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. Once they leave home or the foster care system, no government funding, no agency contracts, no appropriate supportive housing plans or programs exist for youth over 18 years old to provide a roof over their head 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.
This a very special population – they fall through the gaps in our system. Although at 18 these youth are considered adults and are eligible for the adult system of services, they are really not adults. They are high risk and usually fragile youth who need support, nurturance and guidance as they enter the world of adults with all its demands and challenges. These young adults are ill-equipped to manage or live on their own. Many wind up homeless, “couch-surfing,” sleeping on the ferry or living in a car. One local agency provides long-term shelter beds for homeless youth many of whom have mental health challenges. Their 16 beds are for young people ages 14 – 21 who have found themselves homeless and are without support from their families. This shelter is excellent, but there are limited beds, youth usually stay no more than 18 months and they age out at 21. If more permanent housing has not been found, they are forced to go to Manhattan where there are shelters that will accept them.
This vulnerable youth population has been abandoned by the system. They are on the fringes of society, forced to seek a temporary “home.” 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) SafeTY.net (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.
The SafeTY.net program works in collaboration with many agencies and services including District 75 (special education) of the New York City Department of Education, the Coalition for Behavioral Health, Workforce ONE, and other business and educational agencies. SIMHS’s SafeTY.net 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 – not only because this is a very vulnerable age, particularly for fragile youth, but also because their government support ends when they “age out” of the system. 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 SafeTY.net 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 help entering and staying in colleges and universities; 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 SafeTY.net clients and other special young adults with emotional needs over the age of 18. Every day we work to find safe and clean housing for these youths. These case studies reveal the issues encountered by our clients when they do not have housing with their biological families.
Silvana is a young 22-year old wife and mother of a two- year old who is currently living in a shelter in Manhattan. She receives mental health services for her anxiety, panic attacks and chronic depression. Living in one room without even a small refrigerator to keep food fresh and no ability to provide healthy meals for her family adds to her stress. She desperately needs to find housing on Staten Island and has spent 14 months in shelters trying to return.
Thomas lived in a DCYD- funded shelter for young men and women ages 12-21 for four months. When he aged out of that program, he was sent to a men’s shelter in Manhattan where he feels unsafe and depressed. He is reluctant to accept mental health services where he is and continues to struggle to get back to Staten Island where he has roots. There are no housing programs available so he cannot return.
Peter is 21 years old and graduated from high school in June 2017. He is diagnosed with PTSD and lives with his siblings, his mom and his step-father who has been charged with domestic violence on three separate occasions. Peter wants to leave the apartment and live independently, but needs financial and supportive services to function successfully. There are no programs that he can access here in Staten Island. Peter will be forced to leave his family and go to a shelter in Manhattan, where he does not have to witness the violence in his home.
One of the problems with the housing situation in Manhattan, where many of our clients land, is the lack of safety. They report being robbed and sexually assaulted. In addition, they do not receive a consistent level of care or support through care management services or clinical services.
These formidable circumstances are too common among the young adults served by SafeTY.net on Staten Island. Once they reach their 18th birthdays or age out and their state support ends, their parents, caregivers, or guardians 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. Modeled after supported housing programs that exist for adults with long-term mental health histories and long-term housing needs, similar housing opportunities can be created targeting the transitioning young population and helping them to learn skills necessary to live independently in the community. With a roof over their heads and the nurturing support they need, these young men and women will be more likely to progress to better outcomes in the future and live independent and fruitful lives.