In Need of Shelter:
Protecting the city’s youngest children from the traumas of homelessness.

The Center for New York City Affairs announces the release of a new report looking at the record levels of babies and toddlers living in New York City’s homeless shelters. Of the over 20,000 children in homeless shelters, nearly half are under 6 years old. 

We know from research how crucial the early years are to lifelong development. Yet families now stay an average of over 400 days in city shelters—an eternity for a small child.

The new Child Welfare Watch report describes the stresses that homelessness puts on families with young children, and explores the discontinuity between the large number of young children in the shelter system and the dearth of services available to them.  It reveals that currently the most common way for a family in a shelter to receive support for young children is to become known to child welfare authorities—a help that often goes hand-in-hand with the fear that children will be removed to foster care. 

Meanwhile, insufficient coordination and communication among city agencies has hampered the enrollment of homeless youngsters in subsidized child care programs that could prepare the kids for school and reduce stress on their parents. 

The good news is that new ways to protect young children from the stresses of homelessness are beginning to emerge. Most notably, the city's interagency Children's Cabinet is giving top priority to supporting the healthy cognitive development of impoverished children in the city—including very young homeless kids.

Our findings include: 

  • Young children are overrepresented in the homeless family shelter system. Last year, children under 6 represented just over one-third of all New Yorkers under the age of 18 and just over one-third of all of the city’s children living below the poverty level. Yet children under 6 represented nearly half—or 45 percent—of all children in family shelters.
  • The city’s African-American young children are at high risk of becoming homeless. Last year, about 3 percent of the city’s children 5 years old and younger became homeless, yet 8 percent of the city’s African-American children in that age range spent time in a shelter. For African-American children living in families with poverty-level incomes, the incidence of shelter stays rose to 22 percent.
  • Despite the importance of the early years to lifelong brain development, and despite a growing body of evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of targeted interventions in protecting young children from the traumas common to poverty and homelessness, in the homeless shelter system, there are almost no services designed to meet the particular emotional needs of young children.  
  • Twenty-five percent of families living in the shelter system have cases open with the Administration for Children’s Services. About 13 percent of those families receive foster care prevention services.  

The Watch also offers a set of policy recommendations and solutions informed by the research and drafted by a panel of practitioners, experts, parents, and others, aimed at helping policymakers support the well-being of the city’s most vulnerable infants and toddlers. These include:

  • The Children’s Cabinet should implement a pilot project to define the nature and scope of serious emotional problems among parents with young children in homeless shelters, as well as to screen caretakers and their children for histories of trauma.
  • The Department of Homeless Services (DHS) should provide funding and resources to train and support shelter staff in addressing the emotional and cognitive needs of young children.
  • DHS and the Children’s Cabinet should ensure that families in homeless shelters have greater access to support services that do not involve opening a case with the Administration for Children’s Services. They should encourage evidence-based parenting programs to develop and deliver services inside shelters and provide intensive interventions for the families most in need of them.
  • The Administration for Children’s Services must coordinate with DHS to increase enrollment of young homeless children in city-funded early education program. 

Read the Center for New York City Affairs report here.

The Child Welfare Watch project is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Child Welfare Fund, the Ira W. DeCamp Foundation, the Viola W. Bernard Foundation, the Prospect Hill Foundation and the Sirus Fund.