For months, Rosa Maria Febo and her daughter took two trains and a bus to get from a Howard Beach hotel to an elementary school in Harlem.
From there, Febo traveled another hour to Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, where she underwent radiation treatment for breast cancer. In the afternoon, she picked up her daughter and made the long return trip to the small Queens hotel. “By the time we got back, I was so tired,” she says. “But we had to get in before curfew.”
Febo and her daughter are homeless and were staying in a hotel that contracted with the city’s Department of Homeless Services. She advocated for the agency to transfer them closer to the school, and DHS moved the family to a cluster site apartment in East Harlem a year ago. But now that site is closing as part of the city’s commitment to stopping the use of cluster sites — often squalid units that the city rents from private landlords at a premium.
“We just don’t know when or where we’ll have to move,” Febo says. “I don’t know where we’ll go. Every day I text my worker with anxiety [asking] ‘Anything yet, anything yet?'”
That chronic uncertainty is the hallmark of homelessness in New York City, where families with children, like the Febos, make up nearly three-quarters of the population in the city’s municipal shelter system. Tens of thousands of other families live in temporary and precarious situations — sleeping on in-laws’ couches, shuffling between friends’ floors or staying with mom’s partner in apartments where their names do not appear on the lease.
A lack of affordable housing is the main driver of homelessness in the city, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. At a staggering scale, and with a profound impact on city life, the affordable housing crunch has exacerbated issues like domestic violence and fueled a crisis that disproportionately affects families of color headed by single mothers across New York City.
All the monthly statistics, earnest news coverage and serious policy analyses around homelessness often fail to capture the actual human scope of the crisis. Political window-dressing obscures it. The fact is, a significant portion of an entire generation of New Yorkers — mainly young black and Latino children — are growing up partly in cramped shelters in the South Bronx, coming of age in basement rooms in South Jamaica and navigating adolescence while dragging beat-up suitcases through the Broadway Junction transit hub to their next bed.
Policymakers and most everyday New Yorkers have yet to come face-to-face with the extent of the crisis, even as mass instability takes a lasting toll on individual lives and social networks in the city.
A crisis of families
Roughly 70 percent of city shelter residents are families with children, and the vast majority of those are headed by single mothers, according to the Department of Homeless Services. About 15,000 school-aged children (kids from 4 to 17) stay in city shelters each night, DHS says.
On Dec. 1, a total of 21,683 children of all ages slept in a city shelter, according to the agency’s daily census report.
Until recently, Rhanesha Harris’ two young children, ages 2 and 3, were among the kids staying in city shelters. They lived at a Bronx site for six months after moving around various family members’ homes in Georgia, Maryland, Long Island and New York City.
“I was tired of living with people, it was too much. Too many problems,” says Harris who works at a technology company. “I was staying with relatives and it was back and forth and I was like, ‘You know, I’d rather just go be in my own room, even though there was curfew. I’ll make my own.'”
She and her children recently moved to an apartment in Newark through the city’s Special One-Time Assistance voucher program, which has been plagued by its own set of issues, including slumlords and lawsuits from Newark and other cities that have absorbed New York City’s homeless residents.
Programs like SOTA have helped slightly lower the number of families in city shelters over the past year. Nevertheless, at least 11,000 families with children have slept in DHS sites every month since May 2014, according to agency reports.
Yet, the 12,224 families with children who stayed in city shelters last month are just a sliver of the city’s total population of homeless families. Tens of thousands of others live “doubled up” — sharing space with other people, like family members — or residing in temporary settings where they can be kicked out at any time.
The exact number of homeless families fluctuates and is impossible to pin down. Unless families visit the city’s centralized intake site in the Bronx, complete an onerous process for proving their shelter eligibility and, if approved, report to an assigned site elsewhere in the five boroughs, there is no formal way to tell whether someone is “homeless.”
Recent statistics from the state Department of Education shine some light on the extent of family homelessness, however.
City public and charter schools identified 114,085 kids — one-in-10 students — who experienced homelessness at some point during the 2018-2019 school year, according to state data published by Advocates for Children of New York; 85 percent of the homeless students were Black or Latino.
Homeless children often become homeless adults, contributing to a cycle of generational poverty, says Josef Kannegaard, principal policy analyst at the Institute for Children Poverty and Homelessness.
“What we’re seeing in the city is a lot of students who are being exposed to negative effects of homelessness at a very early age and experiencing challenges to their emotional-social behavior,” Kannegaard says.
Chloe Stein, another ICPH principal policy analyst, says the organization advocates for an inclusive definition of homelessness because the effects of unstable housing are similar for kids in various temporary settings. Homeless kids, for example, are far more likely to have asthma and depression than their stably housed peers.
“Doubled-up students have some of the same negative impacts on health and education as homeless students,” Stein says. “They’re five times more likely to sleep four or fewer hours each night and that sleep deprivation can really impact their performance in the classroom.”
The Department of Education, recognizing those effects, began providing additional services to students in temporary housing at the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year. Roughly 105,000 public school students resided in temporary housing at some point the previous year, the DOE reported, with the vast majority of them residing “doubled up.”
Despite the city’s various gestures at addressing the crisis, the Coalition for the Homeless’ 2019 State of the Homeless report rips the city’s “meager efforts” to actually create homes for the homeless.
The report, a housing policy roadmap, calls on the city to increase the number of NYCHA public housing placements for homeless families and to drastically increase the number of new affordable housing units set aside for homeless families.
Advocates and local lawmakers have specifically urged the City Council to pass a measure mandating that developers who receive city funds set aside 15 percent of units for homeless New Yorkers. A majority of councilmembers have sponsored the bill, which would expand the pool of housing options for homeless families and help children achieve stability.
“My daughter, she’s doing better, but when we had to travel a lot she was missing school. It’s exhausting,” Febo says. “She has depression and anxiety so now she’s seeing a therapist.”
“We all go through things, but imagine what this is like for the kids.”
A citywide crisis informed by race, ethnicity and gender
Febo’s daily journey from Queens to the Bronx illustrates the vast impact of homelessness.
“The affordable housing crisis is truly citywide,” said Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Giselle Routhier.”Families become homeless from every borough and community district in New York City.”
At least 1,000 homeless students attended school in each one of the city’s 32 school districts last year, according to state data analyzed by AFC, but certain districts — especially areas with particularly high concentrations of Black and Latino students— accounted for far higher percentages of homeless students when compared to their total enrollment figures.
Black and Latino students made up at least 90 percent of the student body at 10 of the 12 school districts where homeless students accounted for 15 percent of more of the total population, according to the state and city data.
Five of those 12 school districts with the highest proportion of homeless students are located in the Bronx, five are in Brooklyn and two are in Manhattan.
More than a quarter of students from Bronx School District 9 — which includes Highbridge, Morrisania and Claremont — were identified as homeless last year based on a comparison of state data and total enrollment figures compiled by the NYC Department of Education. Children identified as “Hispanic” by the city accounted for 68.7 percent of the District 9 student body last school year, while children identified as “Black” made up 27.6 percent.
Three other school districts — Bronx District 12, Brooklyn District 23 and Manhattan District 5 — had student bodies where at least 20 percent of children experienced homelessness at some point last year. Black and Latino students combined to make up more than 88 percent of students in each district.
“Homeless students in New York City are disproportionately Hispanic and African American,” says Kannegaard of the Institute for Children Poverty and Homelessness. “We also know that they’re a predominantly young population.”
Age demographics in homeless families are more challenging to assess because children younger than 4 rarely attend school programs where their families may report being homeless.
“In terms of family composition, we see multiple children and they tend to be younger,” says Care for the Homeless Policy and Advocacy Manager Nathalie Interiano.
That is definitely the case in the shelter system. On Oct. 31, roughly 45 percent of the 21,753 children in DHS shelters were 5 years old or younger. Another 42 percent were between ages 6 and 13, according to information provided by DHS.
Harris, the mother who now lives in Newark, raised two children under 3 years old in her Bronx shelter. She gave birth to her youngest son while living in a shelter in Long Island.
“It was awful. I was there by myself with a newborn, and my other daughter was 2,” she says. “I was tired and I wish my mom or my sister could come into my room, but they weren’t allowed … I was in so much pain before and so much pain after; I had to do so much on my own.”
Outside the shelter system, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact number of homeless young people, but data from the state Department of Education again sheds light on the extent of the crisis in the city.
The DOE reported that 14,549 pre-K and kindergarten students were homeless in New York City at some point last school year.
Meanwhile, nearly 47,500 students in first through fifth grades experienced homelessnes at some point last year. Those five grades accounted for the highest total numbers of homeless students in the city, with each grade level accounting for at least 9,000 unstably housed children.
Vanessa, a 31-year-old mother, and her two young children have experienced precarious living situations in and outside the shelter system
She and her family were living in an in-law’s illegal basement apartment in South Jamaica when the owner abruptly changed the locks and kicked them out in 2017. She, her then-husband and their 2-year-old daughter spent nights at hospital emergency rooms before visiting the DHS intake center in the Bronx.
They were assigned to a shelter in central Queens and she gave birth less than two weeks later — one of more than 3,300 babies born to mothers living in shelters in New York City from 2015 to 2017.
“I was pregnant with my son, and it was very emotional, very confusing,” Vanessa says. “I didn’t want to move into a shelter with my new baby. That for me was a breaking point.”
She asked not to use her full name for fear of retaliation by the shelter staff and from her husband, who beat her and was kicked out of the shelter. The couple are now going through a divorce.
“I didn’t know what was next, being homeless. My daughter was so little and had been through so much,” she says..
She can’t open her windows and the electricity often shorts, but she has managed to turn the shelter studio apartment into a somewhat comfortable space, she says.
Two years after they moved in, Vanessa and her two children remain in the same shelter. She’s eager to leave and estimates that she has contacted 150 landlords, but none will accept her city housing voucher.
“I don’t want to raise my family here, but apartments are very hard to find,” she says. “I’ve been doing this for the longest while and I have found nothing available.”
City Limits’ series on family homelessness in New York City is supported by Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York and The Family Homelessness Coalition. City Limits is solely responsible for the content and editorial direction.