From Shelter in Place to the Shelter Door

Ralph da Costa Nunez, Ph.D.

On April 6, as the daily tally of new recorded cases of COVID-19—6,353—peaked in New York City, over 11,000 families with over 20,000 children were sheltering in place in the Department of Homeless Services’s family shelter system. The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic is negatively affecting all New Yorkers, but disproportionately harming vulnerable low-income, minority families with limited support networks and little-to-no safety net.

Many observers of New York have already chronicled how reaction to the virus is highlighting the city’s deep disparities in health, housing, education, and employment along socioeconomic lines. While headlines focus on the crisis of homeless individuals gathering in subways and empty stations, it is the coming surge of family homelessness, if not considered, that will broadside the officials responsible for managing it and the taxpayers responsible for funding it. The number of families seeking shelter may have dropped temporarily as confirmed COVID-19 virus cases grew, but policymakers, service providers, and citizens must carefully monitor shelter entry trends as the already-struggling family shelter system will likely reach its own peak in the coming months. 

The most common reasons families enter shelter in NYC—domestic violence, eviction, and overcrowding—can offer insight into why the numbers may have temporarily dropped and why they are poised to skyrocket when “NY On PAUSE” hits play.

With New York’s stay-at-home order in place and the fear of a deadly virus outside, domestic violence survivors—who account for more than one third of families who enter shelter—are left trapped at home in close quarters with their abusers and little opportunity to seek help. The greatest share of this population comes from high-poverty pockets of Brooklyn and the Bronx, neighborhoods that have been hit hard by COVID-19 illness and death. But once people move freely again, parents experiencing domestic violence will flee their abusers and join the many other survivors finding refuge in the City’s family shelters.

Evictions are the primary reason why 21% of families enter shelter. While New York State’s moratorium on evictions grants a temporary reprieve, back rent will eventually come due, and struggling families may see shelter entry as their sole option. And finally, for families living in overcrowded conditions (who comprise 15% of those seeking shelter), the risk of exposure to COVID temporarily serves as a deterrent to their moving out, regardless of how unstable or unsafe their current living situations may be. But as the health risks subside, many of these doubled- or tripled-up families will either be asked by their hosts to leave or will do so themselves, turning to the city’s shelter system as an alternative.

Yet, after the immediate public health emergency recedes, the social and economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis will linger. The City will face an enormous new demand for shelter in a system that is already at capacity. 

Making matters worse, fighting the virus has put a $7 billion-dollar hole in the city’s budget, which will be met with cuts to existing city services, homelessness included.  The Department of Homeless Services will face a daunting task of sheltering more and more families, with less and less resources than it had before. None of this is good, but all of this is real.

In the face of great budgetary and operational challenges, leadership and partnerships will count the most. The Administration, homeless advocates, and providers alike should be moving in tandem to contain the disruption and misery this new surge will bring and to continue to carve a pathway to family stability to minimize the legacy of COVID-19’s multiple traumatic interruptions—community illness, educational disruption, domestic violence, eviction—on the newest wave of New Yorkers knocking at the shelter door. And although the virus has had a terrible impact on the general population, for homeless families and the Department of Homeless Services the worst is yet to come. Will the City Administration be prepared to deal with the crisis? Only time will tell, but this much we know: As the city struggles to contain the current coronavirus pandemic, another crisis of family homelessness is just over the horizon, and if we have learned anything from the first, it is prepare, prepare, and prepare, as nothing less will do.