Advocates believe the city won’t see meaningful reductions in the number of kids who grow up partly in homeless shelters until policies target the social mobility of women of color.

Siena House in the South Bronx, which provides services and shelter to young homeless pregnant women and women with young children.

Over the seven years Bill de Blasio has been mayor, the number of children in the New York City homeless shelter system has fallen by 25 percent. The number of single adults has risen by 82 percent.

In 2014, there were twice as many children as single adults in the shelter census but as of Feb. 24, single adults comprised a slightly larger share (35 percent) of the system than kids (32 percent). 

And during this COVID-19 year, it’s single adults—especially those who were sent to live in the Upper West Side’s Lucerne Hotel—who dominated headlines.

It’s enough to wonder if the homelessness issue confronting 2021 candidates is a wholly different beast from what greeted de Blasio. In the days before he became mayor, The New York Times belatedly shined a light on the family homelessness crisis that had exploded under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The star of that series, Dasani Coates, was on the stage at City Hall as de Blasio took the oath of office.

But this week, when City Limits asked a leading policy voice on the City Council for some thoughts about family homelessness, she replied, “Interestingly, I’ve spent more time, recently, thinking about single men in shelter.”

Advocates for families in the shelter system see little to celebrate in the statistical shifts. They believe they are temporary and mask the scale of the family homelessness problem—which is different from the single-adult homelessness problem in key ways.

In fact, advocates are worried that the relative improvement in family homelessness will diminish the issue’s profile in the 2021 race and undermine efforts to get the next mayor to address not just the immediate human needs created by the crisis but also the deeper social ills it reflects.

City Limits will invite all major mayoral candidates to participate in video interviews about policies affecting families without homes, featuring women who have experienced homelessness as the questioners.

Smaller, but still sizable

For one thing, advocates say, the shelter census captures only part of the homeless population. Data indicates that of the 100,000 or so New York City students who became homeless at some time during the 2019-2020 school year, only about a third entered the shelters. The rest may have doubled up in others’ homes or rented hotel rooms or slept. More than 5,000 lived in cars, parks, campgrounds or abandoned buildings.

Date of CensusTotal Individuals in ShelterTotal Adults in ShelterTotal Single Adults in ShelterIndividuals in Adult Families in ShelterAdults in Families with Children in ShelterChildren in Families with Children in Shelter
Change 2014-2021-0.58%18.20%77.39%1.19%-17.33%-25.37%
NYC Shelter Census 2014-2021 (Source: DHS Daily Report)

Advocates also note that, even though it is an incomplete statistic and lower than in recent years, the number of families in shelters (about 9,600, comprising about 13,000 adults and nearly 17,000 children) is still very high. Back in 2011, when the number of kids in the shelter first reached that level, advocates saw it as an indictment of the Bloomberg administration’s homeless policy. When the city first started tracking it in the mid-1980s, there were about 10,000 kids in the shelter system. The city’s population is about 20 percent higher now, but the number of homeless children is about 65 percent higher.

And having such a large number of kids in shelters exposes a good slice of the city’s young people to the hardships of shelter or hotel living, like poor access to cooking facilities, trouble doing laundry and hassles getting to school. The average family spends 495 days in a shelter before moving on.

The decrease in the number of families in the shelter is credited to a range of policies. City rental vouchers created by de Blasio were slow to take hold but have helped to move record numbers of families into permanent housing. The mayor’s affordable housing plan designated some units for people leaving shelters, and de Blasio reinstated on a limited basis the priority that shelter families had enjoyed on waiting lists for NYCHA apartments and Section 8 vouchers, which Bloomberg had severed. The city’s right-to-counsel and certificate-of-no-harassment initiatives, and the state’s reform of rent regulation, also probably helped.

However, the COVID-19 eviction moratorium appears to have played a big role.  More of than two-thirds of the de Blasio era decrease in family homelessness occurred just in the last 12 months.

Short-term risks and long-term danger

Therein lies a danger, advocates say. If the ban and other COVID-19 measures have suppressed evictions over the past year, what will happen when those protections are lifted, when many families could face crushing rent debts?

The extreme racial and gender disparities in the family shelter system—it is overwhelmingly made up of families headed by Black and Latina women—the fact that many of those women work and the growing prevalence of domestic violence as the driver of family homelessness all point to social vulnerabilities that, left unchecked, will not only continue to flood the shelters but will also trigger other problems, especially for New York’s children, and deepen racial inequalities.

About 20 percent of homeless adults were in the shelter system as kids. Key to breaking that cycle is preventing evictions, rapidly rehousing domestic violence survivors and, when shelter can’t be avoided, placing families in shelters that were built for that purpose, with measures to ensure kids stay connected to schools, trauma-informed services, child care, home visits, afterschool and summer camp.

For many families, the shelter experience involves difficult conditions followed by a frustrating search for more permanent housing. “When they place you, you can get lucky or you can get unlucky. And my circumstance, I was unlucky,” says Sara, a homelessness survivor interviewed for a project called Portraits of Hope. “So the place that I stayed in, I stayed in a hotel. Being in one closed room I find myself, like, losing my mind. And my son is struggling to walk because it’s just a room. So I received a city FHEPS voucher and it’s hard because a lot of people don’t want to accept vouchers. Which is illegal. They either don’t accept you or they just don’t want somebody who is in the system.”

Adding value to housing vouchers so they will be more useful and creating more subsidized housing is obviously important to getting more people out of shelter. At a deeper level, however, some advocates say family homelessness needs to be discussed not solely as a housing issue. Advocates believe the effort to reduce family homelessness needs to be integral to candidates’ racial justice agendas.

“It’s almost like the family homelessness issue really is the crisis that emerges because women of color in the city aren’t upwardly mobile and no one’s paying attention,” Jennifer March, executive director of the Citizens Committee for Children, says. It’s an issue that ties jobs and wages to domestic violence and family disruption. “What is happening right now in New York City to women that puts them at such higher risk? What can be done to promote their social mobility?”

To be sure, the surge in single adult homeless is also a very serious issue. Both the single and family populations, as well as the smaller census of adult couples in the system, deserve candidates’ attention. “Leaders can’t just focus on one population or the other,” says one homeless advocate.

Local plans, global context

So far, candidates who have released detailed housing plans have given fairly prominent treatment to homelessness and addressed some of the unique features of its family side.

Kathryn Garcia pledged to “build 10,000 units of supportive housing to provide permanent shelter, services and support for people experiencing street homelessness and those most at risk,” a policy that would mostly be aimed at single adults, while “for families, women and children,” she promises to “ensure wraparound services in shelters, including education, health, and job readiness. Garcia also wants to “ensure that homeless services and economic development and housing all report into the same deputy mayor, who will be held accountable to treating housing issues with one comprehensive approach.”

Shaun Donovan says he would “fund a service-enriched model of aftercare for formerly homeless New Yorkers, to ensure that formerly homeless people are supported in their new homes.” He also embraces the deputy mayor idea, and plans to give one DM control of the Department of Education, Administration for Children’s Services, Department of Homeless Services, Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and NYCHA. Donovan also pays attention to the unique impact of domestic violence on homelessness.

So does Scott Stringer, who drew attention to the DV trends in shelters years ago. His plan would “address the intersection of domestic violence and homelessness by increasing the capacity of shelters that specialize in domestic violence, reforming lease termination laws, and providing a new statewide rent supplement to assist all survivors.” He also promises more “safe haven” and supportive housing beds, targeting singles.

No candidate appears to have proposed any comprehensive approach that calls out the link between family homelessness and racial and gender inequality, but Maya Wiley and Dianne Morales have shined some light on the intersection of race, gender, wealth and power in the city. Wiley, who proudly proclaims her identity as a Black woman, has proposed a “universal community care model” that aims to spur “economic growth in sectors dominated by women of color.” Morales, who describes herself as “a first-generation Afro-Latina who is a single mother of two children with learning differences” has promised a forthcoming “gender & sexuality equity” plan.

Women’s empowerment might not have been a focus of the local policy conversation so far in New York City’s 2021 mayoral race, but the connection between female social mobility and overall social progress is well established in the literature on economic development around the world. One of the United Nation’s sustainable development goals specifies, “Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.” USAID has argued that “investing in gender equality and women’s empowerment can unlock human potential on a transformational scale.”

A 2013 report from the Center for American Progress noted: “From a global perspective, women own only 1 percent of property, earn 10 percent of all income, and yet they produce half of the world’s food. Any poverty agenda must focus on women because they are 70 percent of the world’s poor.”

It is not typical to see New York’s inequalities in global terms. In fact, it’s not typical to see family homelessness at all: The popular image of a homeless person is a lone man pushing a shopping cart, not a third grader on the subway from shelter to school. That, says March, is why candidates need to talk explicitly about it.

“There is often attention to the things people see. They’re just like generally not front and center. And life in shelter as a young child has a formative impact on your long term track,” she says. “So, like, what are we gong to do about that? Hopefully [candidates] should be pushed to say more than ‘build more housing.’ What else can circumvent their entrance to shelter in the first place?”

This article is part of a series supported by the Family Homelessness Coalition. City Limits is solely responsible for the content.