ICPH Testifies About DHS Family Shelters
With the number of children in New York City’s homeless shelters at record highs, on September 25, 2012 the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness presented testimony about this trend to the New York City Council’s General Welfare Committee hearing on Department of Homeless Services family shelters.
Below is the testimony:
Good morning. I’m Dona Anderson, director of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, an independent nonprofit that conducts policy analysis on the impact of family and child poverty and homelessness in order to improve public policies and programming. I am here with Policy Associate Elizabeth Ezratty, and we would like to thank the Council for holding this hearing.
The number of children in New York City homeless shelters reached a record high of 19,507 this month and continues to grow. This reflects an increase of 2,172 kids just since June, and a 22% increase over the past year. Given the dramatic rise in the number of families with children entering shelter since the end of the Advantage rental subsidy program, the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness projects that the number of children in shelter will reach 20,479 by Christmas of this year.
This estimate is based on the pattern seen over the last 27 months of publicly available data provided by the city’s Department of Homeless Services. We have attached a chart where you can see our projections. Keep in mind that these are conservative estimates based on the last year of data. If the most recent trends take hold, the number of children living in city shelters will surpass these estimates.
New York City has opened more shelters to deal with this influx of homeless families, but there is no rental assistance system to move families into permanent housing. While the City recognizes the importance of job training, there isn’t a coordinated plan to ensure that parents are getting the requisite skills for jobs that pay the living wage needed to keep families housed long-term.
The Department of Homeless Services has a difficult job in a city that rightfully guarantees a right to shelter to those in need and has a dearth of low-income housing. But the current one-size-fits-all system is not working for New York City’s homeless families.
While New York City tries to rapidly rehouse families, as of July, the average shelter stay was 360 days. Yet the current shelter system does little to ensure that families are able to get the most out of this time in shelter.
ICPH proposes that we enact an immediate plan to reduce homelessness in New York City that triages families according to need. While we are skeptical of the rapid rehousing model for every family, it is a strategy that can be effective for half of the families currently in the shelter system. An additional 35% of families need additional assistance, but should be moved out within the year.
Then there are the remaining 15% of families. They are part of the reason the shelter recidivism rate is almost 50%. These parents have experienced the ill effects of drug and alcohol dependence, having children removed from their care, domestic violence, lack of education, and a lack of work experience. All of these obstacles make it likely they will once again be back in the shelter.
For these families, more intensive services should be provided within the shelters for both children and their parents. As the New Path proposal we have shared with many of you shows, we propose using the shelters as a resource to address the underlying needs of families who have a history of homelessness. These would include specialized shelters devoted to the specific needs of the families, including the Child Wellness Residence, to protect child safety and keep families together, the Safety First residence, which would provide additional shelter for domestic violence victims, and the Health and Recovery Residence to help families achieve stability and sobriety. For residents of all of these shelters, real aftercare services would also need to be put in place to facilitate the transition to permanent housing.
By reallocating existing resources and using the shelter system that is already in place, this plan can be cost-neutral, and take advantage of the time that people are currently spending in shelters.
Additional services are particularly crucial to the children in shelters. Young homeless children are less likely than their housed peers to have access to learning-rich surroundings. For our youngest children, numerous studies show that rich, quality educational environments and experiences for children up to age five can have tremendously positive impacts on their future educational attainment levels. The brain development that should happen in young children at these stages is vital to their future success.
For those in family homeless shelters, the shelter itself can be a tool to provide this learning and literacy-rich environment, and to provide childcare, early-childhood education, afterschool programming, and other on-site resources to families, including case management, healthcare, and adult education.
With the lack of an exit strategy for most families in New York City shelters, we need to rethink our approach to sheltering families. Thank you for your time.
 Nancy Smith, Zaire Dinzey Flores, Jeffrey Lin, and John Markovic, Understanding Family Homelessness in New York City, Vera Institute of Justice.
 Barnett, Steven. “Long-Term Effects of Early Childhood Programs on Cognitive and School Outcomes,” The Future of Children Vol. 5 • No. 3 – Winter 1995