Investment is Just the Beginning: New York City Needs a Comprehensive Strategy to Help Homeless Families

Why do men, women and families end up without a permanent home? The answer is always a complicated one — loss of income, a ruptured family, mental health issues or spiraling health costs, increased rent –- but at heart is that multiple support systems have failed. That includes social supports, economic supports and government and policy supports. Somewhat ironically, the one safety net system that kicks in when people are at their most vulnerable is the system that is so frequently criticized: the shelter system.

New York City is the only jurisdiction in the country required by law to provide shelter for anyone who needs it. Imperfect though it may be, when working as it’s meant to, the shelter system is preventing people from living on the streets. The crisis escalates when shelter becomes not the temporary solution it’s designed to be, and when the shelters overflow. One of the reasons why the De Blasio administration became so loudly criticized over the past year plus is because New Yorkers have seen an increasingly visible number of people living on the streets — many of whom say they opted for that due to unpleasant shelter conditions including violence and overcrowding.

But while the individuals on the street represent the most visible population, there’s a whole other side that the shelter system effectively prevents most New Yorkers from regularly confronting: the forgotten face of homelessness –the women and children and families in shelter.

This is indeed a challenge that has been slowly and steadily growing — between 2009 and 2016, the families with children population increased from 7334 to 12368 — and some of the most challenging and entrenched problems, like shelter funding, capacity and diminishing housing subsidies have not been fully addressed by various administrations.

The homeless system is a complex bureaucracy in and of itself and also deeply enmeshed with numerous other city agencies, including Children’s Services, DOE, Buildings, Department of Housing and Preservation, NYPD and HRA — while also regulated by both the city and the state. The challenges of overseeing this system that provides services for nearly 60,000 vulnerable individuals have outpaced this Administration’s attempt at fixing an issue that has historically proved extremely difficult to address; the loss of senior staff from the prior administration cost valuable historical knowledge as well.

That said, the Administration has made investments unlike any other, including the creation of a new rental assistance program, hundreds of additional beds for youth and the expansion of HomeBase. The Mayor has also increased funding for shelter security, repairs and maintenance (including the Shelter Repair Squad and direct funding of shelter providers). He has increased mental health services in single shelters but that still needs to be expanded to families. These efforts to prevent eviction and homelessness are critically important to stem the increasing numbers of individuals and families in shelter and the focus on mental health care is equally important. Street outreach teams are doing necessary work identifying and supporting extremely vulnerable (and often resistant) individuals.

The City does still need a long-term comprehensive strategy with realistic achievable goals that include building both shelter capacity and affordable permanent housing for the lowest income families; economic support for work and employment; mental health and domestic violence support systems for adults who need them; and increased focused direct needs of children, not just the needs of their parents.

Part of this is recognizing that, while the image of homelessness may be an individual on the street — the reality of homelessness is 40,000 families and children (80% of the shelter population) living in shelter, a reality that can have a profound effect on their development, health and education. For 30 years, Win has been helping homeless New York City women and their children transform their lives through a progressive and holistic approach developed to break the cycle of homelessness. We envision a genuine partnership among government policy makers and elected officials, and like-minded non-profit leaders to innovate the system and dramatically and permanently improve the lives and outcomes for New Yorkers.

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