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Why NYC Kids Are Fighting to Bring Back the City’s Summer Jobs Program

The Summer Youth Employment Program, a lifeline for youth across the boroughs, was canceled because of the pandemic.

Summer Youth Employment Program
A Summer Youth Employment Program class in the Rubin Museum of Art.
Universal Images Group via Getty

Last summer, Chamia Elzey spent her days working with kids at P.S. X114 Luis Llorens Torres School in the Bronx, doing everything from mentoring to helping with arts and crafts projects. During the break before her junior year at Bronx Collaborative High School on the Dewitt Clinton campus, Elzey not only had six weeks of well-paying work, but she was able to spend time with her cousin, who worked at P.S. X114 as well.

The job, which Elzey got through New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), did more than keep her busy. The $350 she was paid every Friday helped to ease her mom’s financial burden, allowing Elzey to pay her own phone bill for a few weeks, provide school supplies, food, sneakers, and haircuts for her little brother, and get a taste of financial independence and responsibility. Last year, after her 16th birthday, Elzey was afflicted with juvenile idiopathic arthritis and Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease, and she credits SYEP with helping her avoid falling into a depression.

“Everybody was looking forward to this year,” Elzey says. Now that she is 17, Elzey was expecting to get more money, more responsibilities, and more opportunities in SYEP this year. “I felt like it was going to be different,” she reflects. And, so far, it has been different — just not in the way Elzey wanted. On April 7, the highly anticipated SYEP program was abruptly canceled. In an email to SYEP providers, Department of Youth & Community Development commissioner Bill Chong wrote, “Unfortunately, the uncertainty over how COVID-19 will continue to affect social distancing guidelines, worksite availability, and provider and site staffing as we head into late spring and summer makes it difficult to ensure that SYEP can be operated safely and efficiently.”

With the school year drawing to a close — and “defund the police” has become a rallying cry in the protests following the murder of George Floyd — demands to reinstate SYEP have been intensifying. With the city budget deadline of July 1 looming, the City Council is considering reducing the NYPD’s funding and reallocating money to youth and social services like SYEP. Although SYEP makes up a tiny part of the city’s budget, its impact on Black and brown youth citywide is huge, and the money and experience gained from the program can be both a big help to parents and offers valuable, lifelong work experience for participants.

SYEP, which provides minimum-wage work and internships to people ages 14 through 24 over a six-week summer period, has run every year since its founding in 1963. Demand for the jobs is high: Last year, around 151,000 young people applied for just 75,000 positions. As New York is projected to lose close to 500,000 jobs and billions of dollars in tax revenue as a result of the coronavirus, many are upset that a program like SYEP, which costs around $134 million annually and accounts for 0.114 percent of the city’s budget, was cut fully while the NYPD budget remained virtually intact. Canceling SYEP also disproportionately affects people of color: 81 percent of participants in SYEP in 2019 were Black, Hispanic, or Asian, and 84 percent of participants were enrolled in Queens, Brooklyn, or the Bronx. SYEP has employed foster-care youth, public-housing residents, and formerly incarcerated juveniles.

The decision to cancel SYEP drew criticism from former Speaker of the New York City Council Christine Quinn, who called it an “outrage ... cruel and shortsighted” in an interview with NBC. Quinn is currently the president and CEO of Win, an organization that is the largest provider of family shelter and supportive housing in NYC. “Nearly 200 young people living in Win shelters were expecting job offers this summer,” she told NBC. “What will they do now?”

Summer job programs like SYEP allow kids like Elzey to pay rent, utilities, food, and other necessities and help to ensure that housing-insecure families don’t get evicted. As the blanket moratorium on evictions in NYC ended on June 20, the threat of losing housing is once again present. With fewer tenant protections in place, programs like SYEP are even more important to help guarantee that lower-income families are financially stable.

“We’re committed to seeing a shift of funding to youth services, to social services, that will happen literally in the course of the next three weeks,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a press conference on June 8. Corey Johnson, a Speaker of the New York City Council, said in his testimony at a hearing of the Council Committee on Public Safety that, while passing reform bills is progress, the city can begin “overdue” transformative change “by delivering budget justice and making significant cuts to the NYPD budget and reinvesting that money in communities.”

But organizations like Teens Take Charge (TTC), which has been leading the fight to save SYEP, say that it’s not enough. “Now is the time for action, not just words,” read a TTC email to supporters earlier this week. TTC noted that, since Johnson is running for mayor next year, it is the responsibility of NYC youth, “as current and future voters,” “to hold him accountable by sending a clear message that if he drops the ball now, we will remember it next year.”

Youth-led organizations around the city share similar sentiments. “They defunded everything else that we care about,” says Mustafa Sullivan, executive director of FIERCE, an active member organization within Communities United for Police Reform led by LGBT youth of color, which has a mission to end police harassment and violence and create safer spaces for youth. “This should not be confusing,” he adds. Sullivan, like many activists, supports reallocating $1 billion of the NYPD’s $6 billion budget — around 16 percent — to youth and social services, including summer job programs like SYEP and long-term housing.

Sullivan thinks more money should be invested into transitional-housing solutions that are more sustainable and longer lasting than shelters. He explains that people often get “stuck with a voucher for housing,” which is given to them by a social worker, but no one helps them find an apartment for which to apply the voucher. Transitional housing, he says, is about “creating spaces and changing the way shelters are currently, so that people can actually get into a place of economic stability.” Instead of focusing on temporary solutions, transitional housing streamlines people into permanent and affordable living situations.

“If they can afford to have helicopters hover over protesters, then they probably can figure out how to take money out of the NYPD,” says Sullivan. That would mean thousands of kids like Elzey could get SYEP and their summers back.