A Sense of Urgency: Promoting Child and Family Well-being for Homeless Families

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

A Sense of Urgency: Promoting Child and Family Well-being for Homeless Families 
by Jennifer March, Ph.D., Executive Director, Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York

Children only get one childhood.  In New York City, far too many children are spending their childhoods homeless.  The future health and well-being of the next generation of New Yorkers demands that we all do more to prevent homelessness in the first instance, and when homelessness is unavoidable, that we promote the well-being of homeless children and their families when in the shelter system.

While not the face of homelessness most people picture, over 27,000 children sleep in city homeless shelters each night, including those administered by the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and the city’s domestic violence shelter system.  In fact, homeless children and their families comprise 70% of New York City’s shelter system. 

The average length of stay in shelter for families with children is 414 days – meaning that on average homeless children spend well over a year in the shelter system before moving to a home.  And then sadly, too many return, experiencing multiple episodes of homelessness.

Homelessness and housing instability are traumatic to adults and children.  Homelessness impacts feelings of security and mental health; separates parents and children from support systems including family, friends, communities, jobs and schools; creates stigma; creates barriers to school stability and educational success; impedes access to healthy food, clean laundry, health and mental health services; and negatively impacts opportunities for children and parents to socialize with their peers.

New York City’s homeless children have high rates of absenteeism, which is often associated with lower academic performance, increased drop-out rates and reduced college and career preparedness.  In fact, 53% of NYC public school students living in shelter missed over 20 days of school in the 2015-2016 school year.

Difficulties addressing basic needs and accessing services are often compounded when families with children are placed in commercial hotels rather than purpose-built shelters.  Many hotels are far from transportation, schools and jobs.  Hotel rooms typically do not have kitchens and the families report the microwavable meals delivered are both unhealthy and unappetizing.  Hotels do not have private areas for families to meet with case managers or housing specialists, and unlike purpose built shelters, lack social workers.

With the high shelter census and the City’s plan to eliminate cluster site apartments for shelters, the use of hotels has been growing.  While the de Blasio administration plans to build 90 new shelters and eliminate the use of hotels to house the homeless, this is not due to happen until 2023-- 5 years from now and long after the de Blasio administration will have ended.

While the best-case scenario remains ending family homelessness, the Family Homelessness Coalition has some ideas for mitigating the trauma children and their families face when they are homeless in New York City such as:

  • Training all homeless intake staff and homeless shelter staff in trauma and providing trauma informed care.
  • Improving conditions in hotels through short-term investments in:
    • Fresh food delivery through vans or other mobile food delivery providers;
    • Using hotel parking lots to bring in trailers that could serve as kitchens, laundry facilities or play areas;
    • Dividers and partitions to make cubicles in hotel lobbies in hotels used solely as shelters to create space for families to have private meetings with shelter staff.
  • Increasing the number of homeless children participating in after-school and summer programming targeting and holding (or creating) slots specifically for homeless children and provide busing if necessary.
  • Better linking families in shelter to services in communities such as early childhood education, early intervention, health and mental health services, and child welfare preventive services.
  • Streamlining the school busing process and providing parents with monthly (rather than weekly) MetroCards until busing has been arranged.

Please join us to discuss these ideas and other efforts on June 18th during an informative session titled, No Place Like Home: Responding to the Unique Needs of Homeless Children and Their Families.  Funders, service and housing providers, city officials, and advocates will explore how coordinated, collaborative efforts can reduce and prevent family homelessness, promote the well-being of children and families in shelter, and support the long-term stability of children and families who leave shelter.

While the homeless census might make the plight of family homelessness seem intractable, the children cannot wait—we must do more to promote their well-being now.

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