‘We need to strengthen the safety-net for families at risk of homelessness, and make sure that even as people get jobs they don’t lose their rental assistance.’

Adi Talwar

Lavera Martino and her son Takai walk along East 104th Street. Martino said they have a CityFHEPs rental voucher but have been unable to find a landlord willing to accept it.

Prior to the pandemic, there were already over 43,000 people living in family homeless shelters here in New York City, including close to 25,000 children and teens. Now, due to job and income loss and heightened housing insecurity, thousands more vulnerable women and children are at risk of experiencing the life-altering trauma of homelessness. 

We need every level of government—city, state, and federal—to step up and prioritize family homelessness prevention. This legislative session, the New York State Assembly and Senate passed an important measure that will help vulnerable families by improving the Family Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement Program (FHEPS). Assembly Bill A8009, soon to arrive on the governor’s desk, will increase FHEPS housing vouchers to fair market levels for families facing homelessness. New York City has already passed similar legislation and we look forward to the swift enactment of both bills to ensure families in New York City can sustain their housing long after the eviction moratorium ends. These are key steps in the right direction, but there is much more to be done. 

The pandemic and the economic collapse have had an alarming and disproportionate impact on communities that were already grappling with high risk factors associated with housing instability. Poverty, unemployment, overcrowded housing, and severe rent-burdens have increased, leading to higher numbers of families entering homeless shelters. 

Addressing family homelessness is a racial justice issue. Two-thirds of New York City’s homeless shelters are populated by families with children, and 95 percent of those families are Black and Latinx. Housing affordability challenges are heavily concentrated among people of color, due to a long history of racism and discrimination. 

Housing insecurity for Black and Latinx families has worsened: 46 percent of Black renters with children and 55 percent of Hispanic/Latino renters with children now report lack of confidence in meeting their next month’s rent. Nationally, Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic people experience high rates of homelessness. In 2019, Black people made up 40 percent of those experiencing homelessness on any given night, Hispanic people 22 percent, and Native Americans over 3 percent, all disproportionate to their U.S. populations (13 percent, 18 percent, and 1.6 percent respectively).

Homelessness causes long-term harm to children, impacting their physical and mental health, reducing their access to education, and increasing their risk of experiencing homelessness when they become adults. 

Addressing family homelessness is also a public health and safety issue. Domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness amongst families. When the pandemic led to stay-at-home orders, victims became more isolated and violence escalated. Many fled to domestic violence shelters where the length of stay is limited to 180 days by state regulation. With the economy still reeling, victims who want to be able to leave their abusers find themselves with few resources to do so and are in desperate need of rental assistance that would allow them to afford to move out of time limited shelters into safe, permanent homes of their own. Without adequate rental assistance, these families are at risk of cycling into the general shelter system which lacks specialized services for survivors. Or worse, these families may return to unsafe situations. 

We can’t afford to wait another day to take action. At the federal level, we need to shore up and expand rental assistance programs as New York City and State are now doing with FHEPS, and ensure that meaningful rental assistance remains ongoing as the gap between incomes and rental prices continues to widen. Congress must pass President Joe Biden’s budget request including $30.4 billion in next year’s appropriation bill for the Tenant Based Rental Assistance account. They must also fight to include housing, including universal housing vouchers, in the infrastructure package, the American Jobs Plan.

Across the country, five million people in households with low incomes use Housing Choice Vouchers — the nation’s largest source of rental assistance—to help pay for housing they find in the private market, in all kinds of communities. Yet only 1 in 4 households eligible for rental assistance receive it due to funding limitations. Rental assistance currently lifts 3 million Americans out of poverty, including 665,000 seniors and 936,000 children (using 2018 data). Expanding the number of housing vouchers could move millions more people out of poverty, significantly reduce racial disparities, and produce far-reaching benefits for many of the 24 million people in low-income households that spend more than half of their income on rent. 

Our coalition supports expanding funding for housing and increasing rental vouchers. Every level of government must do their part. We need to strengthen the safety-net for families at risk of homelessness, and make sure that even as people get jobs they don’t lose their rental assistance. In New York City, we’re calling on the Council to work with us to tackle the benefits cliff families face when their incomes rise too high for benefits, but not high enough to cover housing costs. At the state level, we need to swiftly enact the bill that raises FHEPS to fair market rates to ensure that our eviction prevention efforts are successful. Federally, we need a universal Section 8 Program, with more vouchers for families in every part of the country. 

By taking these actions now, we can put a halt to the injustice and trauma of family homelessness. 

Catherine Trapani is the executive director of Homeless Services United. Kim Maloney is co-chair of the NYC Continuum of Care (NYC CoC) Domestic Violence Committee.

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.