August 11, 2021
JD and her three children entered the New York City family homeless shelter system after JD’s husband passed away, and she could not afford the rent of their apartment. The family homeless shelter was their only option for the next 15 months. Yet, it was in the shelter that JD enrolled in a job-training program that provided her the skills and certification that helped her secure full-time employment. She also obtained a housing voucher, which allowed her to move into permanent housing and receive the ongoing support of social workers. JD now spends 30% of her income on rent; the city pays the remainder. She belongs to one of the thousands of families in the five boroughs who were once homeless but now live independently in permanent housing.
The number of all families living in New York City shelters over the last half-decade has declined by nearly 40% — from about 15,700 in November 2016 to 10,900 in April 2021. Yet, this indication of progress on reducing family homelessness has led to skepticism. Critics argue that cumbersome shelter eligibility criteria — requirements to secure an increasing number documents — and the existence of limited intake facilities have actually prevented more people in need of shelters from accessing them. City officials argue, however, that lower shelter eligibility numbers reflect an increase in re-applications of rejected families.
Is family homelessness declining? In New York City, homelessness has been increasing at such a dizzying rate for so many years, it has become difficult for policymakers, politicians, homeless service providers, and New Yorkers to believe that the trend might be reversing. The data, however, tells a different story. The number of families with children in New York City shelters declined by 23% from May 2017 to February 2021 — from about 12,410 to 9,600 — while families with adult children declined by 22% during that period. Critics often point to shelter eligibility rates as a counterargument that families have a more difficult time accessing shelter (unlike single adults seeking shelter, families must apply for shelter and are subject to eligibility determination by city workers). Eligibility rates for both groups declined by only half those rates, from 41% to 29% and 32% to 23%, respectively, according to our analysis of NYC-DSS census and eligibility data. We, therefore, cannot conclude that the recent trend in the declining number of families entering shelter is a direct cause of screening and eligibility procedures that determine shelter access.
Why has family homelessness decreased? Three reasons explain the reduction. In 2017, New York City was the first city in the nation to pass legislation requiring legal assistance — a ‘right to counsel’ — for tenants in housing court. The positive effects of this law cannot be overstated. From 2017 to 2019, evictions decreased by 29% in neighborhoods protected by ‘the right to counsel’ according to an analysis by the Community Service Society. In fact, 84% of families represented by New York City Office of Civil Justice attorneys in court proceedings evaded eviction.
Secondly, NYC embarked on a landmark homeless prevention experiment, defined by expert Mary Beth Shinn, Professor of Human & Organizational Development at Vanderbilt University, as a set of programs that “aim to stop or reduce the inflow into the homeless service system and help vulnerable individuals and families maintain housing stability.” This program, called Homebase, was pioneered in 2004 by former deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs has proven a highly effective homelessness prevention model, especially for families. The program’s counseling, case management and mediation services, and housing court and financial assistance provisions reduces homelessness annually by 10 – 15%. Homebase saves taxpayers $20 – $44 million in shelter costs annually. Rigorous evaluations of housing prevention programs that implement these provisions in multiple contexts, within and outside the US, demonstrate similar benefits.
Thirdly, New York City is the only city in the country to have introduced municipal housing vouchers. Last month the city council voted to increase the rental subsidy for families under CityFHEPS, a housing voucher program introduced during the early de Blasio years, from $1,580 to $2,217. This more accurate pegging of vouchers to high New York City median rental values can increase housing access at a time of extant unaffordability — and further curb homelessness. Indeed, a 2018 study showed that about 90% of 960 New York City family recipients of government supportive housing programs achieved “housing stability” compared to just 1% of the comparison groups who did not receive such funds.
How, in the post-pandemic era, do we ensure these gains are not erased, that potential opportunities to increase housing affordability can be harnessed, and a return to normal will not initiate an increase in family homelessness? The next administration must implement an expanded policy of homelessness prevention by considering a model that makes eviction protection, case management and financial assistance the focal point of homelessness policy so that policymakers and service-providers are not merely tasked with responding to homelessness once it occurs. This ‘Duty to Assist’ model adopted in Wales can provide valuable lessons for addressing homelessness in New York. It is time to change the discussion and narrative from when families become homeless to doing all that is possible to prevent homelessness. The decline in sheltered family homelessness and evictions alongside the identifiable impact of concerted prevention services on helping families retain housing indicates that policymakers must continue to shift resources upstream towards a permanent program of homelessness prevention.
The average annual cost to New York City of providing shelter for families like JD from 2003 to 2017 was about $46,000. The yearly cost to the city of providing a housing voucher to three- to four-member families like JD’s was about $19,000 before the city council vote to increase the subsidy amount to about $26,600 — still far less than what the city pays to shelter such families. There are many empirically proven benefits from housing stability. Researchers have found that housing vouchers have helped increase test scores of New York children and in Washington DC, housing stability has increased mental health outcomes for people with severe psychiatric conditions and substance abuse problems.
The three pillars that are working to lessen family homelessness — homeless prevention, legal assistance in housing court and housing vouchers — are working to effectively lower the number of families experiencing homelessness in New York City. The question before us now is: Can we translate this progress into city-wide policy commitments to ensure that what has worked can continue to do so in the future?