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Safe Horizon's Streetwork program extending helping hand to asylum seekers in Harlem

Safe Horizon's Streetwork program extending helping hand to asylum seekers in Harlem
Safe Horizon's Streetwork program extending helping hand to asylum seekers in Harlem 02:38

NEW YORK -- A Harlem drop-in center for homeless youth has become home to a new crowd of clients -- asylum seekers from West Africa.

Nonprofit Safe Horizon is helping them feel welcome in a new world.

Young people in crisis find food, friendship, clothing and calm at the organization's Streetwork drop-in center on 125th Street.

Over the past three months, staff has seen a surge in demand for their services.

"We went from seeing about 60 young people a day and now we're seeing hundreds of young people accessing our drop-in, and so that means more food, that means more clothing," said Sebastien Vante, associate vice president of the Streetwork program.

Supplies are stacked high in the hallways, stretching all savings. One social worker recently started working in the kitchen to accommodate the increase in hungry mouths, speaking a variety of languages.

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One of the new clients is 20-year-old Sidi Mahmoud, who spent a month traveling here alone from Mauritania. A map on the wall marks his journey, tracks that are increasingly common.

He said he knew it wasn't going to be an easy trip, adding he made the decision, "Because I had to. I didn't feel ... I feel unsafe in my country, so I had to leave."

Mahmoud still hides his face to protect his family back home from persecution. Like many others, once he arrived, he faced an uncertain future.

"He was on the street. He didn't know what resources were available to him after he was discharged from his 30-day placement," Vante said.

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Word of mouth brought Mahmoud to the drop-in center on 125th Street, where his English language skills have made him an asset in the peer outreach program.

He now leads workshops on mental and sexual health, allowing him to earn a stipend, and case workers connected him to a transitional shelter, where he can stay for up to two years.

"We are a program that works with runaway and homeless youth, and, right now, the landscape of New York City and the folks who are experiencing homelessness are happened to be new arrivals. And that's our job. That's our charge, to support this population," Vante said.

The goal is to get each of the young people on a path to success beyond the program -- and beyond an overcrowded shelter system.

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Mahmoud has found new purpose. After he earns his GED, he's entertaining the idea of becoming an entrepreneur.

"Maybe, like, develop a company and just, like, organize wedding? Maybe because I love to. I like to see people celebrating," Mahmoud said.

He's showing growth to overcome.

Streetwork is funded by the city's Department of Youth and Community Development, which has 750 total beds across the city for homeless youth ages 16 to 24.

Have a story idea or tip in Harlem? Email Jessi by CLICKING HERE.

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