Why Mayor De Blasio’s Homeless Plan Won’t “Turn the Tide”

Family homelessness in New York City has reached staggering proportions, with the average length of stay in family shelters exceeding 400 days. Originally published on Urban Matters by the Center for New York City Affairs.

By Ellen L. Bassuk, MD

Family homelessness in New York City has reached staggering proportions, with the average length of stay in family shelters exceeding 400 days. This is an eternity in the life of a small child. When very long shelter stays are not accompanied by effective human services in a nurturing environment, this can seriously impede children’s brain development, negatively affecting physical and mental health throughout their lives and increasing the likelihood they will be homeless again as adults.

Given this context, we at The Bassuk Center have concluded that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new plan, “Turning the Tide on Homelessness in New York City,” will not succeed. The plan contains many constructive elements, such as expanding prevention, eliminating commercial hotels and “cluster site” apartments as family shelters, keeping families connected to their neighborhoods, and robustly engaging communities where homeless shelters are located. However, it is fundamentally flawed by inadequate attention to providing critical services, and ensuring there will be shelter staff to deliver these services in the best ways to meet families’ complex needs. The plan’s vague pledges on such services and staffing simply aren’t sufficient.

Despite the failure of the City’s current approach (as evidenced by the very high rates of return to homelessness by New York families), the mayor’s plan doubles down on the status quo by committing to aggressively expand the existing system of large-sized family shelters. The mayor proposes to establish 90 new shelters across the city over the next five years. It is all too likely that these new shelters will be built and designed on the same very large scale as the “Tier II” shelters already in operation. Perhaps they will be even larger. In short, the City is marching further in the wrong direction.

We base our conclusions on a recent exploration of New York City’s homeless shelter system that included: site visits to family shelters; virtual focus groups with shelter leadership, supervisors, case managers, and security staff; conversations with shelter residents; interviews with experts, practitioners, and advocates in housing, education, child welfare, and related fields; and extensive review of shelter documents, government reports, and academic literature. Our findings are discussed in a newly published report, “Aced Out in Tier II Shelters.”

Our report tells the story of an institutional system that prioritizes policing and security within a culture bound by rigid rules and regulations that do not help families return successfully to the community. We urge a different approach that would transform massive custodial warehouses to smaller-scale, family-friendly human service environments in which it is possible to help families. We recommend:

  • Creating relational, family-focused, trauma-informed shelter environments. Current Tier II shelters must be scaled down to create welcoming community spaces that allow for the proper staffing ratios to deliver services. The ideal shelter size is 50 units. But some Tier II shelters have as many as 200 units serving 900 or more people. Many cities have succeeded in designing and siting smaller homeless facilities. Creative solutions exist in New York City, too; for example, students at Parsons School of Design at The New School have produced 20 family shelter designs that fit into real spaces and have reasonable budgets.
  • Using assessment to understand and engage children and families. Relationships are the linchpin of service delivery and the foundation for ending homelessness. To facilitate good relationships between shelter staff and homeless families, the current assessment process needs to be expanded to gather not only basic information needed to classify families as homeless, but also to understand the needs, wishes, and priorities of all family members.
  • Freeing up staff time to work with families by reducing shelter rules, documentation, and paperwork. Case managers report that as much as 70 or 80 percent of their time is spent on documentation and compliance with regulations. The ratio of time spent on paperwork versus client engagement must be reversed, so that working with families becomes 80 percent of staff focus rather than just 20 percent. The plethora of rules and controls of families must be relaxed to create a more nurturing environment in which supportive relationships and trust can grow.
  • Focusing on providing effective services to families instead of oppressive shelter security. Safety should remain a primary goal, but it must not overshadow service provision. Security personnel in family shelters far outnumber the case managers, social service staff, and housing specialists. In one shelter there were four case managers and 21 security staff. Surveillance cameras and security personnel dominate shelter hallways and entryways. Providing services such as trauma-informed care, parenting supports, and developmental programs for children is also essential.

It is not enough that the City’s family shelters are clean and safe. They must also provide a way out. After 35 years of research and service implementation, we know how to help families who are homeless stabilize their lives and help their children grow and thrive. A large-scale, bricks and mortar solution that warehouses families with scant attention to their immediate and long-term needs is the wrong approach. It suggests that city planners and policymakers do not understand the causes of family homelessness, or what is required for the solution.

Ellen L. Bassuk, MD is president and founder of The Bassuk Center on Homeless and Vulnerable Children & Youth, and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Photo courtesy of The Bassuk Center.

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