual orientation; lack of independent living or life skills; incarcerated or deceased parents; mental illness; and education-related issues. I was also surprised to learn of an invisible group of homeless youth – pregnant girls and girls parenting a newborn. Although they comprise 56% of homeless youth, we seldom hear about them. Tossed from one state and City agency to another, these young women are faced with terrible decisions that even most adults would find hard to make. Many of them are victims of domestic and intimate partner violence. For those who want to keep their baby, returning to their abusers is often their only choice.
I hope that by this time next year, we can influence New York State to conduct a full scale revision of the 1978 Runway and Homeless Youth Act. We need more programs like our STARS program for both HIV-positive and HIV-negative homeless young adults. STARS clients receive supportive housing, not shelters, so they can stabilize, get the services they need and begin to imagine a life free of neglect and abuse. I’d like to think that by 2020, we could end new HIV infections among youth. It’s the very least we owe these young men and women who now struggle merely to survive.