When New York City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer attended the first meeting of Girl Scout Troop 6000 in his district in western Queens this year, he hadn’t the slightest inkling that the small group of girls gathering here would have such an impact.
As the first Girl Scout troop in New York designed specifically for homeless girls, Troop 6000 began in February as a modest effort to help bring a sense of community, if not normalcy, to the 100 families with children who lived in a Queens shelter in his district.
Only eight girls attended that first meeting in the old breakfast nook of the converted budget hotel in Long Island City. Yet the idea to bring a Girl Scout troop to a family shelter became a symbol for the city’s larger efforts to rethink its efforts to help the homeless, including those to maintain “community anchors” for families that had lost their homes, such as churches and schools.
“For young people living in shelters, the real question is, Where do I belong? What is home?” says Council Member Van Bramer, the Democratic majority leader and former Boy Scout whose six sisters attended Girl Scout troops. “They ask themselves, to whom am I attached?”
At that first meeting, he was there to pin merit badges on the uniforms of those who had already finished the module for first-aid skills. “That was before they became media stars,” he laughs, noting how quickly the idea began to spread. After news stories and TV appearances, including on ABC’s “The View,” people around the world began to donate to the Girl Scouts of Greater New York.
And now Troop 6000 stands poised to bring in more than 500 new members in the next year. Last week, New York officials announced that the nascent Girl Scout troop for homeless girls would receive about $1 million over the next three years to expand to 14 homeless shelters throughout New York.
“What I mainly see with them is just pure leadership,” said Giselle Burgess, the program manager for Troop 6000 – and a working mother of five children living at the shelter in Queens. “From the smallest ones that we have to the oldest ones, they get the job done,” she said at a press conference announcing the expansion.
The idea came at a particularly volatile time. The homeless shelter population hit an all-time high in New York City in 2016, putting pressure on a system already strained. Beset by critics and the resignation of a key expert on homelessness, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio scrambled to respond, even after unveiling a five-year plan to open 90 new shelters and shore up a system now housing over 60,000 New Yorkers.
Like a number of New York families, Ms. Burgess, who was a community engagement specialist for the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, became homeless after her rented apartment in Queens' Flushing neighborhood was sold to make way for condos. The city placed her and her children in a facility in Brooklyn at first, but moved them to the shelter in Queens, near her children’s schools, as it began to emphasize keeping community anchors in place for homeless families.
The troop is part of a number of efforts the city has recently started to meet the needs of homeless children, who make up nearly 40 percent of the people the city’s shelter system, officials say.
Yet the idea for Troop 6000 took shape as some in New York’s communities, especially in Queens, began to protest the city’s plans to open new shelters.
“I think one of the most incredible impacts that we were able to see is that Troop 6000 gave people an opportunity to challenge what they stereotypically have in their minds about homelessness – and the faces of the homeless,” says Meridith Maskara, the incoming chief operating officer of the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, who worked with Van Bramer to make the idea a reality.
Last Thanksgiving, Ms. Maskara joined Van Bramer, Burgess, and other Girl Scout leaders at an event in Sunnyside in Queens, where Girl Scouts helped serve dinner to homeless women living in another converted hotel. “We had a brief discussion about homeless girls and homeless children, and we thought, wouldn’t it be amazing if there were a Girl Scout troop specifically for homeless girls living in shelters?” says Van Bramer.
As a Girl Scouts employee already living in a family shelter, Burgess suggested the converted hotel where she was staying. “When I moved to the shelter, I was already a troop leader in another location, so I figured why not bring a troop here?” she told reporters.
Together with officials from the city’s Department of Homeless Services, they put together a plan. The Girl Scouts of Greater New York covered the early costs, including the membership fees, starter kits with patches, pins, workbooks and vests, as well as monthly dues.
Residents at the shelter began to respond to the flyers announcing the new troop. Although there were only eight girls at the first meeting in February – including Burgess’s three daughters – there are now about 30 scouts in Troop 6000.
Burgess's daughter Karina, who was a Scout before her family became homeless, said at last week's press conference that Troop 6000 was teaching her “the true meaning of being a sister to every Girl Scout, and how to emotionally support others.”
“Now more girls just like me will be able to participate and get the same,” she said. In April, she told reporters, "We're like a pack. If one of us is down the rest of us will be there to pick them back up."
But challenges remain. Burgess and her five children, for example, live in a single room without kitchen facilities. “When you realize that there are hundreds of people – families with children living here at places like the Sleep Inn,” says Van Bramer, whose own familly lived in a hotel for a couple months when they lost their home in the 1970s, “you realize the fact that there is little here for them. There’s no room to play.”
Of the 287 people housed at the family shelter, 155 are under 18, officials say. Across the city, there are an estimated 6,000 girls living in homeless shelters. With the new grant, Maskara hopes that 1,500 new members could join new Troop 6000 chapters in the city’s five boroughs.
“You can already see the progression of the girls at the shelter – the sense of community, the belonging to something, getting people thinking about positive things, like leadership and change,” she says.