Researchers and practitioners agree that in most cases helping homeless families re-establish stable lives in homes of their own is key. If the de Blasio administration meets its ambitious 10-year affordable housing goals, that will, over time, greatly reduce the distress too many young children in our city face.

In the meantime, we also have a duty to improve the odds for the children enduring such traumas, here and now. We have no illusions that this is a simple task. Our reporting, including interviews with current and formerly homeless families, shelter operators, social service providers and policy makers, reveals just how difficult and in many cases fraught these challenges are. How, for example, can a shelter system struggling with record numbers of homeless families find the time, space and wherewithal to address the potentially lifelong impact on small children living with high levels of stress and trauma? How can shelters and social services agencies identify and help the parents suffering from clinically diagnosable mental health problems without unnecessarily “medicalizing” the other homeless families experiencing understandable emotional stresses and trauma? How can parents be encouraged to speak frankly about those stresses and their impact on children without arousing anxiety—unfounded or not—that their children may be removed to foster care?

Tough as such problems are, we believe that a robust examination of them, both by top policymakers and frontline service providers, is clearly in order—and also that the time is ripe for such analysis. With that in mind, the Child Welfare Watch advisory board—with grateful thanks for guidance from many involved in homeless policy and service delivery— offers these policy recommendations and solutions.

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.

Mental health assessments of homeless single adults are common; that’s not the case, however, for homeless families. The result: An information vacuum in which the emotional needs of parents and children may be overlooked. Shelter staff interviewed for this report, for example, described postpartum depression and histories of trauma in family shelters as distressingly common; what’s not known is just how widespread this problem is, or what its full effects are on parents and their children.

A well-designed pilot assessment program run by trained professionals would be a first step in finding answers. It would offer important insights into the range of trauma-informed and other mental health services needed throughout the family shelter system, and guide decisions about how to deliver them.

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.

Working in shelters is often a high-stress, low-wage job, and yet shelter staff—from maintenance workers to security guards to case managers—help set the tone in a shelter. Shelter staff should receive training on how they can reduce tensions for those who live and work in shelters, and help to create environments that are more nurturing of young children. 
In the words of the nonprofit National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSNet), the goal should be to ensure “that [shelter] services do not inadvertently re-traumatize families.”

Specific NCTSNet recommendations include:

  • Maximizing choice and control for shelter participants;
  • Avoiding provocation and power assertion by shelter staff;
  • Sharing power in the running of shelter activities; and
  • Delivering services in a nonjudgmental and respectful manner.

Shelter staff should also receive support to achieve those ends. Staff interviewed at one shelter, for instance, all had access to a licensed social worker with whom they could discuss their work with clients—a good model.

Training could include discussions about the realities of shelter life with formerly homeless parents who now work with such advocacy organizations as the Child Welfare Organizing Project and Rise. The important role staff can play in modeling nurturing and warm parental involvement with small children also should be emphasized; so should the potential that imposing sanctions on parents for children’s misbehavior can backfire when parents impose harsh discipline to keep children “under control.” And case managers should be helped to recognize warning signs of possible trauma or developmental delays in a child that could warrant referrals for early intervention services and other treatment: A 2-month-old who avoids eye contact for example, or a 4-month-old who doesn’t respond to baby talk.

DHS should take low- or no- cost measures that ease the stresses of shelter life for homeless families, and also for shelter staff.

Restrictive shelter rules can add unnecessary stress to parents and children and undercut a parent’s authority within a family. In some instances, for example, shelters deny children the opportunity to spend holidays with grandparents. Surely a happy medium can be found that protects children’s safety, supports parents’ ability to make decisions for their families and encourages healthy ties to families’ communities. By granting shelters increased flexibility in setting rules and protocols, DHS could encourage shelters to create environments that better support healthy family dynamics and that allow families more flexibility.

DHS and the Children’s Cabinet should ensure that families in homeless shelters have greater access to support services, and encourage evidence-based parenting programs to develop and deliver services inside shelters.

The years-long, steep and virtually unchecked increase in the city’s population of homeless families has put space in shelters at a premium. It has also often put severe strains on the relationship between homeless families and shelter staff. The unfortunate consequence: shelters that too often miss opportunities to encourage positive, affectionate interactions between children and parents; and families that are too often isolated from those who might help them. Currently, the most common way for a family in a shelter to receive support services for young children is through the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS)—help that too often goes hand-in-hand with the fear of a foster care removal.

The Children’s Cabinet, DHS, shelters and social service providers working in partnership with the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) can all help reverse these trends.

Partnerships between shelters and infant mental health groups, for instance, could provide support services for parents of young children, sometimes right in the families’ rooms.

Groups like “Mommy and Me” that bring families with young children together for playtime, social interaction and parenting education could be invited into shelters; so could nonprofit social services providers, many of which are already required to do such community outreach.

Other supports can be offered by nonprofit agencies in a shelter’s immediate neighborhood. These should include not just clinical services, but a broad spectrum of activities at public libraries, YMCAs and in parks, ensuring families’ well-being and normalizing shelter living for children. 

ACS’s Community Partnership Initiative can help to forge such links. One such partnership, the Community Coalition of East New York, is, for example, doing exemplary work in connecting shelters in Brownsville and East New York to local service providers.

Other ideas for DHS and the Children’s Cabinet to consider:

  • Co-locating family counseling and early childhood development services in shelters. Women In Need, for instance, provides families at their shelters with developmentally therapueutic daycare that screens children for delays.
  • Re-aligning DHS performance assessments and other incentives to reward shelter operators who improve family well-being while also helping families find permanent homes.
  • Encouraging promising service models that work with families to buffer young children from the traumas of events like homelessness. Two such models now being used in our city, SafeCare and Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up, are profiled in this report. Policymakers should build upon such efforts and, if they succeed in New York City’s shelters, expand them.

DHS should provide intensive interventions for the families most in need of them.

Some homeless families have repeated stays in the shelter system. In some cases, they’ve also had regular involvement with child welfare or juvenile justice agencies. DHS is working to break this alarming cycle. In the wake of the death of two small children in shelters late last year, allegedly at the hands of adult caretakers, DHS has taken new steps to identify and protect “high-risk” children in shelters, and to also work with their parents to defuse any potentially dangerous situations.

In addition to ensuring the physical safety of children, DHS should seize this opportunity to also address the emotional well-being of children, especially those too young to speak. A number of clinical dyadic interventions, which teach and reinforce positive parent-child interaction, for example, have been demonstrated to be effective among emotionally traumatized parents and their young children. They might also prevent the need for more expensive and invasive interventions later in life.

The Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) must coordinate with DHS to increase enrollment of young homeless children in city-funded early education programs.

High-quality learning programs are a plus for young children in the shelter system; they stimulate cognitive development and readiness for school. They also help normalize family life and reduce the stresses of child care on homeless parents.

Since 2012, the city has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the quality of early education and child care programs for children under 5 years old, and increase enrollment of low-income children. Under the umbrella of EarlyLearnNYC, these preschool and daycare programs offer potentially invaluable resources to homeless families. However, homeless shelter providers are often unaware of the existence and importance of high-quality early education programs.

ACS should work with DHS to ensure that shelter providers are informed about EarlyLearnNYC programs, and that they disseminate information to parents at every opportunity, including initial intake sessions and meetings with case managers. EarlyLearn providers and family child care networks should routinely make presentations at nearby shelters, and make it easy for parents to visit local child care sites.

ACS must work with the city’s Human Resources Administration, which determines families’ eligibility for federal benefits including EarlyLearnNYC, to streamline the process of enrolling homeless youngsters in EarlyLearnNYC programs.

Finally, in order to make sure these efforts are successful, ACS and DHS must match data in a way that allows them to track enrollment of homeless children in EarlyLearnNYC.

As this issue of Child Welfare Watch reports, the de Blasio administration’s Children’s Cabinet intends to give top priority to supporting the healthy cognitive development of children growing up under the powerful stresses of poverty. That will clearly include looking at the subject that’s the focus of this edition: the intense needs of the unprecedentedly large number of young children living in the city’s homeless shelters.