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Services and Housing: Two Critical Components to Ensure the Well Being of Homeless Children and Families

This post was co-authored by the three co-conveners of the Family Homelessness Task Force: Citizens’ Committee for Children, New Destiny Housing, and Enterprise.

Last night, 27,000 children and their families slept in a New York City homeless shelter.  Many of those children slept in a homeless shelter last week, last month, and last year too, as the average family spends over 430 days in the shelter system.  Nearly seventy percent of the people experiencing homelessness in NYC are children and their parents.

The Mayor, the Governor, City and State legislators, service providers, landlords, developers and advocates are all trying to figure out how best to address this crisis.  At times, the solution to the homelessness crisis is framed in either/or terms.  For some, more permanent housing is the answer.  For others, it is more purpose-built shelters with better services.  But, in fact, this either-or approach is a false choice and a multi-pronged approach is needed that prevents families at risk of homelessness from entering shelter; offers purpose-built shelters with appropriate services for families with children; and more housing resources and aftercare support to ensure that families can leave shelters quickly and remain stably housed.

Homeless families clearly need permanent, affordable housing to get out of the shelter system. There are many initiatives underway to maintain, create, and connect households to affordable housing.  For example, the City has increased the NYCHA public housing set aside for homeless families, created a new and ambitious affordable housing plan to create and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing, created a new rental assistance program, and committed to creating 15,000 supportive housing units over the next 15 years. Furthermore, the State has also committed to creating 20,000 new supportive housing units over the next fifteen years.  There is also a plan in the state legislature, Home Stability Plus, which would create a new statewide rental assistance program, which would substantially prevent homelessness.

Yet, not enough of this new housing is allocated to homeless families with children, new housing does not get built in a day, and proposed legislation does not get passed and enacted timely.  While progress is being made on many fronts, homeless children and their families are experiencing extremely long lengths of stay in the shelter system, in environments that have been proven to have a detrimental impact on immediate and long term well-being.

The Bassuk Center recently released a report describing the negative impact the City’s shelter system has on children’s well-being and development. The report puts forward several recommendations to better address the needs of the children and their families, such as providing parenting supports, trauma-informed care and mental health services to families in shelter.   There is no doubt that homelessness is traumatic and numerous studies have shown that childhood exposure to traumatic experiences impacts the child’s healthy growth and development.  Often referred to as ACEs, Adverse Childhood Experiences have been proven to produce poor health outcomes, including reduced life expectancies, for adults who have high scores.

A year ago, Citizens’ Committee for Children, Enterprise and New Destiny Housing co-convened a Family Homelessness Task Force, grounded in our shared concern about the well-being of homeless children and their families and desire to develop recommendations to prevent family homelessness, improve the conditions and access to services and education for those in the shelter system, and ensure that those who leave the shelter system can find and retain affordable housing. Our task force report, based on the thoughtful work of nearly 40 city based organizations, emphasizes that homeless families need both permanent affordable housing and access to the wide array of services, in and out of shelter, that will address their needs and support family stability and well-being.

This goal, one that we know the City also shares, informs each of the recommendations we developed.

Prevention

  • Prevent more families from becoming homeless by strengthening the rent stabilization laws and their enforcement, to prevent the loss of affordable housing units.
  • Help families access help before they are in crisis by developing a tool to assess housing stability, better publicizing ways families can get help through existing resources, and ensuring families have access to supports such as child care, after-school and job training programs.
  • Create programs that would enable some domestic violence survivors to be move directly to affordable housing with access to services without entering the shelter system.
  • Help families maintain their rent by enacting Housing Stability Support, a statewide rental assistance program.

In-Shelter

  • Train all homeless service staff in trauma- informed care.
  • Ensure all families are assessed for the most appropriate placement and needed services.
  • Ensure all young children in shelter have access to early childhood programs, such as child care, prekindergarten, Early Intervention and home visiting, and ensure shelters have staff to facilitate enrollment in these programs.
  • Ensure that families placed in hotels and cluster sites, until their elimination, have access to on-site services, quality food, transportation, laundry, and space for socialization.
  • Take steps to improve educational continuity for children in shelter, by ensuring families understand their rights and the process for arranging transportation, provide more on-site assistance to families, and improve the procedures currently in place to arrange transportation.

Post-shelter

  • Increase the supply of permanent affordable housing available to homeless families through set-asides in Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, the Affordable New York Housing Program, NYCHA public housing, and HPD and HCR production and preservation programs.
  • Target, standardize and streamline the allocation of existing homeless housing resources to ensure that homeless families in shelters receive appropriate subsidies and housing resources as quickly as possible.
  • Strengthen post-shelter services by funding aftercare programs at purpose-built shelters and facilitating the matching of services with HPD-funded projects housing 10% or more homeless families with children.
  • Create an affordable housing model that includes social supports for those families who would not be eligible for supportive housing, but who need social services to remain stably housed.

Now is the time for New Yorkers to come together and help our homeless neighbors.  We look forward to working with the City to make addressing and ending family homelessness possible.  This will require working across city agencies and bureaucracies and ensuring a cross-systems approach to focus specifically on the needs of homeless children and their families.

 

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