Turning Point Shelter for Young Women is, in a Word, Girly

By Zoe Weiner

Photo caption: Zoe Weiner

Throughout the building, the walls are lavender and adorned with inspirational decals and brightly colored artwork created by its Brooklyn residents. Vases filled with plastic sunflowers sit on tables decorated with the words “love” and “life” in neon cursive writing in a score of different languages. There is a donations closet in the basement that has seen hundreds of prom dresses throughout the years, and the windows are covered in gauzy curtains, also lavender, with butterflies on them. The décor is decidedly more teenage girl’s bedroom than in a homeless shelter stand of cots.

“It is girly!” Iesha Moore, the shelter’s program director said during a recent tour. “It’s for girls. We try to make it comfortable for them so that they can thrive.”

Young people in New York in general, even those who grew up in upper-middle class families, are having increasing difficulty affording life in the city. Many of them move home after college, and even with advanced degrees struggle to find jobs. According to shelter officials, this then trickles down to effect the lowest income and least educated demographic, a growing number of whom end in homeless shelters.

Though this population is growing, there is little data to show just how quickly the numbers are going up. Turning Point is the only place in the city that tracks this specific demographic, and have seen a steady increase in the need for their services in the last 10 years.

The most important time for making the transition from adolescence into adulthood is ages 18–25, a period commonly referred to by experts as “emerging adulthood.” Many of the women who come to the shelter have traumatic backgrounds and no familial support, and struggle to manage the life changes associated with this period, said shelter officials.

Dennis Culhane, a social policy professor specializing in homelessness, explained in a telephone interview that the particular strategies that work with this group are very developmentally specific. “No matter what age you are,” he said, “we want to make sure there’s the appropriate things that are being done to address your homelessness.”

The Turning Point Shelter for young women in Sunset Park, Brooklyn is a 39-bed transitional housing facility that exclusively serves homeless women aged 18 to 25. It is the only one of its kind in New York, and is working to meet the needs of this growing population. The shelter was mixed gender until 2000, when the city’s Department of Homeless services requested that it to become all female because of an increasing number of young homeless women in the city.

Because of the differences in need, smaller, more specified shelters are more effective in breaking the pattern of homelessness. Turning Point’s Executive director Tata Traore-Rogers said that success is more likely when the staff is trained to meet the targeted needs of its residents. When shelters start mixing people with different ages and different backgrounds, it’s more difficult to specialize services.

All residents are referred to the center by the Department of Homeless Services. The population, shelter officials say reflects a wide diversity of urban life challenges and struggles. For example, some are former foster care youth who had aged out of the foster care system; others are refugees from prostitution and incarceration, still others simply grew up in homeless shelters.

Among some of the more challenging clients to help, Moore and Trarore-Rogers said, are young, homeless mothers who have lost their children to Child Protective Services or other children’s aid agencies; and young homeless women who wrestle with mental illness or substance abuse.

“There’s nowhere to fall back for these young women, that’s what makes them a special population,” said Traore-Rogers. “There’s no support from external groups. The support is us.”

Moore and her team say they tailor this support to meet the specific needs of this particular group of women. They offer counseling, independent living services and aid in securing permanent housing, which are common in transitional housing shelters, but also have supplemental services, like cooking, painting and yoga classes, that are meant to empower their residents. A lot of the women suffer from low self-esteem, says Moore, and it’s important to she and her staff that they’re able to do things to feel good about themselves. Turning Point doesn’t just want to help their residents out of homelessness, they want to help them rebuild their dignity in the process.

The shelter also has a women’s group; a forum where the woman can talk about their problems with one another. They share their experiences and are given a chance to see common links, which, according to Moore, helps them not to feel lonely. She said this gives the residents a sense of camaraderie unique to a shelter exclusively for young women, and builds a sense of community.

“It’s nice to have people around to support you; to understand what you’re going through,” said Fatima, a 23-year-old resident who’s lived at the shelter for 5 months. “So you’re not so alone.”