March 2, 2016

When the Face of Homelessness is a Baby's Face

By Kendra Hurley

When we talk about homelessness, the conversation typically—and understandably—focuses on families’ most pressing needs: affordable housing; jobs that pay a living wage; and subsidized child care so that parents can work and families can find a way out of the shelters and into permanent homes.

To talk about anything else is, to some extent, talking about a Band-Aid solution to a deep social and economic problem. The reality, however, is that homeless families today spend an average of more than 400 days living in New York City shelters.  For children, especially young children, that’s a developmental lifetime. For the sake of these kids, we need to strengthen that Band-Aid; we need to improve the services for fragile families.

The Center for New York City Affairs’ 2015 report In Need of Shelter showed why. We found that while children 5 years old and younger make up about one-third of all kids in the five boroughs, and about one-third of the city’s children living in poverty, they make up nearly half of all the children in shelters.  In fact, in recent years, nearly 2,000 babies have been born to mothers living in City shelters each year.

Decades of research underscore how critical these early years are for healthy lifelong development. The trauma and chronic stress that too often go hand-in-hand with poverty, homelessness, and shelter living can derail young lives. Thankfully, research has also demonstrated that targeted interventions that work with parents and children together can help parents protect young children from this impact.

Historically, children 3 and under have received very little programming in shelters. In our 2015 report we found the most common way for a homeless family to receive help for, say, maternal post-partum depression is to be reported to child protective services on suspicions of abuse or neglect. The result is a support that goes hand-in-hand with stigma and fear.

In recent months, however, a handful of new programs that aim to strengthen parent and child bonds and promote healthy development of very young children—and that don’t require participants to be child welfare-involved—have sprung up in City shelters. The Department of Health’s Newborn Home Visiting Program, for instance, has begun home visits to babies born to mothers living in shelters. As these visits increase, the program also hopes to screen these new mothers for post-partum depression. And last fall, with funding from the City Council, the social service organization CAMBA embedded SafeCare, a practical parenting skills training program, in a Central Brooklyn shelter. CAMBA staff hopes to create a culture of positive parenting there, then expand to other shelters

Before last fall, families could only access SafeCare through CAMBA’s foster care prevention program. Making programs like this available to all families in shelters is important, because homeless parents have real reason to fear that child welfare workers will remove their children from them. A 2002 study found that of New York City families receiving public assistance, 8% of non-homeless mothers were separated from one or more children. But an alarming 44% of mothers who experienced homelessness during the previous five years were separated from one or more children.

It’s important to note that a number of the separations happened after the family had left a shelter, because family members themselves decided that living apart would be best. Researchers have speculated that something about shelter life—the crowding, lack of privacy, and restrictive rules that can undermine a parent’s authority—weakened familial bonds.

Targeted interventions like those starting to take place in shelters demonstrate the City’s attempts to address the toll that homelessness and shelter living can take on young kids. Family homelessness often opens gaping psychic and emotional wounds, and it’s easy to dismiss the value of these fledgling efforts as mere Band-Aids for those wounds. There’s truth to that. But by targeting the youngest, they also have the potential to do something game-changing: To use time spent in shelters as a chance to provide families with young children a support that could have ripple effects for a lifetime. 

For New York City, we hope these steps signify the beginning of an important reckoning, one that should guide all decisions when it comes to the City’s shelters: A recognition that all too frequently the face of homelessness is, in fact, a baby’s face.

Kendra Hurley is a senior editor at the Center for New York City Affairs. She is the principal author of the Center’s report “In Need of Shelter.” This posting is a reworking of a presentation she made at the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness’s “Beyond Housing” conference in January.

Photo by Anthony Collins, courtesy of CAMBA