The New York City mayoral election will be a decision on the proper localized response to the continued pandemic, similar in its gravity to the 2001 mayoral election that followed the dual wounds of 9/11 and the related economic downturn. Given the current financial crisis and increased unemployment, many New Yorkers will be approaching the polls with concerns about the livelihoods of their families and neighbors. Other constituencies—those with a personal experience of homelessness and those who work with and on behalf of homeless families—have watched closely for decades what aspiring mayors of New York City say and ultimately do concerning homeless children and adults. The electorate is united in wanting every community in New York City to be a community of opportunity and for city leaders—from the next mayor to those running for open city council seats and borough-wide offices—to show the way.
Financial and social crises over the last 40 years have driven some of the greatest social services innovations, whether in the form of public-private partnerships or government-sponsored programs. From its explosion in New York City during the Koch mayoralty to today, family homelessness has never just been a housing issue that can neatly fit under one department’s purview. The difficult situation New York City finds itself in now presents yet another opportunity to create meaningful solutions.
It is critical that the incoming mayor and new slate of elected officials and appointed commissioners recognize that family homelessness is a complex multi-generational issue. The problem is intertwined with the legacy of structural racism and has touchpoints in education, employment, and health and well-being. Interagency innovation and non-profit partnerships will be the key to managing this crisis and simultaneously supporting families facing homelessness as they move toward housing and economic stability.
Those who seek to take the reins on January 1, 2022 should know:
1. | Homelessness Is a Children’s Issue
While the conversation surrounding homelessness on the campaign trail has been centered around single adults, over half (57%) of individuals living in shelter are members of families with children. Additionally, one out of every three people experiencing homelessness in New York City is a child. Half of those children are infants and toddlers (ages 0–5). The number of children sleeping in shelter each night—over 17,000—would fill nearly every seat at a basketball game held in the Barclays Center.
2. | Shelters with Supports and Employment Programs Will Help Families Confront the Barriers Contributing to Their Housing Instability
Elected officials must be sure there is sufficient money allocated toward mental health services and job training for parents in shelter. Without these supports homeless families will have a slim chance of maintaining their housing, and families will return to the shelter system when their time-limited housing vouchers expire.
3. | Housing Alone Will Not End Family Homelessness
To stabilize families outside shelter the City needs to (1) increase the supply of deeply affordable housing and landlord acceptance of housing program vouchers and (2) help homeless parents grow income so they can independently maintain housing in the community. If families are receiving support for their social-emotional barriers, they can better avoid becoming rapidly unhoused.
4.| Homeless Children Cannot Afford Continued Educational Instability
The 32,000-plus students living in New York City shelters each year—over 14,000 school-age children on any given night—exceeds the entire public-school population of Buffalo, NY, the second largest city in New York State. The COVID crisis has exacerbated the gaps in education access, and has illustrated the crucial need for dedicated educational supports students residing in shelter. In addition to attendance monitoring, families in shelter need the help of the NYC Department of Education (NYC DOE) staff in forming close linkages to their school communities throughout the duration of the pandemic that can be sustained with the support of shelter-based staff long after it ends.
5.| Demand for Family Shelter Units Will Increase When the Eviction Moratorium Ends
With roughly 14,500 eviction orders on hold, we must plan for an increase in family homelessness post-pandemic. Less than five years ago a staggering 14,000+ families with children were living in shelter, composing 70% of NYC’s total shelter population, and all signs point toward an increase above the current 9,000+ families once (1) the eviction moratorium is lifted and (2) the public health crisis has abated enough that families feel safe to enter shelter to escape overcrowding and domestic violence situations. The City must divert families from unsafe, service-thin commercial hotels and crowded cluster units and direct them to safe, service-enriched shelters focused on breaking the cycle of family homelessness.
Note: Citations and links to sources for data are included in the PDF version of this document available by clicking Downloads underneath the Table of Contents. The May 1, 2021 edition of this document supersedes previously released editions.