April 27, 2016
Ending Family Homeless Shelters As We Know Them
By Ralph Nunez, PhD
Earlier this month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered a restructuring of how the nation’s largest city serves its most impoverished citizens: the homeless.
With the city’s homeless population at a near-record high of almost 58,000 people – including, distressingly, almost 23,000 children – the mayor is absolutely right about the need for fresh thinking in meeting this challenge. Such reforms must go beyond this latest administrative reorganization. And the first thing that must change is the concept of the homeless shelter itself.
Today’s outdated model – with shelters designed to be emergency way stations, which residents are pushed to leave as soon as possible – works for only a fraction of those it serves: otherwise self-supporting New Yorkers who have suffered a short-term crisis, such as a fire, a layoff, or a sudden illness. For them, a short stay in a warm, dry place is pretty much all they need to get back on their feet.
But that scenario is anything but typical for thousands more now overflowing the shelter system.
An estimated 70% of heads of households applying for emergency housing assistance are unemployed, and have little or no work history. Those with jobs earn an average of $1,200 a month, which would scarcely cover the rent on a two-bedroom apartment, let alone buy food or clothing.
More than half the adults who head homeless families lack a high school education. Almost as many report instances of domestic violence in their lives. One in four has been involved with the child welfare system while growing up.
Clearly, people with such disadvantages need much more than a temporary roof over their heads and rapid rehousing. They need remedial education, employment training, parenting skills, and, in many cases, drug or alcohol abuse counseling and rehabilitation.
They need shelters that also function as day-care providers, afterschool programs, job-training facilities, and parenting education and counseling centers. They need shelters integrated with their home neighborhoods that permit them to keep in touch with family and friends and link up with professional help after they move out.
What they need, in short, is a multi-tiered shelter system providing, short-term, intermediate, and longer-term intensive services where appropriate.
In the 1980s, as thousands of families with young children became homeless, City officials established so-called Tier II shelters – dormitory-like facilities, mostly operated by non-profit groups, providing families their own bedrooms, bathrooms, and a modicum of privacy.
Thirty years later Tier II shelters remain the best the City has to offer. And with demand far outstripping capacity, thousands of homeless families are now instead relegated to “cluster site” apartments, where support services are minimal, conditions often squalid, and costs to the City high – the worst of all worlds.
What would a reformed shelter system look like? We urge policymakers to look at the reforms proposed in our 2013 report, “A New Path.”
The initial step on that new path is intake, where applicants would be granted provisional placements of 30 days instead of the current 10, giving staff more time to assess clients’ particular needs.
Then families would be put on one of three tracks within a facility.
The first would be for those who’ve suffered a temporary crisis but are otherwise capable of supporting themselves. They would be moved as quickly as possible into long-term housing, much as they are now.
The second would be for families who are reasonably well educated and have work experience, but are under- or unemployed. They would be in residence for three to nine months while getting professional help finding better jobs and affordable housing.
The third would be geared to families needing the most intense services. They would get remedial education and comprehensive job training, including on-site work experience and coaching on preparing resumes and doing interviews.
Where necessary, they would also receive parenting classes and referrals for mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Third-tier families would be in residence for up to 18 months. While that may seem long, keep in mind that families now idly spend an average 15 months or more in shelters. Such time would be better and more cost-effectively spent preparing families to move to stable permanent housing.
In addition, shelters now often resented by their host communities would instead become “Community Residential Resource Centers” (CRRCs) serving both homeless and neighborhood families. They would, in fact, become community hubs with day care and health care facilities, afterschool programs, and job-training sessions. The result: CRRCs would be seen as assets to, rather than burdens on, the surrounding community.
Realizing this vision does not necessarily require a big new investment of tax dollars. In fact, it stands to save money in the long term by providing the poorest of the poor with the life skills necessary to stand on their own.
What it does is take the squalor out of serving the homeless, removes the hostilities within the community in helping the homeless, and reduces the overall costs of housing the homeless, while serving community needs at the same time.
A modern, well-designed and service-rich alternative to the outmoded traditional shelter system is a real opportunity to reduce homelessness in New York City by providing residential, educational, and employment opportunities for families and helping insure that today's homeless children don't become tomorrow's homeless adults.
Dr. Ralph Nunez is president of the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness, an independent research and policy think tank that conducts research on issues surrounding poverty and homelessness and the ensuing impacts on children and families.
Map graphic from "On the Map: The Dynamics of Family Homelessness in New York City" by the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness.