May 24, 2017

Homeless Kids, Damaged Lives:
Why Keeping Distressed Families Together Matters

By Bruce Cory and Kendra Hurley

Most media coverage of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recently launched effort to “turn the tide on homelessness” in New York City has focused on the heavy political lift inherent in his Administration’s plan to open 90 new homeless shelters across the city over the next five years.  Certainly, shelter-siting decisions matter a lot – and we’ll explore some reasons why in Urban Mattersnext week.  But first, we also want to spotlight and encourage another new direction the Administration is taking in addressing homelessness:  Efforts to end policies and practices that inadvertently weaken already fragile family structures, and instead combat the powerful disintegrative forces that homelessness often creates.

"Adrift in NYC: Family Homelessness and the Struggle to Stay Together," a new report from the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School, underscores the urgency of this work. It shows how the City has too often missed opportunities to stabilize families in shelters, with dire emotional and developmental consequences for kids whose families splinter under the stresses of homelessness.

To put these efforts in a larger context, we suggest subjecting them to some Freudian analysis. Now, big stop: When we say Freudian, we don’t mean Sigmund Freud, but Dr. Anna Freud, his brilliant daughter and a towering figure in her own right in the area of child psychology.

Anna Freud worked in London during World War II, a time when tens of thousands of children were traumatized by the loss of their homes from intense aerial bombardment, or by well-intentioned forced separation from parents worried about their children’s safety (the set-up for C.S. Lewis’s classic Narnia stories).  She found that children who remained with parents in wartime London fared better emotionally than those sent out of harm’s way to remote rural areas. Her research, amplified by the work of others over the ensuing decades, confirms the importance of maintaining parental continuity in the face of emotional distress. Or as Anna Freud bluntly wrote, “The horrors of war pale beside the loss of a mother.”

Fast-forward to New York City in 2017, where some 23,500 children – nearly half of them under the age of 6 – now live in City homeless shelters, staying there an average of 14 months. Add to that tens of thousands more children who don’t have homes of their own but live “doubled-up” with relatives or others. The Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness estimates that for every child living in New York City shelters, roughly another two are essentially homeless and living in such untenable temporary situations.

Children Under 6 Years Old in City Shelters

The number of children 5 years old or younger in homeless shelters increased by close to 75 percent between 2006 and 2015. Figures are from March of each year. Data from the New York City Department of Homeless Services. 

The number of children 5 years old or younger in homeless shelters increased by close to 75 percent between 2006 and 2015. Figures are from March of each year. Data from the New York City Department of Homeless Services. 

There is, in short, a large swath of an entire generation of New York City children facing their own less dramatic and visible but still wounding version of the London Blitz. They’re growing up homeless during their critical formative years, with all the stresses that come with that.  And our research and reporting indicate that separation from their parents, usually their mothers – temporarily or permanently – is often one of the deepest traumas these children can face.

A range of scholarly studies has found that homelessness and family separation go hand in hand. One study of New York City mothers receiving public assistance concluded that the experience of homelessness is by far the strongest single predictor of their eventual separation from their children – stronger even than such powerful debilitating factors as substance abuse or mental illness. Our research and reporting suggests that in homeless shelters, anxieties about the possibilities of such separations are intense. Homelessness is not by itself sufficient cause to place children in foster care. Nevertheless, the fear of such removal looms large in shelters, where underlying familial problems that might heal under better conditions may instead only worsen, and where families feel they’re living in a fishbowl where every quarrel is overheard by others, including mandated reporters to child welfare authorities.

Homeless families that come apart under these pressures often find it hard to reunify. Parents who don’t have full custody of their kids can, for example, be ineligible for the public benefits that would enable them to create new homes.  Moreover, living in shelters may create dynamics that splinter families after, not during, stays in shelters. The study of New York City mothers receiving public assistance found that some 40% of mothers who had been homeless and separated from their kids began living apart from their children only afterleaving the shelter system.

That’s why we’re encouraged by the City’s new pledge to make homeless shelters “proactive and client-centered” with “adequate and appropriate social services.” And as “Adrift in NYC” reports, there are already heartening examples of shelters across the city that are thinking anew and acting anew – putting in place thoughtful supports for stressed parents and ending overly harsh policies that only add to their burdens. Such efforts take patience, effort, and, sometimes, extra money, too. But if they reduce what Anna Freud identified as the incalculably high social and psychological costs imposed when thousands of children come unmoored from their parents and extended families, they’ll be worth it.

Bruce Cory is an editorial advisor at the Center for New York City Affairs. Kendra Hurley heads the children and families project at the Center and is the principal author of "Adrift in NYC."

Photo credit: Evan Pellegrino