by Raysa Rodriguez, Michelle Mulcahy, Nicole Branca
Published in City Limits, May 5, 2021
When most people think of homelessness in New York City, they likely think of a single adult, usually a man, on a sidewalk or subway. But the majority of New York City’s homeless population are women with children in shelter, and this misperception influences city leaders’ decision making. The Family Homelessness Coalition was formed in 2017 to shine a light on the family homelessness crisis and fight for policy solutions that can meaningfully address it. Today, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to balloon this crisis beyond what advocates could have imagined, exacerbating racial and economic inequity in New York City and pushing thousands more women and children to the brink of homelessness. The need for transformative policy solutions to confront this crisis has never been more urgent.
A staggering 114,000 children in New York City public schools meet the federal definition of homelessness—lacking a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” Before the pandemic and eviction moratorium, families with children made up two-thirds of the city shelter population. Because of the countless families that live doubled up in often overcrowded housing, it can be difficult to accurately quantify the scope of the family homelessness crisis, but these numbers give us a glimpse. They also make clear that city and state leaders must do more to address and prevent family homelessness.
Behind these statistics are a range of causes of family homelessness, and domestic violence is consistently a leading driver with 41 percent of families reporting domestic violence as the primary reason for entering the city shelter system. This is in addition to the thousands of survivors and children that enter the separate Human Resources Administration domestic violence shelters, the largest domestic violence shelter system in the country. It is impossible to ignore that racial inequality is also a central factor in family homelessness, as this crisis disproportionately impacts Black and Latinx women and children—95 percent of the heads of families with children in city shelters are Black or Hispanic and 69 percent are single mothers. Entering shelter is a traumatic experience, especially for children who had no choice but to attend virtual school from shelter for a year, or worse, continue to fall behind in school while their shelter lacked the WiFi needed to learn. For many families, violence and homelessness is a cycle that can follow children into adulthood as a result of woefully inadequate prevention resources and post-shelter support services, and a local rental voucher that falls far short of what it costs to rent an apartment anywhere in New York City.
Families are too often becoming homeless, staying homeless and returning to homelessness because of insufficient supply of affordable housing and rental assistance. For every one survivor that exits domestic violence shelter into permanent housing with a rental subsidy, 16 survivors leave domestic violence shelter for city shelter. Currently, the average length of stay in city shelter for a family with children is 443 days and, because of the enormous gap between family income and New York City rent prices, 20 percent of families return to shelter within 12 months when they don’t have the rental assistance needed to supplement their income or access to affordable housing. By comparison, for families that exit shelter with rental assistance, only 1 percent return to shelter.
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, thousands more families are finding themselves on the edge of homelessness, avoiding shelter only because of a temporary eviction moratorium. The next mayor will inherit this crisis but has a tremendous opportunity with incoming federal funds and a wealth of experienced and committed providers, developers, and advocacy and philanthropic organizations to work with, to transform the city’s housing and homelessness policies and meet the needs of our struggling families.
The Family Homelessness Coalition looks forward to working with the next mayor to expand the city’s successful homeless prevention and housing programs, and improve those that have fallen short; successfully target new federal funding to those most in need; and develop new policies and programs that get at the root causes of family homelessness and ensure that every family has the basic right of a safe, stable home.
Raysa Rodriguez is associate executive director of the Citizens’ Committee for Children; Michelle Mulcahy is director of vulnerable populations and public housing for Enterprise Community Partners; Nicole Branca is executive director at New Destiny Housing.