New York City will be required to provide shelter for 16 and 17 year old youth experiencing homelessness if a judge approves a settlement reached under a lawsuit first filed in 2013.
The settlement, announced Monday by the Legal Aid Society, would require the city to expand access to programs for homeless youth ages 16 to 20. The settlement would specifically expand the "right to shelter" at age-specific shelters for minors in what Legal Aid called a "landmark" settlement for homeless and runaway youth.
"After over six years of litigation, we are very pleased to have reached a settlement, which will establish system-changing relief to some of New York City's most vulnerable youth," Legal Aid's staff attorney in the Homeless Rights Project Beth Hofmeister said in a statement.
In 2013, Legal Aid and Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP filed a class action lawsuit against the city, alleging that it was violating federal law, New York City Human Rights Law, and the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act of 1978 by not having enough shelters for young people, or discharging them. Since the lawsuit was filed, the number of youth shelter beds has risen from 253 to 753, per Legal Aid, but the latest settlement further requires the city to "assess whether NYC needs more youth program beds for runaway and homeless youth ages 16 - 20 and come up with a plan to add beds if needed," according to court papers.
"We could not have successfully brought this case without our eleven named plaintiffs who bravely came forward to better the lives of thousands of other runaway and homeless youth," Hofmeister said. "This settlement will ensure that homeless youth in circumstances similar to those of our clients will not have to jump the same hurdles when simply seeking the vital shelter and supportive services they want and need."
Jamie Powlovich, executive director of the Coalition for Homeless Youth called the lawsuit a "win" for young people.
"We're just really excited to see what this looks like in practice once everything is finalized," Powlovich told Gothamist. "We applaud them [the plaintiffs] for being a part of this groundbreaking settlement, and we hope that they understand the impact that this is going to have on their peers—the positive impact."
But she also raised a concern that the settlement, in practice, could lead to 18- to 20-year-old homeless youth to be ejected from young-specific shelters since priority is given to minors under the settlement, which is awaiting approval by a federal judge.
"We know that was not the intent of the lawsuit, and we are also hoping that's not the way it's going to be implemented," she said. "But we will not be surprised if that's the way the city chooses to enforce it."
The older youth ages 18 to 20 would still have the right to shelter, but only in adult shelters.
"The importance of having youth-specific shelters is making sure that the services that are offered are catered to young people's needs, which are often very different from older adults," Powlovich said. "Also, it's a time when young people have mental health needs. For some of them, this is when it's surfacing for the first time."
Law Department spokesperson Kim Joyce said, "The city is committed to providing services to homeless and runaway youth."
"We are pleased we were able to resolve this case in the best interests of all parties," Joyce added.
The settlement would also require the city to provide mental health services in youth shelters, ensure Department of Homeless Services staff are trained to inform youth of age-specific programs and post notices about such programs, and create a process for youth to appeal if they're discharged from shelters unfairly. The latter would allow for teens to "advocate and have their own agency in decisions that are being made literally about their safety and their housing," Powlovich added.