How Have Families with Children Fared in NYC Shelters this Year?

By Maribel Maria, Policy Associate at HFH
and Caroline Iosso, Senior Policy Associate at HFH

This month, New York City Mayor Adams’ Administration released the Mayor’s Management Report, an annual assessment of the City’s services. Like last year, we looked at how families experiencing homelessness fared over the course of the most recent fiscal year (FY2023: July 1, 2022 – June 30, 2023). During this time, there’s been a record-breaking number of families entering Department of Homeless Services’ shelters due in large part to the influx of asylum seekers. The impact of this increase in population is seen in many of the metrics we explored.

Lowest Average Length of Stay in the Last Five Fiscal Years

The average length of stay is the lowest that it has been in the last five fiscal years, at 437 days, or about a year and two-and-a-half months. This represents an 18% decrease from the last fiscal year. While any decrease in the length of stay in shelter is positive, the report shares that this change is likely due to migrant families entering and leaving the system more quickly. Disaggregated data that details the length of stay of families who had been in the system longer could give a more accurate depiction of how the City has performed in helping families exit shelter.

Almost 50% Increase in Average Number of Families with Children in Shelters Per Day

The average number of families with children in shelters per day for FY2023 is slightly higher than in FY2019, and almost 50% higher than it was in the last fiscal year—increasing from 8,505 to 12,749. Again, the MMR points to the flow of asylum seekers into the DHS system as the cause of the increase. However, many pandemic-era supports expired in 2022 and 2023, including an end to the eviction moratorium in January 2022, which has led to over 11,000 evictions. Such changes have further destabilized the lives of many families and increased their cost of living. It is likely that, in addition to asylum-seeker families, an increasing population of New York families have entered shelter, leading to a larger increase in the overall average number of families in shelter.

Encouraging Trends: More Subsidized Exits + Higher Attendance

Two areas of the City’s service provision for families with children experiencing homelessness were heartening: metrics related to exiting shelter and metrics related to education.

In FY2023, the number of families who exited shelter into permanent housing increased by nearly 20% from the previous year, from 5,207 to 6,175. Of course, this is still only two-thirds of the number of exits as there were in FY2019, when over 9,000 families left shelter for permanent housing. It is also worth noting that the proportion of exits into subsidized living arrangements increased slightly from last year, from 79% to 81% of exits. This is encouraging, as families who exit with a subsidy are less likely to return to shelter within a year in comparison to those who do not exit with a subsidy.1

Positive trends regarding the education of children who live in shelters are also notable. The average attendance rate for children in DHS shelter increased by over 2 percentage points, from 82.1% to 84.4%, now much closer to the average attendance rate before the pandemic. There was also a slight uptick in the percentage of families in shelter living in the borough of their youngest child’s school, at 77.3% in FY2023. Children are still recovering from the disruption in education caused by the pandemic. An increase in average attendance is a heartening sign as efforts continue to help students in shelter attend school more consistently. Research shows us again and again that students in shelter face more obstacles in school compared to their stably housed peers; higher attendance could help equalize graduation rates and test scores among all students.

Alarming Decrease in Rates of Biopsychosocial Screenings

Perhaps the most troubling of the metrics included in DHS’s section of the MMR this year is the large decrease in the percentage of families who received biopsychosocial screenings from shelter-based mental health clinicians. These evaluations identify any behavioral health and developmental challenges that may create barriers for a client to secure permanent housing so that shelter staff can connect clients to appropriate services. Just 58% of families received a screening, compared to 72% in FY2022. This is the lowest rate in the last five fiscal years. The MMR notes that this decrease is due to the higher shelter population and a shortage of social workers. While that may be the case, the percentage had also decreased between FY2021 and FY2022, signaling that this is perhaps a trend and not just the result of this fiscal year’s particular challenges. It will be important to note how the City reports this metric in subsequent MMRs, as legislative changes have gone into effect that should lead to more families receiving mental health care while in shelter.

The publication of the Mayor’s Management Report provides the public with the opportunity to monitor the City’s efforts in supporting New Yorkers. This year, the data told a complicated story, as an unprecedented flow of families seeking asylum in the United States found refuge in our city’s shelters, and communities continued to absorb the after-effects of the pandemic. Overall, while we are encouraged by DHS’s strides in helping families exit shelter using subsidies and ensuring that students in shelter attend school, the MMR underscores the staggering number of families in shelter, many of whom stay in shelter for well over a year before exiting. Also, to be able to truly understand how the City fared in serving the populations that rely on City services and for the City to be able to learn how it can better meet the varying needs of different families in shelter, it would have been helpful to see disaggregated data on newly arrived migrant families and families with a last known address in New York City. As the City and its partners continue efforts to address the growing population in family shelters, it is critical to deeply understand the needs and trends of all types of families in shelter, and to target resources to help them exit quickly and permanently.

1 In FY2023, 0.3% of families with children who exited into permanent housing using a subsidy returned to shelter within one year, compared to 16.2% of families who exited into permanent housing without a subsidy.