THE BLOG

In Counting the Homeless This Week, Let's Count Youth Who Exchange Sex for Shelter

02/11/2015 06:02 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015

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This week New York City will once again try to count the number of homeless individuals who are not in a shelter as part of the nationally coordinated Point-in-Time (PIT) Count. Admittedly, this is not an easy undertaking.

Just try to think of all the places a homeless person would be if they weren't in a shelter: park benches, under bridges and on the subways, just to name a few. And this is where government counters will look. But we know youth who are homeless will also hang out in places where they've never been counted before and where you'd never recognize them.

For the first time in history, advocates, including ours at Safe Horizon, will be able to count youth who may seek a warm daytime meal at a drop-in center or are hanging out at a McDonald's or the Apple store. A greater effort will be made to count homeless youth in all the places where they really are, with an exception. Those youth who are couch surfing, or worse, trading sex for a safe place to sleep (survival sex) will be left out.

How big is the homeless youth problem? On a single night in January 2014 the federal government estimated there were 45,205 unaccompanied homeless youth across the nation. The majority were between 18 and 24 years of age. In New York City alone, at the same time, there were an estimated nearly 7,000 homeless young people between 18 and 24 years old. Approximately one in four homeless youth are either a victim of trafficking or engage in survival sex.

Given how many youth and young adults are homeless and engage in survival sex, Safe Horizon and other advocates are concerned that the final tally of homeless youth will be artificially low. Since federal resources are directed based on what they determine to be the size of the problem, those resources are likely to be too low as well.

In order to illustrate what survival sex in the lives of homeless youth can look like, let me tell you the story of Jason, one of our long-time Safe Horizon Streetwork clients.

Jason* was born in New York City, but due to abuse in his household he entered foster care as a child. As an adolescent he stayed in group homes, but he often felt unsafe in them. After years of abuse, he was diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.

Shortly after his 18th birthday, Jason's began to cycle through the 30-day stays in youth shelters scattered throughout New York City. In between stays, he would sleep with family or on subways. Stays with Jason's family were particularly dangerous because his uncle struggled with alcoholism and would often became physically abusive when intoxicated. Jason wanted to maintain a relationship with his uncle and would sometimes go back, but would often find himself having to leave quickly due to safety concerns.

Because eligibility for youth shelters ends at age 20 and Jason was unable to access stable housing, at age 21 he entered the adult shelters. He experienced harassment and bullying in the adult shelter and felt unsafe sleeping around so many older men. Jason increasingly turned toward survival sex because he felt so unsafe in adult shelters and could no longer access a youth shelter bed.

According to a recently released statement from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the federal agency that oversees the count of the national homeless population, youth like Jason who engage in survival sex, while vulnerable, do not qualify as "homeless" under official readings of regulations that guide the Point in Time counts. Essentially, sleeping in any home, on a night when they would have been counted, disqualifies a youth from being homeless in the nation's main estimation of homelessness.

The very regrettable decision comes at a decisive moment in the history of homelessness in the United States. The federal government aims to end youth homelessness by the year 2020. With substantial effort, this is an attainable goal. But we can't end youth homelessness if we choose to ignore some of our city and nation's most vulnerable young people.

Our counselors spend many hours every week safety planning with clients engaged in survival sex -- helping them to think through the risks involved and connecting them to any resources that offer them alternative options. But the reality is that there are very limited resources for them. And if these vulnerable youth will not be included in the nation's official estimation of homelessness, the likelihood that sufficient and appropriate resources will be forthcoming is minimal at best.

There is momentum across government to seriously address youth homelessness. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio increased shelter beds for homeless youth by roughly a third since taking office just a year ago.

In addition, the de Blasio administration has made important strides toward conducting a more accurate count of homeless youth and has included organizations that help homeless youth in the process underlying the count, such as Safe Horizon's Streetwork Project.

There are many advocates who are working tirelessly so that the federal government will reconsider how it considers youth engaged in survival sex in counting the homeless youth population. If we are to provide adequate resources to support those young people who have experienced a lifetime of abuse and alienation, and find themselves homeless in their teenage years, this is a necessary step.

* In order to protect his confidentiality, we have changed the client's name.