May 31, 2017

The Troubling Geography of Homelessness:Shelter Locations and Family Stability

By Kendra Hurley and Kobi Loehr

With the number of homeless families in New York City remaining at near-record levels, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio has made some ambitious new pledges: To open 90 new family shelters over the next five years; to significantly improve the quality of those shelters (making them more “proactive and client-centered” with “adequate and appropriate social services”); and, in an effort to promote family stability, to keep homeless families in their home boroughs.

Aswe write in “Adrift in NYC: Family Homelessness and the Struggle to Stay Together,” our recent report for the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School, these are important goals. But we also think the City can and must aim even higher.

Far from Home: Where Families in Shelter Are Placed

Not so long ago, families who became homeless could expect to be placed in shelters in or near the neighborhoods they’d already been living in. That meant that children could easily continue to go to the schools they’d attended, and that support systems built around family, friends, neighbors, houses of worship, doctors and other community members remained intact.

For many families, those days are long gone. In City Fiscal Year 2011, for example, more than 83% of families in City shelters were placed near the schools attended by their youngest school-aged kids; five years later, only about 55% of families could count on such placements.

One father we interviewed for our report who had moved from his home in the Bronx to a shelter in Brooklyn spoke about the intense isolation this created for him and his family during the year they spent in shelter. Social isolation, points out Stephanie Gendell of Citizens Committee for Children, is "the exact opposite of what we want for families struggling with the trauma and stress of homelessness."   

Percentage of Families Placed in Shelters According to the Youngest Child’s School Address

Source: NYC Mayor’s Management Reports and Department of Homeless Services Data Dashboard

Source: NYC Mayor’s Management Reports and Department of Homeless Services Data Dashboard

Family Homeless Shelters and Neighborhood Fragility: Three Fault Lines

Currently, as the three maps below illustrate, homeless families often end up in unfamiliar neighborhoods that have limited resources – something useful neither to families nor the communities to which they’re moved.

(On the maps below, triangles represent the location of family homeless shelters.)

Food Insecurity
Close to 70% of current family shelters are located in community districts identified as the most “food insecure” in the city.

Reports of Major Violent Crimes
Nearly half of all family shelters are located in the highest-crime police precincts.


School Quality

Over half of family shelters are located in the lowest-performing school districts in the city.


Where to Go From Here

While it is important that the City has pledged to keep families in their home boroughs, as any New Yorker can attest, boroughs are large in area. So we recommend that the City take measures to do even better--to place families in or near their home communities.

Families who have special circumstances where being away from their communities would pose significant hardship should be prioritized for community placement. This could include families where a child has special medical needs and would benefit from being near their doctors; or when a family is receiving child welfare services, which are community-based; or where a family has a child temporarily residing with a relative or friend in the neighborhood.

Finally, for those families who cannot be placed in their communities, the City must open shelters in wealthier neighborhoods, so that families who are moved can benefit from new opportunities.

A billion-dollar City shelter system that aspires to do more than provide roofs over the heads of its clients should have options to both keep families in or near their neighborhoods while also enabling families to benefit from the opportunities—like better schools—of higher-income communities.

(For a description of the research methodology used in creating the maps above, go to the full "Adrift in NYC" report.)

Kendra Hurley is a senior editor at the Center for New York City Affairs and the principal author of “Adrift in NYC.” Kobi Loehr is a recent Urban Policy Analysis and Management graduate of the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at The New School. Her mapping project, “Family Shelters in NYC,” was among the winners of this year’s Prized Solutions competition sponsored by the Center for New York City Affairs, which highlighted exemplary research and ideas from New School students focused on issues impacting New York City.