By Ralph da Costa Nunez
President, Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness
New York City faces a persistent conundrum: How can the city help homeless families out of shelters and into secure, stable housing — and prevent their return to the shelter system?
Put bluntly, how can New York do what is both morally and fiscally right, and break the toxic cycle of poverty and homelessness that traumatizes thousands of families and costs the city billions?
It’s a question our elected leaders have been trying to answer for more than 30 years, and one that’s increasingly pressing. The real, radical answer to homelessness — the most extreme expression of poverty that we walk past every day — is the most basic: education and work. People without homes don’t need housing vouchers. They need jobs that will support dignity, financial independence, and ultimately, homes of their own.
Why are education and work the answer to a housing problem? Do the math: Paying for a market-rate apartment requires an income. Most homeless heads of households don’t work full-time though — and those who do work full-time and play by the rules, don’t earn enough to support an apartment.
Nearly half (45 percent) of all homeless families in New York are headed by parents who lack a high school diploma — the vital first step to a well-paying job. Without those jobs, families placed in apartments just can’t sustain them. So instead of setting down roots, they wind up in the shelter system again, losing ground, losing time, and losing hope that their family could, somehow, find a way to stay afloat.
For the one in five homeless parents who work full-time, a steady paycheck doesn’t guarantee steady housing.
In 2013, they earned roughly $24,000, on average — below New York City’s poverty threshold — and less than half of the $56,000 families need to live reasonably securely in New York City. Even the hardest-working homeless parents do not meet this threshold.
For the thousands who work part-time at low-wage jobs, are unemployed, and lack marketplace basics like a diploma, GED, or a skilled trade — or reliable, reasonable child-care — the goal of earning enough to support a home and family remains out of reach. Many find themselves in shelters, again and again.
Since 2005, New York had one strategy: rapid rehousing, a program that moves people quickly from shelters into housing. The problem is, it didn’t work in New York City. The number of families who returned to shelter, homeless again, more than doubled, from one in four in 2005 to nearly two in three in 2013, when 63 percent of families placed in apartments returned to city shelters. Rapid rehousing subsidies formally ended in fiscal year 2011 — but not before the number of families returning to shelters had risen by 179 percent.
The financial burden on taxpayers underscores the human tragedy: Costs associated with “re-sheltering” families have risen from more than $230 million(fiscal year 2012) to nearly $300 million (fiscal year 2014) — quantifiable proof that the current system is profoundly broken.
The solution is in plain sight, but requires creative thinking and a deft reallocation of resources. The very shelter system that so many seek to escape can become a powerful means to improve tens of thousands of lives.
Families currently remain in shelter for an average of 427 days, up from an average of 337 days in 2012. The shelter itself can and should become the nurturing incubator families need for a better life: Specialized services can be provided, from alternate/transfer high schools and GED programs to job-skills training that leads to real-world apprenticeships; reliable child care; and social, emotional and medical services to help families preserve or regain their health and well-being.
This resource is in our midst. In shelters, the city has a potential powerhouse to provide integrated services and focus on education and jobs. Using the time families live in shelters to invest in their futures will increase the chances that homeless parents will be stably housed. Ethics and economics both demand that before families move into housing, the city must be certain they can keep that housing, via full-time, well-paying, stable jobs.
Now, in the first seasons of a new, progressive era, we need our Mayor and his administration to have the courage and the will to forge a new path to end homelessness in New York City, and permit families to achieve independence, self-sufficiency – and stable homes and communities.
The city has the means and responsibility to help homeless families, but only if our leaders reject the status quo and embrace a strategy of education and productive, secure work.