In battle against homelessness, don’t forget the moms

Young mothers who become homeless need more help than typical support programs provide. Now comes a solution on wheels

January 21, 2017 | By Beatriz De La Torre

Late on Monday, Feb. 6, volunteers will fan out across the city in search of the homeless as part of the HOPE Count, an annual census of how many New Yorkers lack shelter. But we know the upshot even before the count begins: An all-time high of 60,000 people are living in our city’s shelters and far too many on the streets.

If we do not stop the hemorrhaging and keep families at-risk of eviction in their homes, we will not have the capacity to serve those already in the overcrowded shelter system, let alone those who huddle in doorways and bundle up in the subways.

What is to be done about this sordid circumstance? Clearly, the answer cannot be more of the same.

The city has significantly expanded tenant-protection programs, increasing legal-services funding tenfold to more than $60 million. This expansion includes free legal representation to tenants facing eviction in the city’s most rapidly-gentrifying neighborhoods, which bolsters HomeBase, a proven program that connects residents on the cusp of homelessness to resources that keep them in their homes.

While the city’s efforts are laudable, homelessness is too vast and complex a challenge for it to tackle alone. The steady climb in the shelter population is proof. Ending homelessness requires all of our energy, creativity and compassion.

To supplement the city’s eviction-prevention initiatives, Robin Hood has partnered with HELP USA, a nonprofit dedicated to serving the homeless, to keep young, low-income mothers from entering the shelter system.

There are no one-size fits all solutions for the thousands of families and individuals confronting homelessness. Services must be tailored to the needs of individuals, and helping some groups, like young, low-income mothers, requires greater effort.

Currently, families make up nearly 70% of shelter residents. Young moms are particularly vulnerable; even after being rehoused, they are twice as likely as others to become homeless once more. These young mothers too often work in low-wage jobs while single-handedly raising children—making it all the less likely that they will be able to find and keep full-time work or finish post-secondary education programs.

HomeBase provides participants with 120 days of support, regardless of the complexity of their situation. While 120 days may be sufficient for some families or individuals, young mothers need more time and attention. That is why Robin Hood is funding a program that provides nine months of intensive support, including connections to education, job training and child care as well as medical screenings, family therapy and housing assistance.

But even with all this help, we still have 60,000 people in shelters and the number is rising. A major challenge with HomeBase and other interventions is access. Staten Island, for instance, has only one HomeBase office and it is hard to reach for most of its residents because public transportation is lacking.

Enter a mobile solution. Robin Hood and CAMBA, the Staten Island HomeBase provider, plan to provide a well-equipped R.V. to reach tenants at risk of eviction before that painful blow occurs. By examining shelter entry and housing court data, the mobile unit will not only directly target neighborhoods with high eviction rates, but also individual buildings where tenants are at high risk of eviction.

The private-public partnership between the city, Robin Hood, and CAMBA will bring legal services directly to those who need it, making existing programs to prevent eviction all the more effective. The cost of mobile outreach is modest, while the number served will be massive—easily in the thousands. Within 18 months it is projected that our mobile unit will double the number of clients reached. And if the pilot on Staten Island works, the program will be replicated in other boroughs, serving even more New Yorkers.

Together, we have the power to greatly reduce the number of homeless families and individuals, but we can only do so by working as partners and thinking critically about how to best serve all the populations affected by the crisis.

Beatriz De La Torre is the managing director of housing programs at Robin Hood, New York City’s largest poverty-fighting organization.

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