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Homeless Youth Face Budget Ax

Homeless Youth Face Budget Ax

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"Governor Cuomo, I want you to understand how terrible things are for homeless kids," said the letter posted this week by Raciel Castillo. "I want you to understand how mean and reckless it is to cut support for kids out on the streets. I have lots of friends who have nowhere safe to sleep."

A resident at the Ali Forney Center for homeless LGBT youth in New York City, Castillo is one of many young people, gay and straight, who could be forced to the streets by a budget proposal from Gov. Andrew Cuomo that would eliminate $4.7 million in dedicated funds for homeless and runaway youth, gay and straight, statewide. The stark move is part of a measure that would consolidate 10 social service programs funded at $85 million into a $35 million competitive block grant.

Already accustomed to lean fiscal times, administrators and advocates find themselves fighting to stop the bleeding as state budget negotiations enter a critical negotiation phase in advance of the April 1 deadline.

"We know we're in terrible times at the state level and across the country, but this seems to be quite disproportionate," said Jeanne Mullgrav, commissioner of the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development, which has experienced a 30% cut in runway and homeless youth funding over the last three years. "This seems to feel quite different."

In counterproposals to Cuomo this week, senate and assembly lawmakers rejected the block grant proposal and proposed restoring the funding under the Runway and Homeless Youth Act next year to 50% in the senate proposal, or $2.4 million, and 75% in the assembly, or $3.5 million. Negotiations toward a final figure will continue over the coming days among all three parties.

Still, cuts of any kind would severely hamper efforts at the city agency, which currently receives $1.4 million in state funding. The agency calculates that even a restoration by half would mean the loss of $750,000, or the equivalent of 19 shelter beds. That could prompt a petition to the strained city, which already kicks in nearly $11 million.

"The city is trying to do the best that it can, but we do need this to be a partnership," said Mullgrav, who testified against the governor's proposal in Albany last month. "We don't really receive federal funding."

Currently, New York City and state combine funds to support 108 youth shelter beds. A city council census in 2008 found that at least 3,800 young people spend any given night on the streets, and 40% of them are estimated to identify as LGBT.

State lawmakers in turn say they are trying to do their best with starved resources amidst a landscape of competing priorities.

"I would love to put all $4.7 million back," said Sen. Diane Savino, chair of the committee on children and families, who met with homeless and runway youth advocates in Albany on Tuesday. "I would have to take it from somewhere else. For every dollar we restore to one program, that means I have to pull it from somewhere else. It's kind of like a Hobbesian choice here."

One bright spot appears in separate funding for LGBT-specific programs, which remains stable at $5.2 million. That includes money for organizations that serve homeless and runaway youth. Insiders expressed cautious optimism that amount could be increased at the last minute of negotiations, although no one would plan their next program by it.

For now, lawmakers remain hopeful their counteroffers for homeless and runaway youth will find favor with Cuomo. The governor plans to impose his own proposals or force a government shutdown if the parties cannot resolve bigger issues surrounding the $10 billion budget gap, like taxes, education and health care, by the deadline.

"What will happen as we go into three-way negotiations, if the governor sees the senate and assembly are in sync on a particular issue, the likelihood of him fighting us on that is slim," said Savino.

Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, chair of the committee on children and families, agreed, saying that the lawmakers' proposal puts a conversation with the governor in motion.

"I think no one debates these programs are important," she said. "I think that was the governor's way of dealing with the money."

A Cuomo spokesman did not reply to a request for comment.

With just two weeks to go before the budget deadline, advocates have kicked their campaign into overdrive to press the administration and lawmakers to restore the funding for runaway and homeless youth. The request asks for a meager $5 million in a $132.5 billion budget.

"I think you show your values by what you spend your money on," said Carl Siciliano, executive director of the Ali Forney Center. "Putting homeless gay kids on the street and shutting their shelter beds is appalling."
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