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Serving Homeless Youth in the Age of COVID-19

ASEEM SHUKLA, HOST: Many organizations that serve New York City’s homeless youth have had to cut services since the outbreak of COVID-19. Advocacy groups also say they’re receiving little guidance from city government about how to handle social distancing in dorm-like shelters. They’re also unsure how to get basic medical supplies like masks and hand sanitizer. Will Walkey reports on groups helping nearly five thousand homeless youth who sleep in shelters or on the streets every night.

WILL WALKEY, BYLINE: The Door is a place where homeless youth -- that means anyone under 25 -- can get help. Usually, there are counseling services, education programs, food pantries, and much more. But if you call today, you’ll hear this message.

DOOR MESSAGE 1: We are limiting services until further notice as the city responds to the current public health crisis.

WALKEY: The Door’s staff is still reachable. And they’re still supplying food and hygiene kits, and transitioning many programs online. But the Door’s drop-in center, where a homeless young person can find food or a shower or get help finding a spot in a shelter, has had to close.

JAMIE POWLOVICH: That's obviously a huge loss for a lot of the young people that are otherwise homeless or in unstable housing situations that previously were really counting on the drop-in centers to be like their safe haven.

WALKEY: Jamie Powlovich is with the Coalition for Homeless Youth. Her job is to talk with providers across the city to gauge how they’re doing during the crisis. She says no drop-in centers are operating normally at this point. So many workers have been sent home. That means staff across the city who are deemed essential have an extra stressful burden. They have to try to provide services -- like healthcare counseling normally conducted in person or big dinners that require lots of hands -- all while limiting the spread of COVID-19. But Powlovich says they’ve gotten limited guidance from the city on how to do these things.

POWLOVICH: They feel like they're asking and asking and they're just not getting what they need. And that's a really crappy, crappy feeling to have.

WALKEY: Homeless youth are particularly vulnerable because they often don’t have a family’s support. Powlovich says she’s contacted the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development, or DYCD, asking for help. It runs homeless and runaway youth programs around the city, but Powlovich says her requests have fallen on deaf ears. Randy Scott is Assistant Commissioner of Vulnerable and Special Needs Youth for the DYCD. He says he’s been working around the clock to hear the concerns of his providers because they all face different circumstances.

RANDY SCOTT: There’s differences in sizes at the locations. So there can’t be one template for all parameters. We have to allow for the providers to look at their current space and do it based on that.

WALKEY: Scott says at least one person in the city’s youth system has tested positive for Coronavirus, but that shelters have been able to isolate those showing symptoms. Meanwhile, the nonprofits still staying open say they’ve taken on greater burdens despite having to close many of their services. Kate Barnhart works for New Alternatives for LGBT homeless youth - a drop-in center that normally serves a large dinner once a week. Now, instead, it’s taken on serving hot lunches every day, and Barnhart says more and more people keep showing up at the door. But they’re often looking for more than food. And she can’t always give them what they need.

KATE BARNHART: I've had people come in and be told that they were turned away by shelters and told to come to us which is really frustrating because we probably have the least budget of any of these agencies.

WALKEY: This means she has limited options. Sometimes she can find people space to stay for the night. But often she’s scrambling to find any space with an open bed.

BARNHART: If the person's over 18 I can send them to the city adult shelters, which we try hard not to do. Because, you know, many people feel unsafe. You know, the other thing is, if I know they're going to be outside, I can give them a MetroCard so they can get on the subway. You know, that's the final last resort.

WALKEY: For now, Barnhart says she’s calling around the city and trying to get help in any way possible. She says she has enough staff to keep going for another few weeks. But if COVID-19 continues on its trajectory, and things get worse, she’s unsure of what will happen. The Coalition for Homeless Youth says its continuing to reach out to the Department of Youth and Community Development asking for guidance. Will Walkey. Columbia Radio News.

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