Landing a secure shelter placement is far more complicated than simply walking through the doors of an intake center, particularly for families, according to a new review by Comptroller Brad Lander.
New York City is required to offer a shelter bed to anyone in need—at least temporarily—thanks to a unique set of decades-old court decisions. The city’s “right to shelter” has helped keep most unhoused New Yorkers from sleeping on the streets.
But landing a secure placement is far more complicated than simply walking through the doors of an intake center, particularly for families, according to a new review by Comptroller Brad Lander. Similar to an audit, it features dense flowcharts to help visualize the complex pathways in and out of shelter.
“We approached this very much from the standpoint of wanting to increase transparency,” said Maura Hayes-Chaffe, deputy comptroller for audit. “There was a general feeling that from the outside looking in, it’s a massive system and nobody really knows the ins and outs of who does what.”
Families facing homelessness—those with children and those without—must provide substantial amounts of information in order to prove their eligibility for shelter to the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and make the leap from an initial “conditional” placement, the report details. That placement is up to 15 days with potential extensions.
Families with children apply at a Bronx facility called Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing Family Intake, or PATH, while adult families go through the Adult Family Intake Center, or AFIC, on East 30th Street in Manhattan.
And the system is rife with denials.
“Most people get a shelter placement as long as they know to reapply when they’re found ineligible,” said Lindsey Davis, senior director of crisis services at Coalition for the Homeless. But the period is confusing and stressful. Those with prior experience living on the street—more likely adult families—may simply give up.
The comptroller’s review focused on the fiscal year ending in June 2022, which overlapped with the first months of an ongoing influx of asylum seekers to New York City. There were 69,901 applications for shelter during that period, including duplicates, primarily from families with children.
Of the 40,380 applications from families with kids, just 7,490—less than 19 percent—were granted. Adult families submitted a smaller volume of applications that year—5,531—only 11 percent of which, 601, were granted.
The presence of duplicates makes it impossible to determine how many families were denied shelter in that period. However, separate city reports show the number of unduplicated families that receive a shelter application decision each month, and what share of those families are deemed eligible.
For example, less than half of families with kids who got a determination this May—about 49 percent—were deemed eligible, alongside just 14 percent of adult families. Of the families with children accepted that month, 23 percent had submitted more than one application. Among the adult families, 47 percent had applied at least twice.
Thanks to pandemic-era reforms, families can reapply for shelter while remaining in conditional placements. But the current process is still onerous. Those with children must provide two years worth of housing history, while adult families provide one year. The city also investigates prior addresses, though asylum seekers and survivors of human trafficking can be exempt from this step.
Data collected by the comptroller show that the majority of ineligible DHS shelter applications submitted by families with children in the review period—82 percent—were disqualified on the basis of “non-cooperation.”
According to the review, the broad term covers applications with missing documentation or unsubstantiated prior housing history, as well as instances where the applicants missed an appointment with DHS or failed to prove their family relationship.
Until families have been formally granted a placement, they cannot apply for DHS-specific rental vouchers. This barrier exists despite Mayor Eric Adams’ recent decision to eliminate a further 90-day waiting period for shelter residents seeking City Family Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement, or CityFHEPS, vouchers.
Earlier this year, Adams vetoed legislation that would allow people to apply for vouchers before entering shelter. The City Council overrode his veto, but the new policy has yet to take effect.
“People who come in to see us will say, ‘I want to move forward with my housing,’ and we’ll get into the details and realize they’re not eligible yet, so they can’t move forward with anything,” said Davis of Coalition for the Homeless.
Unlike families, single adults have no eligibility requirements for shelter, though they still have to submit an application and go through an intake process involving medical, mental health and employment-related screenings.
After intake, single adults are assigned to interim “assessment” shelters, where they start regular case management sessions. They are then transferred to either general population shelters or specialized placements. The latter may serve asylum seekers, veterans, people living with HIV/AIDS or domestic violence survivors.
DHS had opened 47 so-called sanctuary shelters specifically for asylum seekers as of April, according to the review, with 4,418 units for families and 2,533 beds for adults. All asylum seekers underwent standard DHS intake until Sept. 2022, when specialized welcome centers were introduced. Now, asylum seekers can go through either channel.
There is another exception to standard intake. Adults living on city streets and in the subway system, who are understood to make up a minority of the homeless population, can more quickly access shelters designated as “low-barrier.”
The comptroller’s review also details DHS’s efforts to divert families and single adults away from shelter.
Diversion strategies include providing emergency rental assistance, hosting mediation sessions with landlords or family members who may have room to spare, and even paying for one-way tickets for those with housing options out of state.
The city reported 3,627 successful diversions in the year ending in June 2022, 80 percent of which involved families with children before they had officially applied for shelter. No single adults were diverted during the review period.
Asylum seeker diversions from DHS shelter have been negligible. Just one family with children was diverted in the year ending in June 2022, and 13 the following year, plus one adult family. DHS told the review team that asylum seekers don’t qualify for many assistance programs, and lack housing options, making diversion difficult.
Yet the Adams administration recently requested state permission to impose 60-day shelter-stay limits on adults in DHS shelters, saying notices will be accompanied with extra casework.
Hayes-Chaffe, the deputy comptroller, noted that the data provided by DHS does not break down diversions by type, meaning it isn’t clear how many people ended up doubling up with family, moving out of state, or remaining in their apartment.
The comptroller’s office also urged DHS to start reporting on the services that families and individuals receive while in shelter, such as the number of people who get medical and mental healthcare, and employment help. “When people are in shelter they don’t track the services they receive at an aggregate level,” Hayes-Chaffe said.
Reached by email, DHS said it does not track service delivery comprehensively, but can share detailed diversion data on request.
As for the high volume of shelter denials referenced in the comptroller’s review, DHS said it must comply with certain criteria. According to a written statement, the agency “must comply with various eligibility criteria for providing shelter, which we are also required to report to relevant oversight agencies at the state and federal level.”
DHS also credited one of its pandemic policies for the increase in shelter denials, adding that the policy has since been modified.
“During COVID, families were allowed to reapply over the phone without any disruption to their conditional placement which resulted in less information being provided to the agency to appropriately determine eligibility, which then led to higher denials,” the statement continued. “DHS has since reverted to in-person reapplications after a second denial, which enables staff to more diligently engage with each family to ensure they have all information necessary to determine eligibility as expeditiously as possible.”*
Understanding the barriers to shelter access is particularly important at a moment when more than 100,000 people are in the city’s shelter system, including more than 80,000 in DHS facilities, more than 30,900 of them asylum seekers.
“With all of the capacity crunches that have been going on recently, we want to, as efficiently as possible, identify people who need shelter and get everyone focused on helping them move on to the next step,” said Davis of Coalition for the Homeless.
“For a lot of people, where they’re coming from was a complicated situation that may have been fairly traumatic for them,” she continued. “As quickly as we can get people through that process, everyone can move forward. Including so that they can move out of shelter.”
*This story has been updated with comment from DHS.
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