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The Challenge of Helping Long Island's Homeless And Runaway Youth

JD ALlen

It is hard to pinpoint the number of homeless and runaway youths in this country. Social workers, teachers and counselors who advocate for these children say Long Island alone could have as many as five-thousand.

Yet, New York state funds to help these children and teenagers have been cut by 70 percent in the last 5 years.

One of those teenagers was desperate to leave home last year.  She feared an abusive relative who was her legal guardian at the time. The worst part, she says, wasn’t the physical abuse.

“There’s a few times I’ve tried to commit suicide, she said I wish you would have done it, you don’t deserve to be here. And [she] would just always put me down.”

This teenager is identified for this story as “J” – to protect her identity.

J was found by police, homeless in western Pennsylvania through an Amber Alert.  She was taken back to Long Island.

Credit Suffolk County Police
A 15-year-old girl named "J" and her friend seen together at the 7-Eleven on April 1, 2015 on Middle County Road in Coram. They had a bags on their backs with a few essentials and $150 to get as far away as they could. This photo was used in an active Amber Alert search for the missing teenagers last year.

Later that year, J attempted suicide  -- again. She went through intervals of therapy at an outpatient facility on Long Island.

Eventually, J’s father, who served time in prison, helped her find a group home run by a non profit in Patchogue.

She’s stable now, attends school and most important, feels safe.

Jeanette Lukas runs the Suffolk County youth shelter in Babylon. Lukas says J was like many runaways on Long Island who are left with few options.

“A lot of them are on friends couches -- they are in other homes where they can stay for a day or two and they keep moving,” Lukas says.  ?

Right now, there are only two emergency youth shelters on Long Island.

Suffolk County just reopened one of them. The budget was tight and the community donated $50,000 to help bridge a funding gap.

Nassau County has a shelter for youths, too. It is called Nassau Haven, run by the nonprofit Family and Children’s Association. But when a pipe burst there last year, it closed for a month, due to a shortage of funds.

The association’s Director of Youth Services Bill Best says the shelter has gone over capacity to house children from across the island. Best calls it “the emergency room of housing for kids” because he can never anticipate the amount of children each with different problems coming in on any given day.

New York State mandates that all emergency shelters have to release residents under the age of 16 after 72 hours to Child Protective Services.

But the 17-21 year olds who are still financially dependent on their parents, are often overlooked, advocates say, because they are by law no longer children.

And they say, these older children are more likely to fall into trouble with law enforcement on the streets.

So where do these youths go for help if the emergency shelters can barely meet their needs?

Youth services in New York state are not mandated programs. The network of nonprofits, homeless youth services and group homes have trouble keeping some of the most basic programs like counseling for problems of addiction, which is in high demand on Long Island. And they can’t maintain the required number of full-time staff because of constant slashing of funds.

According to New York State Office of Children and Family Services, there has been a 45 percent increase in the number of homeless and runaway children on Long Island -- mostly from Suffolk County. They total 2,400 children in the area, but a federal point-in-time count shows numbers much higher, around 4,000 to 5,000.

There is something, though, that exists in every one of Long Island’s 13 towns.  They are called youth bureaus. They offer some counseling, drug intervention and teach independent living skills. And sometimes ?— nearby residents will even open their homes.

Lisa and JT  became home hosts for teenagers through the Huntington Youth Bureau two years ago. They take one child at a time for up to three days.

“It could be a cooling off period if they had a disagreement with a parent, could be relief from a destructive atmosphere; ?just to give them peace of mind that they have a meal, they have a bed, they have whatever they need,” JT  said.  ?

The Glancys converted their eldest son’s bedroom into a guest room to ready their two-story ranch home. Their home went through a strict inspection by the youth bureau and they spent hours studying regulations. 

They do all this as volunteers, because JT wanted to give back to his community. He, too, was a runaway teenager in the early 1980s. ?Lisa was his high school sweetheart.  

?“Watching him deal with that was very difficult,” Lisa said.   

As a teenager, JT called his car “home.” The worst weekend of his life, he says, was when he waited for the bank to reopen on Monday morning so he could cash  a check and buy a real meal.  

He eventually got back on his feet with help and advice from the Huntington Youth Bureau.

“I can reassure someone that everything is going to be okay and I understand what you are going through,” he said. ?

And he offers something that helped him through difficult times – a gym in his basement.

“One of my outlets as a kid was at the gym,” JT said. “I tell them ‘If you are having a rough time at school or a rough time a home, take it out in the gym.’" ?

JT has adorned the basement with Rocky Balboa posters on the wall and jokingly calls his gym, “the house of pain.”?

Lisa says even though the stay here is short, it could be a crucial transition for some runaways.

Karen Haber is the youth services coordinator at the Huntington Youth Bureau. She said town youth bureaus are often the first point of contact for these children: counseling and drug intervention designed to keep families together.

“When a child is offered temporary housing in a host home, it is usually when they are on their last limb,” she said.

The bureau is funded in part by a national initiative that started in the 1970s. But Haber said funding cuts have made it hard to keep all the programs. There are federal, state, county and town funding, but next year, federal dollars will expire. And that’s when the youth bureaus will need lots of help from the community.

There are only three families who volunteer their homes in Huntington. They are looking for a fourth.

Jamie Hatzis, who is the director of the host home program in Huntington, said children are only referred to shelters and group homes when a child ultimately feels unsafe to return home.

They can house between seven to 11 children every year in host homes and shelters in Suffolk County. Overall she said, hundreds of children use their services every year.

JT Glancy says he feels fortunate to have a great home, a loving family and a fulfilling job installing and managing municipal water supplies to commercial zones. He's also a part-time personal trainer. And he loves being a home host to teenagers.

“We would treat them like they were one of the family,” he said. “If we were going to a lacrosse game or food shopping, they would come along because that is what it means to be part of the family.”

Experts believe the number of teenage runaways and homeless  have risen since the recession ?—  when many of their parents lost jobs and homes.   

There is a lack of federal funding across the country. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers some grants through The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, which provides foundational support to address youth and young adult homelessness across the country. Last year, the federal health department offered seven grants total nationwide, and New York State received none of them.

The New York State Office of Children and Family Services says the 2016 New York State budget includes funding that provides services and certifies shelter programs for these children. But funding is still millions less than even five years ago — with the expectation to run the same number of programs statewide.

Below is an interactive map of youth services on Long Island. Youth services come in the form of county emergency shelters, town youth bureaus, nonprofit group homes and community-run programs. 

This story was a collaboration between WSHU Public Radio and Stony Brook University's School of Journalism.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.