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American Almanac
Journal of Children & Poverty

Reports and Briefs

A Theory of Poverty Destabilization: Why Low-income Families Become Homeless in New York City

This policy brief, the first of a series, uses data on the changing demographics of New York City to examine destabilizing factors affecting the experiences of families at risk of homelessness. Researchers look at two neighborhoods in the borough of Brooklyn, Bedford Stuyvesant and Brownsville, both of which have large numbers of families entering the shelter system, in an effort to better understand the relationship between stable poverty and rising homelessness. Future briefs will further explore other neighborhoods in New York City.

In 2011, 12,422 families with children entered homeless shelters in New York City, a 17% increase since 2008.1 Reversing this trend will require that policymakers understand the factors that cause families to lose their housing. Unfortunately, the answer to why some families are able to subsist in a stable fashion, or sustain a kind of “poverty equilibrium,” while others experience homelessness has proved elusive to researchers and policymakers alike. The effort to understand the relationship between stable poverty and rising homelessness is not hindered by a lack of available information; public and private organizations spend thousands of dollars every year collecting data on homelessness in New York City. This report, the first of a series, uses this data on the changing demographics of New York City and takes a closer look at two neighborhoods in particular to examine the destabilizing factors affecting the experiences of at-risk families within them. Future ICPH reports will further explore these outcomes in neighborhoods across New York City.

In the period from 2005 to 2009, 49,403 families entered the Department of Homeless Services’ (DHS) shelter system.2 Of course, the need for shelter is not equal across the city. As seen in Figure 1, community districts in the South Bronx and central Brooklyn dominate the list of the highest-contributing areas, while comparatively few families in shelter come from Manhattan. This pattern may not seem surprising to those familiar with the demographics of New York City and its 59 community districts, but awareness of where shelter entrants are coming from, and how geographic trends shift over time, is key to understanding and ultimately addressing the multiple pathways leading to homelessness.

Figure 1

The abundance of Brooklyn and Bronx neighborhoods in Figure 1 points to the flaw in most investigations into the causes of local homelessness: the failure to acknowledge the socioeconomic diversity across the city. There are many reasons why a family may slip into homelessness, and these families’ stories can be lost when the problem is studied with too wide a focus. Many types of neighborhood-level changes occur that can either help or hinder a family as it struggles to maintain stable housing. Examples of these trends include gentrification and migration. As new residents move into a neighborhood, the housing market destabilizes and competition increases, and existing community members are often displaced into surrounding areas. The following section of this report examines the changing
demographics of two adjacent Brooklyn neighborhoods, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville, to illustrate the type of explanation hidden in quantitative analysis.

Figure 2


1 New York City Department of Homeless Services, Critical Activities Report: Families with Children Services, 2008–11.
2 Citizens’ Committee for Children, Keeping Track of New York City’s Children Database. Of the 49,403 total families, 45,339 entered from within New York City.

When a Solution Is Also Part of the Problem: The Complex Relationship Between Public Housing and Family Homelessness

Meeting the Child Care Needs of Homeless Families: How Do States Stack Up?

The American Almanac at a Glance

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