With influx of homeless young adults, local shelters brace for winter

10/31/2016 6:00 AM |

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Last winter, Maureen’s Haven, a Riverhead-based nonprofit that serves the homeless, experienced an unexpected flood of a new type of guest: young adults.

Just under half the people assisted by the nonprofit were under age 25, said executive director Maryann Gensler. And half of those roughly two dozen people were younger than 21.

“Where am I going to send these kids?” Ms. Gensler wondered at the time. The county and the network of shelters that work with Maureen’s Haven on the North Fork are geared specifically toward helping homeless veterans and those with substance abuse problems. The unique needs of young people are more difficult to address.

“It was getting to be a joke. It was ridiculous,” she said. “They can go to the county shelter just like anyone else, but it’s not appropriate.”

Now, with cold weather about to blow into the area and local overnight homeless shelters set to open Nov. 1, caregivers are bracing for another influx of young homeless people. Ms. Gensler attended a Southold Town Board meeting last Tuesday to take part in the annual discussion about how to divvy up the town’s community block development grants from the state.

During the meeting, Ms. Gensler shared the story of a young man from Mattituck named Sam who had been diagnosed with a form of autism. Sam struggled in college, she said, and ultimately found himself without support due to his behavior after returning to the North Fork.

Through Maureen’s Haven, Sam was able to find services to help treat his developmental disability and mental health issues, Ms. Gensler said. He’s back with his family and no longer homeless.

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said the town used to receive far more block grant money to distribute to various organizations, including Maureen’s Haven and Community Action Southold Town. But this year, the grant was for just $30,000 — and only 15 percent was permitted to go to local nonprofit groups. The rest had to be used by the town itself for its own initiatives.

“There was a time where this town received … 10 times that amount,” Mr. Russell said. “That slowly but surely has been whittled away and that’s a shame.”

Town government liaison Denis Noncarrow said the town has appealed to the state to allow more than 15 percent of the grant to be given to nonprofits since the total amount is so low. So far, the state has not responded, although Mr. Noncarrow is optimistic the request will be granted.

Each person’s story of homelessness is different and that was certainly the case this past winter, Ms. Gensler said.

Some of the youth were runaways. Others were down on their luck and couldn’t pay rent after losing their jobs or having to repair a broken-down car. Some were suffering from opioid addictions, while others were teens who had aged out of the foster care system and were left “floundering,” Ms. Gensler said. Two young people had been released from jail and were desperately avoiding a return home, preferring to stay in Riverhead and avoid going back to the place that had led to their run-ins with the law, she said.

Maureen’s Haven hosts a day program from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day in Riverhead that offers food, clothing and a warm place to stay for those in need. But Ms. Gensler said few young people attend the program; many are couch-surfing or working, she said.

Ms. Gensler related the story of one young woman in Riverhead who came in for help while working two jobs as a waitress. At night, she slept in her car while trying to find a place to live.

The young homeless population sometimes clashes with the older, chronically homeless people Maureen’s Haven serves — and Ms. Gensler said she feels a particular responsibility to protect the youth.

“These are babies,” she said.

Part of the problem with addressing the homeless youth population is that it’s difficult to get an accurate count, said Mike Giuffrida, associate director of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless.

“They are not necessarily seeking shelter,” he said. “They are not seeking services and there are not as many service providers where they have existing programs [for youth compared to other homeless populations].”

The Long Island Coalition for the Homeless has seen the same spike in youth homelessness that North Fork groups have found. In a January 2015 tally of all homeless people on Long Island, the coalition identified 48 young homeless people. They are defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as individuals who are unaccompanied or pregnant or parenting, are under the age of 25 and are living on the streets or in a shelter.

By January 2016, that number had more than quadrupled in Suffolk County to 208. The jump marks the largest increase of any homeless demographic on Long Island, Mr. Giuffrida said.

While the causes of homelessness in young people varies, Mr. Giuffrida said a lack of affordable housing seems to be driving the crisis.

“There are not available rental units for young people that are affordable,” he said. “That’s what it comes down to.”

Without affordable housing, youth are more susceptible to the kinds of emergencies — like a lost job or a medical issue — that can cause sudden homelessness.

Authorities, however, do have a plan to address the problem. In 2012, the federal United States Interagency Council on Homelessness unveiled “Opening Doors,” a 10-year plan to eliminate homelessness nationwide.

The program works by accurately tracking homeless people and tailoring services to their needs. Its first focus was eliminating homelessness among veterans, and so far the project has been a success. Last year, veteran homelessness levels reached “functional zero,” meaning every homeless veteran identified by the program had been offered housing and support.

The plan calls for an end to chronic homelessness by 2017 using the same methods. By 2020, homelessness — especially among families and youth — is scheduled to be eliminated.

But until then, few resources exist for young homeless people on Long Island, Mr. Giuffrida said. As of 2016, he noted, there were no permanent housing programs on the island for unaccompanied young adults.

“It’s really a new conversation, and because it’s a newer conversation there really aren’t the resources for homeless youth,” he said.

Ms. Gensler has also been calling for more support. Her organization already works with other organization’s, like Timothy Hill Children’s Ranch, to place homeless youth in programs to get the help they need. But Timothy Hill, she said, is already at near-maximum capacity.

Ms. Gensler said her organization is also in discussions with North Fork houses of worship to expand their five shelter locations to include a dedicated homeless youth center. But that idea is still in the earliest stages of consideration, she said.

For now, local homeless groups will simply have to make do with the operations they have, Ms. Gensler concluded.

“There just are no resources,” she said.

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Photo: Maureen’s Haven executive director at the nonprofit’s headquarters in Riverhead. The group, which helps the North Fork’s homeless population, has seen a spike in homelessness among those under 25 years old. (Credit: Paul Squire)

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