By Caroline Iosso, Senior Policy Associate, Homes for the Homeless (HFH)
The much-anticipated plan to address New York City’s dual housing and homelessness crises was released by Mayor Adams last week. The plan, Housing Our Neighbors: A Blueprint for Housing and Homelessness, is full of impressive ideas and goals, though more could be done to improve shelter services and reduce the risk of returning to shelter for families with children, who make up 59% of the total NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelter population.
The approach that the Adams Administration took in constructing this plan is laudable. It is critical that the Adams administration listened to New Yorkers with lived experiences of homelessness when developing this document. Also of note, the plan understands that housing construction cannot be the lone tactic taken to address homelessness. The City has a responsibility to make systems to access housing, healthcare, and education work together and more effectively for low-income New Yorkers and those experiencing homelessness.
There are myriad policies outlined in the plan that speak to the needs of families, but also critical gaps to be addressed.
Policies that show promise for improving services for families experiencing homelessness include
- Providing low-barrier emergency financial grants to survivors of domestic violence
- Domestic violence is a major cause of homelessness for families. If survivors had access to financial resources in their time of emergency, they might be able to find housing away from their abusers instead of entering the shelter system.
- Advocating with New York State for an increased public assistance shelter allowance
- This would help families build up their income to be able to afford housing and exit shelter.
- Convening a new working group focused on meeting the housing needs of undocumented New Yorkers
- Families seeking asylum often stay in our Homes for the Homeless shelters and helping them exit shelter into permanent housing is often very difficult as their status precludes them from many services and programs.
- Replacing aging and substandard shelters with high-quality facilities by launching a shelter predevelopment and acquisition fund to help nonprofit organizations develop shelter sites when upfront costs present a challenge
- This policy recognizes the importance of giving families experiencing homelessness a dignified, clean, safe, and supportive place to figure out their next steps, which is at the crux of our shelter model.
- Connecting children and families to mental health support via telehealth
- Entering shelter is traumatic for children and families. Increasing resources to navigate the impacts on clients’ mental health will help them in the short term and the long term.
- Increasing efforts to combat source of income discrimination against applicants for housing with vouchers
- Vouchers are lifelines for families experiencing homelessness to regain independence and secure permanent housing, but illegal discrimination against voucher-holders is rampant. Brokers, landlords, and other housing providers must be held accountable so that vouchers can be used to help families exit shelter.
- Reducing the administrative burdens required to obtain Section 8 vouchers and assessing the administrative burdens involved in obtaining other affordable housing and social safety net programs to see whether these could be reduced as well
- It is challenging for families to jump through multiple hoops to access resources they need. Cutting some of the red tape will enable families to stabilize their lives more quickly and efficiently.
Gaps in Adams’ Plan that are critical to assist homeless families and prevent shelter re-entry include:
- Partnering with the NYC Department of Education (NYC DOE)
- In developing this plan, the Adams administration partnered with over 30 City agencies. Notably absent from the list was the NYC DOE. With thousands of students in city public schools living in shelter, it is crucial that the NYC DOE be a part of policy initiatives to support the city’s homeless population.
- Considering specialized postnatal respite beds for parents residing in shelter who have just given birth
- At HFH shelters, over a third of families include new parents, who are either pregnant or parenting a child under two. While the administration wisely prioritized increasing medical respite beds, it would be beneficial to families in the shelter system to expand this policy to include beds where new parents can recover from delivery and care for their newborns. As it stands now, they must instead return to shelter immediately after giving birth.
- Prioritizing programs to help families stabilize their lives while in shelter
- Initiatives like on-site workforce development programs, educational assistance for students in shelter, and adult literacy classes should have been included in the plan.
- Reducing administrative burdens associated with applying for shelter
- With an entire chapter dedicated to reducing administrative burdens and cutting red tape, it is glaring that the process for families to apply for shelter was not mentioned. As we explore in our latest snapshot, this is a frustrating months-long process that keeps shelter clients from accessing housing assistance.
We will be paying close attention as this plan is rolled out to assess these various policies’ impacts on the rising numbers of families experiencing homelessness. We also encourage the Administration to continue to listen to feedback from New Yorkers with lived experience and service providers and incorporate updates to the plan in areas identified as still ripe for improvement.