Adrift in NYC: Family Homelessness and the Struggle to Stay Together

As family homelessness in New York City continues to climb and the City fights to open 90 new shelters, a new report by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School offers insight into how family shelters are missing opportunities to avert a hidden but common catastrophe of homelessness: families breaking apart.


The report, “Adrift in NYC: Family Homelessness and the Struggle to Stay Together,” sheds light on the academic research showing that homelessness and family breakup go hand in hand. Partners separate from partners. Children separate from parents – both through informal arrangements with friends and relatives as well as through mandated foster care placements. And what begins as a temporary arrangement often proves lasting. Family members who do stay together often do so against a relentless backdrop of fear that, having lost their homes, they will next lose one another.

In theory, entering a shelter could serve to stabilize a family and stave off the threat of or need for family breakup. But CNYCA found that too often City shelters miss opportunities to do just that. Instead, living in homeless shelters often isolates families from their support networks, subjects them to close scrutiny and surveillance, and intensifies underlying familial problems.

Moreover, families in shelters often leave behind known communities and supports for unfamiliar neighborhoods with poor-performing schools and high rates of food insecurity and crime. This further burdens both the families in crisis as well as the struggling communities.

Report’s Key Findings Include:

  • New York City’s longstanding “right to shelter” policy likely helps many newly homeless families avoid immediate, informal separation as well as foster care removals. Nationwide, 10 percent of children in foster care were placed there in part due to housing issues such as homelessness. But in New York City, where there is a “right to shelter,” just five percent of children in foster care were placed due to housing issues. (See "Do Shelters Reduce the Need for Foster Care?" p. 18.)
  • Nonetheless, child welfare involvement is rampant among families in shelters. About one in four families in New York City shelters have cases open with the Administration for Children’s Services, with slightly more than half of those families in City shelters receiving services designed to prevent foster care placement. The remaining families have children in foster care.
  • By subjecting parents to intense scrutiny and surveillance, and isolating them from their support systems and neighborhood resources, shelters can push families to the breaking point. (See "Living Apart," p. 5.)
  • Nearly half of families entering City shelters appear to be placed in unfamiliar neighborhoods, away from their schools, doctors, child care supports, houses of worship and neighbors—a percentage that’s grown by over a third in the last five years. (See "Far From Home," p. 16.)
  • Often these families are moved to shelters in overtaxed neighborhoods that have limited resources. Our analysis found that close to 70 percent of family shelters are located in community districts identified as being the most “food insecure”; about half are located in the highest crime precincts and in the lowest performing school districts. (See "Far From Home," p. 16.)
  • The City has vowed to create shelters that are more “proactive and client-centered” with “adequate and appropriate social services.” CNYCA's recommendations for how to do this this include a variety of ways that shelters can help families stay connected to their former support systems while forming new ones. (See "Introduction and Recommendations," p. 1.)
  • While improving shelters is crucial, a recent analysis of a study involving over 2,000 families, suggests that long-term rental vouchers are the most effective measure for reducing informal family separations and foster care placements. (See "Long-Term Vouchers Help Families Stay Together," p. 13.)

Download the full report “Adrift in NYC: Family Homelessness & the Struggle to Stay Together” here.

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