Providing Supportive Housing Options for Young Adults

Supported housing for young adults living with mental/emotional challenges, including chemical dependency, is a rare commodity in New York and is almost non-existent on Staten Island. No government funding, no agency contracts, no housing plans or programs for youth over 18 years old who have aged out of foster care (roughly 1,000 kids per year, according to a report by the Center for an Urban Future) to provide a roof over their heads as they transition into adulthood. If they are under 21, they are not eligible for city shelters. They face a waiting list of several years for subsidized low-income Section 8 housing. The one local agency that provides some housing opportunities for persons with mental challenges serves older people.

This vulnerable youth population has been abandoned by the system. They are on the fringes of society, forced to seek a temporary “home” on a friend’s or relative’s couch, or worse, in a car. When they run out of options, they may live on the street, turn to prostitution, or become victims or perpetrators of crimes.

The Staten Island Mental Health Society’s (SIMHS) (Safe Transition for Youth) program was created to address this and other needs of challenged youth. The program provides a quartet of transitional services in education, employment, housing, and community living to individuals between 16 and 23 who live with behavioral or mental health challenges, such as PTSD, substance abuse, or emotional disorders.

A collaboration among the SIMHS, District 75 (special education) of the New York City Department of Education, the Coalition of Voluntary Mental Health Agencies, and other business and educational agencies, SIMHS’s is funded by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The transitional years between 18 and 23 for youth challenged with mental/emotional disorders are crucial because their government support ends. They are most frequently left on their own without housing options, and even the few who can afford apartments are not treated or regarded as well as their typically functioning peers who don’t have to deal with health care, psychiatrists, and medication issues.

The most difficult transitional life challenge faced by clients is finding housing. We have a network of contacts in the business sector to provide employment experience, our partnerships with various organizations furnish a diversity of services, our doors into the educational system offer GED preparation, remedial and vocational classes, and our 24/7 “life coaches” assist with the vital living skills and routines that a young person must develop. But our efforts to provide housing usually fall into the category of “lucky accidents.”

Several case histories will shed more light on the critical housing dilemma faced by so many clients and other young adults with special emotional needs over the age of 18. Every day we work to find safe and clean housing for these youths.

William* (names have been changed) is one of our few lucky program participants, for now. He currently resides with an older couple who knew him when he lived on the block with his parents. In order to earn money, William had been doing odd jobs for his neighbors, including shoveling snow, mowing lawns, and running errands. When he turned 18, his parents abandoned him and moved to another state. Fortunately, this senior couple, both of whom suffer with health problems, knew William to be trustworthy and hard-working, so they offered their home—trading room and board in return for his being their helper and handyman. If not for William, they would be in an assisted living facility; if not for them, William would be homeless. In order to boost his chances for future success, William attends college full-time and works at a fast food restaurant.

Other clients have not been as fortunate.

Debbie is in drug rehab and wants to move into a “sober house” or independent apartment, in order to continue her recovery. If she moves back with her mother, Debbie knows that she will be exposed to her old “friends” who will try to influence her to continue her drug dependent lifestyle.

Louis lived in several foster homes during his childhood. After relatives assumed guardianship for him, they kept all the support money they received from the city, and when Louis aged out of eligibility for such support, threw him out of their home. He has been depending on the kindness of friends, and is currently “couch surfing” with a family of six in a one bedroom/one bathroom apartment. He has no health insurance from his job as a nurse’s aide because he works fewer than 40 hours per week, but still earns too much to be eligible for Medicaid.

Abby is a transgendered female whose mother abandoned her when she was 17. After living in shelters on and off, she was able to move into the very small apartment where her biological brother and his family live. In return, they demand many hours of baby-sitting and take any money she earns.

Paul lived on the Island with his emotionally abusive adoptive grandparents from the time he was 5 years old, suffering post-traumatic stress disorder as a result. When he turned 18 and the state’s kinship foster care support ceased, his grandparents made him leave their home. He was forced to seek out his mother, a drug addict, in the Bronx. For short time he slept on her couch, traveling to the Island six days a week to attend college. After his mother took his Metrocards (supplied by he left her and returned to the Island. Although we tried to find him housing, we were not successful, and he currently lives in a Manhattan shelter.

These formidable circumstances are too common among the young adults served by on Staten Island. Once they reach their 18th birthdays and their state support ends, their adoptive parents all too often want nothing more to do with them. They are abandoned and left to fend for themselves, abandoned not only by their relatives, but by the system. This segment of our youth comes from a broad array of socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic groups, but they experience the poorest outcomes compared to their peers living with all other forms of disabilities.

I do believe there is a solution to these tragic situations. Supported apartments in buildings must be set aside for young adults with mental and emotional challenges, with a social service connection to address their individual needs and levels of care management. With a roof over their heads, these young men and women will be more likely to progress to better outcomes in the future.

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