Homeless Girl Scouts highlight NY housing crisis

Jennie MATTHEW
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Members of Girl Scout Troop 6000, are honored and recognized for the troop's unique status, as the first troop exclusively for homeless girls

The Girl Scouts who meet every Friday in a New York hotel could be any other American youngsters learning life skills, but with one crucial difference. They are all homeless.

Troop 6000 is New York's first Girl Scout brigade exclusively for homeless girls, all of whom live at the Sleep Inn in Queens, where they can sleep three to a bed in a shelter for 100 families.

It highlights the crushing homeless problem in New York, a city of huge wealth disparity. With more billionaires than any other city in the world, New York's unrelenting pursuit of wealth and gentrification means that those on modest wages struggle to find affordable housing.

"They're my sisters and I love spending time with them," says Karina Cabrera, 11, who dreams of becoming a vet or a basketball player. "I feel I can tell them anything because they understand me."

"We aren't different," she explains. "It's just that we don't have a home."

There are approximately 60,000 people in the city's shelter system. During the 2015-16 academic year, nearly 33,000 students in city public schools lived at least some of the time in homeless shelters.

To keep as many people off the streets as possible, Sleep Inn is one of at least 80 hotels turned into shelters, housing 7,500 New Yorkers.

Giselle Burgess, a single mom of five whose family was made homeless last August, was instrumental in setting up Troop 6000 in January.

"At first I was a little bit worried, I only had eight girls including my three daughters and then as the weeks were going by, we had more and more," says Burgess.

Three months later, she has 25 girls aged five to 14.

- 'It's scary' -

Burgess has taught the girls first aid, the history of women's suffrage and financial literary. Next up? Civic advocacy.

"It's just absolutely amazing to see these girls get together and build that bond," she said.

Smart, articulate and working as a community development specialist for Girl Scouts of Greater New York, Burgess likens finding an affordable home to "a needle in a haystack" even with a steady income.

Her family was made homeless last August when their lease expired and the landlord sold up to property developers.

She and her children, aged three to 14, take turns to sleep two or three to a bed in the Queens hotel, sharing one room equipped only with a mini refrigerator and a small closet.

"It's scary. You try and keep making it a game, an adventure, but there are moments where the smile just can't stay on," Burgess said.

Of the 287 residents in the shelter, 155 are under the age of 18.

- 'Make great presidents' -

New York's city council this week honored the Troop's unique status, inviting them to a ceremony in their gilded Manhattan chamber.

The assembled officials took pains to celebrate an organization that empowers young women at a time when the country is led by a president who has boasted of groping women.

"All of you would go on to make great presidents," said Queens council member Jimmy Van Bramer to cheers and applause. "They would make better presidents than the one currently in the office," he quipped.

While there have been other US homeless troops, supporters say it is the first time a Girl Scouts council has strategically organized to create a troop with the intention of expanding it to other shelters.

The organization is seeking donations to expand the network, cover the $25 registration fee waived for each homeless girl and their programs.

Meridith Maskara, chief operating officer of Girl Scouts of Greater New York, says the troop is "life changing" for these children.

"I think girls are hearing different messages socially and its our job as a leadership organization for girls in New York City to step up and make sure that their voice is heard."

The girls are certainly happy.

"It's fun and we can see our friends," says 10-year-old Jessica Seaman, who says she wants to be a fire fighter when she grows up.