ITHACA, N.Y. – As Runaway and Homeless Youth Awareness Month comes to a close, local organizations are still working tirelessly to address more than an estimated 200 youth who are still homeless in the community.

A proclamation made at the Tompkins County Legislature meeting last week addressed the issue of youth homelessness in the community and highlighted two organizations in Ithaca that have been established to help runaway youth in the county.

Since 2015, Family and Children’s Service and the Learning Web have both been working to assist homeless youth in the community daily, but focus on the different aspect of each individual’s situation. 

Sally Schwartzbach, Associate Director at the Learning Web, said there are multiple factors within the community which contribute to what she describes as an anomaly of youth homelessness in the county.

According to the U.S. Census, Schwartzbach explains, Tompkins County is home to the lowest percentage of high-school dropouts and the highest percentage of residents with a bachelors degree.

In terms of employment, we have a highly skilled workforce here in Tompkins County,” she said. “The young people who are locals, a third of whom don’t have a high school diploma, are competing with all these people who have bachelors degrees, so right from the start, it’s really, really difficult to get a job.” 

In addition to that, Schwartzbach said the current housing crisis in the county also impacts local youth. With an influx of college students during the school year, the demand increases considerably and rent is raised to create one of the lowest vacancy rates in the state. So, Schwartzbach explains, it can be nearly impossible for an at-risk teen to find a place to stay.

“If you aren’t making money, don’t have a job and then you have young people who often don’t have a rental history or references, it’s obvious a landlord would probably rather have a college student living in their apartment or people who have parents or a reliable co-signer,” she said. 

In a survey led by the Learning Web in 2015, youth researchers were able to reach 208 respondents who were younger than 24, lacked a fixed residence and were not a college student in the county. While the 2015 survey, which covered a six-week period, indicated there were at least 208 homeless youth in the county, Schwartzbach said the Learning Web served 338 youth last year.

We don’t serve every young person in the county, that’s for sure,” she said. “There has to be more than that – 500 is probably a decent figure.” 

David Shapiro, director of Family & Children’s Service, said youth homelessness does not often fit the description of what some might envision.

“You don’t always see homeless youth sitting on a corner in some obvious way,” he said. “A lot of the time they just don’t know where they’re going tomorrow or the next night or even tonight, but they just know they can’t go home.”

Shapiro said this often plays out to sleeping in cars, staying at different friends houses or at anyone’s place who is willing to open up a bed for the night even in questionable or dangerous environments.

Youth homelessness, Shapiro said, is often the result of some sort of abuse in the home, ranging from substance abuse to physical or verbal abuse.

“A lot of the kids, you don’t envy their situations at home,” he said. “That’s why some of these kids are running away, it’s what’s causing them to get in an argument with Mom or Dad who may then say ‘you know what, don’t come home’ – it’s all these other stressors that families are feeling.”

Related: Homeless youth in Tompkins County ‘often hidden behind the scenes’

The Open Doors program, which is part of Family & Children’s Service, and the Learning Web both address youth homelessness, but in two different ways. Shapiro said there are two different categories of homeless youth – the kids who can’t return home, and the kids who still have a chance of ultimately returning.

“The Learning Web is an independent living program, and it is based on the individual’s decision to live independently, so if you decide this is what you need, they’ll help you with things like getting a job and paying bills,” Shapiro said. “If there’s still a chance you’re going to go back home and that’s the best outcome for you, that’s when kids would come to the Open Doors program.”

The goal of the Open Doors program, Shapiro said, is to reunify the kids with their families. The programs work in communication with schools and social workers, often connecting the organizations to the youth in the area who are in need of their services. However, both organizations also try to have a strong presence on social media to reach kids who may be in need of help.

Schwartzbach said their main goal, in an emergency, is to sit down with the individual person seeking a safe place to stay and hash out every single possibility or person they might be able to crash with for a temporary period of time.

Shapiro said the proclamation to the legislature was one of the biggest projects of Runaway and Homeless Youth Awareness Month, which was a collaboration between the Learning Web and Family and Children’s Service.

Both organizations are partially funded by the Tompkins County Government, leaving the rest of the budget up to fundraising and grants.

“It is not nearly enough to fund the entire program or to fund what is needed in this community,” Shapiro said. “If we can make our legislators more aware of that and start seeing some of the money they have at their disposal put toward helping kids that don’t have a place to sleep, I think that would be a great step.”

Shapiro said Family & Children’s Service also works on finding host homes in the community and recruiting people to open up a bed for the night or a few days while they work to find a more stable situation.

The biggest gaps, according to Schwartzbach, are in the area of emergency housing. While host homes offer a safe place for some kids, they are sparse, and do not meet the needs of youth who need a place to stay. If you’re under 18, Schwartzbach said, there is no shelter available for a young person.

“Right now, it’s just our staff figuring out services for these kids,” she said. “From a youth service perspective, a youth emergency shelter for young people is a high-priority.” 

While an emergency youth shelter is currently not an available service in the county, Schwartzbach said there have been improvements in communication regarding the issue of youth homelessness in the county.

There’s no overall system in place to make sure the most vulnerable might get housing first,” she said. “But a community waitlist was started last January by the Continuum of Care – that is a real step forward in communication in this town which is keeping people from falling through the cracks.” 

The waitlist, which used to be just an element of the Learning Web, has now expanded to multiple organizations county-wide. They then assess applicants to figure out who may be the most vulnerable, who are then put on a housing list based on their vulnerability.

“It’s too bad that these needs exist, and it’s easy to tell a story about why it’s important to support these kids,” Shapiro said. “Again, what we’ve been trying to do during this awareness month is trying to talk to our local government about that because these aren’t programs you can just go to the local foundations and get support for so you can stop people from running away or stop people from living on the streets – they really need to be part of that solution.”

For more information about Open Doors, call 607-273-7494.

For youth in crisis, call or text 607-288-2348.

Alyvia Covert

Alyvia is a Crime Reporter with The Ithaca Voice. She graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in Journalism and Photography.