Families with children now spend nearly 18 months on average in Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelters—two and half months longer than the previous fiscal year, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s annual management report.

Adi Talwar

Starkeysha Love, 30, pictured here with her 1-year-old daughter Amira in June 2021. The family was moved to a Queens shelter this summer after staying in a city-rented hotel room during the pandemic.

Homeless families are now staying longer in New York City’s shelters, even as the overall shelter population decreases, city data shows.

Families with children spend nearly 18 months on average in Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelters—two and half months longer than the previous fiscal year, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s annual management report. The average length of stay for families with children in DHS shelters reached 520 days in the 2021 fiscal year. That’s up from 443 days in the 2020 fiscal year and 414 days in the 2017 fiscal year. 

The lengthier stays come even as the number of families entering DHS shelters dropped by about 40 percent last fiscal year, with statewide eviction protections preventing many families from becoming homeless, the report shows. Just over 6,100 families entered the shelter system last fiscal year—which began July 1, 2020 and ended June 30 of this year—compared to 10,087 in FY2020 and a staggering 12,595 in FY2017.

There were 9,823 families with children in shelters on an average day in the 2021 fiscal year compared to 11,719 in FY20 and 12,415 in FY19.

The mayor’s office blamed the lengthier shelter stays on the pandemic, which the report says complicated apartment viewings. “Efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19, which encouraged New Yorkers, including landlords and brokers, to remain inside as much as possible, resulted in a sharp decline in apartment showings before DHS shifted to virtual showings,” the report states.

But Coalition for the Homeless Senior Policy Analyst Jacquelyn Simone questioned that justification. By the time the 2021 fiscal year started in July 2020, DHS had begun to establish virtual showings and adjust to the challenges of a pandemic that took hold three months earlier, she said.

“It did take city agencies some time to come up with a comparable safe scenario for how people can be viewing those apartments, but this report is from July 2020 to June 30, 2021,” Simone said. “So the argument that they were in crisis mode because of the pandemic and didn’t know how to have people view an apartment safely was more compelling in the [Fiscal Year 2020] report.”

“Hopefully seeing it so starkly in the mayor’s report will be a wake-up call for city agencies to move people out with more urgency,” she added.

DHS and the Mayor’s Office did not respond to requests for additional comment for this story, but have in the past touted the declining rate of family homelessness prior to the pandemic, attributing the decrease to stronger tenant protections and the work of agency staff and nonprofit providers.

During the last fiscal year, however, significantly fewer families with children, as well as homeless single adults—a population that has spiked during the pandemic—moved from shelters into permanent housing. Some 7,186 families with children moved out of shelters into permanent housing last year compared to 7,992 in FY2020 and 9,137 in FY2019. That decrease was due in large part to a declining overall number of families in shelter, the city said.

“While there were fewer entrants to shelter compared to the prior period, this led to fewer families and individuals with short-term stays and resulted in an increased proportion of the population with long-term stays in shelter,” the report states.

There were 6,535 single adults who moved from shelters to permanent housing last fiscal year, compared to 7,890 in the 2020 fiscal year and 8,912 in 2019, the report shows. The decrease occurred even as the number of single adults in shelters surged to 18,012 last fiscal year, from 16,866 in FY20 and 16,094 in FY19. There were 13,626 single adults in shelters per day in FY17.

The average length of stay for single adults and adult families also spiked last fiscal year. Single adults spent an average of 476 days in shelters compared to 431 days in FY2020 and 383 days in FY2017. Adult families spent an average of 773 days in shelters—the equivalent of two years and two months—compared to 630 in FY2020 and 550 days in FY2017.

Áine Duggan, president and CEO of the organization Partnership for the Homeless, said the data highlights the importance of ongoing eviction protections and emergency rental assistance for keeping people in their homes and staving off a surge in new shelter admissions.

“The overall number is coming down, but it’s coming down because of the moratorium,” Duggan said. “Evictions are one of the main feeders into the shelter system, but placements are slow and shelter stays are longer. What that tells us is that if the moratorium ends, you’ll see the shelter population will balloon at the front end of the system and balloon for years to come because it’s taking longer to get people out.”

There is some cause for hope, advocates say.

At the very end of the last fiscal year, the city and a network of nonprofit providers purchased 14 buildings long used as cluster-site homeless shelters and began converting them to permanent housing for hundreds of families—though problems persist at each site.

In what the city considers a “critical indicator” of successful interventions, the number of families and individuals who returned to shelters less than a year after securing permanent housing dropped for the fifth consecutive fiscal year.

And in September, New York City’s Human Rights Administration increased the value of CityFHEPS housing vouchers—subsidies that cover a year of rent for families and individuals who have experienced homelessness. After years of advocacy by homeless New Yorkers and their allies, the City Council voted in June to raise the value of the city subsidy to match federal Section 8 levels, potentially unlocking tens of thousands of previously unaffordable apartments across the five boroughs.

Raysa Rodriguez, the associate executive director at the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, said the data from the Mayor’s Management Report reinforces the need for those stronger rent subsidies.

“I think the takeaway here is that the report just confirms what we’re hearing from folks about the difficulty of using subsidies that weren’t set at the right value,” Rodriguez said. “The increase in the length of stay really speaks to the difficulties that families experience when they’re looking for permanent affordable housing, even when they have ‘Shopping Letters’ and qualify for the city’s housing subsidies.”

Rodriguez, a member of the New York City’s Family Homelessness Coalition (a City Limits funder), also warned that the data may mask a pending crisis that is for now stemmed by state eviction protections.

“I would caution not to make broad connections between the decline in the number of families entering shelter to a decline in need,” she said.

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.