Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1201 Tue, 21 May 2019 11:00:19 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) As Homelessness Crisis Continues, Shelter Siting Questions Intensify http://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5994-as-homelessness-crisis-continues-shelter-siting-questions-intensify http://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5994-as-homelessness-crisis-continues-shelter-siting-questions-intensify miller constituent

Council Member Miller & a constituent (photo: @IDaneekMiller)


When the city’s Department of Homeless Services was quickly and quietly moving homeless families into the former Pan American Hotel in Elmhurst, Queens last June, the response from locals was swift and sharp. A group of Chinese immigrants and a local Republican club organized a protest against the new facility, saying city officials had unfairly targeted the neighborhood. Things got ugly. Shouts of “Get a job!” by protesters were responded to with shouts of “Go back to China!” by shelter residents, the New York Times reported.

Contributing to the controversy was that the city had not notified local leaders until the day before moving families into the former hotel. The next month, DHS pledged to set up a seven-day timeline to notify communities before opening new shelters.

But that timeline is not a hard requirement, but more of a promised courtesy. And with the city’s homeless population near 60,000 (the shelter census was at 57,390 individuals as of November 10, and there are hundreds who live on the street) and DHS legally mandated to provide housing for all in need, the city frequently finds its options limited when deciding where and when to open new shelters. There are also incentives to not giving a lot of public notice before opening a new shelter, as that notice is often met with significant backlash.

Twenty-eight shelters have opened so far during Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration—25 in 2014 and three this year. DHS receives proposals from contractors to open shelters through an open-ended Request for Proposals—although an agency spokesperson said that they do not track what proportion of proposals are accepted. Whether for historic or economic reasons, the current situation leaves some boroughs and neighborhoods with far more shelters than others. This fact leaves some local elected officials, community activists, residents, and advocates up in arms.

Communication and transparency
“We work diligently to ensure borough equity in shelter siting and collaborate closely with surrounding communities to ease the transition and ensure safety,” a DHS spokesperson said. “Though DHS weighs multiple factors including proximity to public transportation and existing shelters in the area when choosing sites, we are also limited in options due to low building vacancy rates in New York City.”

City Council members have long been calling on DHS to distribute shelters among boroughs and neighborhoods more equally, and to provide greater transparency when siting them. Queens Council Member I. Daneek Miller, whose district includes Jamaica, introduced a bill in September that would require social-services agencies like DHS to publically disclose the owners, developers, and service providers of sites 30 days before a contract starts. The goal of Intro. 906, he said, is to make it easier to find out which organizations are operating which shelters - an important step in holding contractors with often-questionable records accountable.

“What we’re trying to accomplish here is developing the tools to address specific issues,” Miller told Gotham Gazette. “These supportive services, they’re not well-managed, there’s no oversight.”

Manhattan Council Member Margaret Chin, whose district includes Chinatown and the Lower East Side, said she supports the bill because open communication is necessary for engaging the local community. “When the city didn’t inform us what was going on” with changes at a local shelter, she said, “there were rumors flying around.”

Bronx Council Member Annabel Palma, who was previously chair of the Council’s General Welfare committee, which has oversight of DHS, said that “there’s a lot more work that needs to be done” in terms of improving communication between city and local officials. But setting a 30-day deadline could be unrealistic for an agency like DHS, she added, especially with the current homelessness crisis. 

“Homelessness doesn’t have a timeline. You can’t say, ‘In 30 days you will be homeless,’” she said. “We see people become homeless on a daily basis, and the city has to help them…In the case of an emergency, it becomes difficult to say, ‘We need X amount of time.’”

A fair share?
One thing Council members Gotham Gazette spoke with (and many others) agree on is the idea that shelters should be more equally distributed throughout the city—though no one is speaking explicitly in “not-in-my-backyard” terms.

“Having people on the streets is not the solution. So we try to provide them with temporary housing,” said Manhattan Council Member Rosie Mendez, whose district includes the Lower East Side. “The issue is where there is more than a fair share—there’s a shelter in Community Board 6 that has more than 800 beds.”

“It’s important for us to provide shelter to the homeless,” Chin said. “All of us need to pitch in and help…Which is why [DHS] interacting and communicating with the community is very important.”

Miller, who represents parts of Southeast Queens, compared homeless shelters to other necessary, but often undesirable services like waste transfer sites, which have been the source of major “fair share” battles. “We have an opinion, and we certainly don’t mind doing our fair share,” he said. “Obviously we need these services, but we don’t want to be disproportionate in delivering these services or being impacted by them."

In response to complaints of unfairly burdening specific areas with more shelters, DHS has said it is making efforts to ensure “borough equity” by opening new shelters in Queens (the de Blasio administration has opened more shelters in the Bronx and Brooklyn). But a similar policy on the neighborhood or community-board level does not exist.

ny1-map [screenshot of NY1, from a recent story on shelters]

Palma said that “we have to create a system where we don’t oversaturate a community over another. So I think every community should be doing their fair share to help each other out.” She added, however, that homeless individuals are often coming from the same or similar neighborhoods as where there are high concentrations of shelters. Palma’s Bronx district is one of the poorest in the city. “They’re our family, they’re our neighbors,” she said.

The need for permanent housing
For Llima Berkley, who has been homeless since March 2014 and works with the service and advocacy group Picture the Homeless, the questions of fair share and transparency are irrelevant. The focus, she said, should be on providing permanent affordable housing to end homelessness. “New York City has to build housing, renovate housing that’s vacant—and then these conversations would cease,” Berkley said.

In the meantime, she said that those living in shelters should also be making efforts to become more active members of their new community. “You just happen to be homeless. Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you don’t have integrity or decency,” she said. “This is not a shelter. This is a home. This is where you live.”

Indeed, as the city’s affordable housing crisis has worsened and homelessness has swelled, there is an increasing number of working homeless people.

Part of de Blasio’s affordable housing plan involves reallocating funds from shelters to permanent housing and providing more supportive housing for individuals with mental health or substance abuse issues. More than 19,000 of the 52,000 people who have exited the shelter system since July 2014 have moved into permanent housing through the new Rental Assistance Programs and Exit Pathways, the administration announced earlier this month.

Even still, homelessness remains much higher than past years. DHS’ daily shelter population count is near 58,000 —close to double the population at the start of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, when there were 33,194 individuals in shelters on January 1, 2002.

“We don’t want to be doing this all the time,” Council Member Miller said. “We want to make sure we are providing permanent homes for folk wherever possible, and I think we have an opportunity to do that.”

On Wednesday, November 18, Mayor de Blasio is set to announce he is putting $3 billion toward 15,000 new units of supportive housing, another major investment by the administration toward reducing homelessness.

“No one wants to wake up one day and tell their children or child, ‘We have no where to live today,’” Council Member Palma said. “No one wants to be homeless, no one plans to be homeless. Individuals want to be part of a community, they want to be productive. And communities need to understand where these families are coming from.”

***
by Christian Zhang, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

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As Homelessness Crisis Continues, Shelter Siting Questions Intensify Wed, 18 Nov 2015 05:21:14 +0000
In Effort to Ensure Sound Education, City Battles Student Homelessness http://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5937-in-effort-to-ensure-sound-education-city-battles-student-homelessness http://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5937-in-effort-to-ensure-sound-education-city-battles-student-homelessness de blasio taylor homelessness

De Blasio speaks, with DHS' Taylor foreground (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)


This summer saw the city’s street homeless population become a tabloid sensation, with Mayor de Blasio seemingly forced into addressing the increase in homeless people on New York sidewalks. With shelters overflowing despite the city opening dozens of new ones, and a typical warm-weather increase in those who prefer the street to the often dangerous conditions of those shelters, the mayor announced several emergency measures and appears to be at least slightly stemming the tide.

Yet, the dawn of a new school year brings into stark relief perhaps the most tragic aspect of the city’s homelessness crisis: some 84,000 children in the public school system are homeless or in temporary housing, and many of them are struggling in school.

A new Independent Budget Office report shows a 63 percent rise in student homelessness over the four school years ending with 2013-2014, posing a major challenge for a mayor who says that “education determines a child's destiny.” While de Blasio and his commissioners open new shelters and new community schools, enroll more homeless youth in school, increase funding for eviction protection, and up outreach to families facing loss of housing, the deck continues to be stacked against homeless students.

Transient Scholars, Homeless Youth
The troubling number of 84,000 homeless students stems from a recent report on the 2013-2014 school year by the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness (ICPH). Written in conjunction with the city Department of Education and its Students in Temporary Housing Unit, the study outlines the regional severity of the problem in order to magnify its educational consequences.

In the worst cases, 40 percent of a school’s student body can be homeless - which here is defined as being in a shelter or doubled up with another family. For the eight most affected school districts the rate hovers between 13 and 17.6 percent. In more affluent areas the problem is largely muted, but no city school district has a homeless rate of less than two percent.

Regardless of where they live and go to school, the ICPH report makes clear that homeless children face constant barriers to academic achievement. Homeless children often struggle to maintain consistency, cannot read at grade level, and are behind their housed peers on virtually all measures of educational aptitude.

“Graduation rates, attendance, statewide assessments, grade promotion, you name it,“ Jennifer Pringle, project director at Advocates for Children of New York, told Gotham Gazette. “On any measure that you look at, kids in temporary housing underperformed not only in comparison to permanently-housed kids, but also compared to kids from low income backgrounds.”

These gaps are not by small margins either. Homeless children are three times more likely than their housed peers to be placed in special education programs, four times more likely to drop out of school, eight to nine times more likely to repeat grades - approximately one in ten are held back each year - and twice as likely to score poorly on standardized tests in math and reading.

Learning gaps between homeless and securely housed students only grow larger with age.

Much of the gap results from poor attendance. In the 2013-2014 school year, 38 percent of homeless students were chronically absent, meaning that they missed more than 20 days of school - approximately one month of school.

In a recent interview with BronxTalk, Abelardo Fernandez, co-director of South Bronx Rising Together (SBRT), a community coalition targeting disadvantaged youth, pointed out the absurdity of expecting kids to do well under such conditions. “We can‘t really talk about third grade reading or eighth grade math...unless we can make sure that kids are coming to school every single day,“ Fernandez said.

A large part of homeless absenteeism is simply that kids cannot get to school. In another ICPH study (this one focusing on the 2011-12 school year) 43 percent of homeless respondents listed transportation as a major obstacle to school attendance.

This problem should already be accounted for. The McKinney-Vento Act, the foremost piece of federal legislation concerning homeless children, is supposed to “ensure that homeless children and youth have transportation to and from their school of origin.“ Yet federal funding is limited - $1.5 million annually to New York City for the DOE's Students in Temporary Housing Unit - and across the city it is clear that this need is not being met.

While the Department of Education technically fulfills its legal obligation by giving each homeless child or parent of a young homeless child a Metrocard, the truth is that in many cases this is simply not sufficient.

“Parents of young kids are often unable to accompany their kids on public transportation,” explains Pringle, of Advocates for Children, “because they need to find a job, they need to find permanent housing.“

For the 28,000 children in the homeless shelter system, commuting to school can be especially challenging, Pringle adds, as most families entering the system are placed a significant distance from their school of origin. “Say you‘re from East New York and now you are placed in a shelter in the South Bronx...the commute is just too long.“

The result: homeless students transfer schools at a rate far beyond that of housed students: three times as often. Homelessness can lead to multiple school changes: one-fifth of homeless students transfer schools twice or three times in a year.

Continually ripped away from their communities, homeless children face nearly insurmountable educational and psychological setbacks. A report from the U.S. Department of Education estimates that each school transfer is equivalent to six lost months of school.

Social ramifications are often felt even harder by the child than academic ones. Transferring schools doesn’t just mean readjusting to new teachers and curriculum, it also means losing entire support networks - friends, coaches, mentors. The psychological weight of ongoing insecurity is crippling: 47 percent of homeless children experience intense levels of anxiety, depression, or symptoms of social withdrawal, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.

The educational environments into which homeless students are thrust often prove equally unhelpful. Pringle points out that “The default for so many years has been to transfer to the local school. Well guess which schools have open seats mid-year? It‘s the low-performing schools.”

A continuously incoming and outgoing population of homeless students does not help the schools themselves. Often located in high-poverty neighborhoods and already stretched thin in terms of guidance counselors and other key resources, schools struggle to adjust to the tide of perpetually behind new students. “The issue of churn,” Pringle says, “is a tremendous challenge.”

Teachers will work with students who come to them mid-year, but this slows down a classroom in which students are frequently already struggling to read or do math at grade level. Challenges are compounded: homeless students struggle because they are uprooted from their educational home and thrown into struggling schools, which are struggling because they serve high percentages of high-needs students. These schools often tend to have the highest rates of teacher turnover.

Mayor de Blasio has tried to alleviate some of the weight on the shelter system and is having some success, albeit small. His eviction-prevention programs have helped thousands of families keep their homes and through his Living in Communities (LINC) program the administration moved 1,553 families out of homeless shelters over an initial eight-month period ending in May.

Yet the shelter vacancies left by these few departures are often quickly filled: 49,000 children and their families loom just outside the shelter system, “doubled-up” in close quarters staying with sympathetic family or friends. In trouble and often just barely able to secure a place to sleep because of the children’s school needs, these families teeter on the edge of family shelter life, which is often a worse alternative to an overcrowded apartment.

“You go and you stay with some family for a while, you stay with another family for a while, and the probability of eventually ending up in a shelter is very high,” said Ralph da Costa Nunez, President and CEO of ICPH, in an interview with CUNY-TV. In an overcrowded apartment, he points out, all it takes is an argument among residents or a suspicious landlord “checking in” on his tenants, and everyone can be out on the street.

“That’s why we never see [shelter numbers] go down,” explains Nunez. “[Doubled-up families] are just waiting to come.”

With such a vast population in need of immediate assistance the question for de Blasio, his schools chancellor, and his homeless services aides is not one of how to eradicate homelessness. As Nunez puts it, “it’s not a crisis…it is a fact of life.”

Instead the mayor and his team must search for a way to give homeless students a fighting chance.

De Blasio and Fariña Efforts Thus Far
Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina is at the front lines of having to figure out how to help homeless students. The academic fate of homeless students is part of her responsibility as the leader of a school system with 1.1 million students in 1,800 schools.

This work is taking place at many of the city’s “Renewal Schools,” which have emerged as both a social and political battleground.

On one flank, de Blasio, Fariña, and their staffs are fighting dismal attendance and homelessness rates; fifty-one of the 94 Renewal Schools are located in the seven districts with the highest concentration of homeless students.

On the other, they eye Governor Andrew Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, who will formally re-evaluate de Blasio’s mayoral control of city schools again in 2016, after giving him just a one-year extension. The assessment of de Blasio as an education mayor will in large part be based on Renewal School performance.

It is a control that de Blasio is desperate to maintain. “I can tell you that none of the big changes we have made in our schools, and none of the changes we are going to make, would be possible without mayoral control,” he argued in his recent “Equity and Excellence” education speech.

Knowing that they must address student homelessness and the educational attainment of homeless students in their turnaround plans, Fariña and de Blasio have launched a slew of programs.

Among the most prominent of these efforts are the massive expansion toward universal pre-kindergarten and middle school after-school programs, and the Community Schools Initiative, which brings additional resources, including medical services, into school buildings to support children and families. Most of the renewal schools are part of the community school program.

In addition to increasing academic performance in early years, multiple studies have shown pre-K to aid children’s behavioral and social-emotional development, areas in which homeless students typically lag behind. In de Blasio’s words, early education “is the critical moment where success begins.”

After-school programs give homeless students a space away from crowded, chaotic shelter environments to do homework and participate in enrichment programs, and they supply parents with extra time to search for employment and housing.

The Community School Initiative focuses on removing many non-academic barriers to educational success (though not transportation). At P.S. 15 in the Bronx, for instance, the school has installed laundry machines to help ensure kids do not have to come to school wearing dirty clothes. It is also a way to get parents into the school building.

“Some schools might have a food pantry so hunger doesn’t distract from learning,” de Blasio said, while others, he says, have established mental and physical health services to deal with their disproportionately sick and undertreated populations. And, the city announced a public-private partnership with Warby Parker whereby students at community schools are able to access eye exams and free glasses.

When asked about the DOE’s efforts to support homeless children, Deputy Press Secretary Jason Fink cited the “additional services” provided by the community schools as critical in supporting high-needs populations. In a written statement, Fink also reiterated the importance of addressing absenteeism, a problem Fariña says is “the only thing Renewal Schools have in common.”

In his recent education address, de Blasio said, “attendance—a leading indicator of academic improvements— has gone up at 72 of the 94 schools.”

Fariña has been busy fostering a partnership with Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Gilbert Taylor. In an interview with Gotham Gazette, DHS representative Jaslee Carayol laid out the details of the interdepartmental collaboration.

In March, Chancellor Fariña launched a pilot literacy program putting libraries in family homeless shelters across the city. So far 20 of roughly 150 shelters have received books, but the chancellor insists that this “only the beginning,” saying children without books is “something that we as a city should not let go by.”

In June, Fariña and Taylor continued their efforts, launching a joint task force to target and deliver aid to students and their families at risk of going into shelters. (Just this past month, de Blasio followed suit announcing the creation of a Public Engagement Unit that will have roughly the same task.)

And in August, the two departments—along with NYS-TEACHS—held “2015 Back to School Education Summit,” a conference aimed at facilitating a higher level of correspondence and knowledge between DHS shelter providers and the DOE staff assigned to work in shelters.

All these efforts are encouraging to homeless advocates. “They‘re listening,“ Nunez replied when asked what the de Blasio administration is doing differently from its predecessor.

Still, there are major obstacles to stopping more young people from becoming homeless and to ensuring that homeless students are able to learn.

De Blasio is frustrated by skyrocketing housing costs and persistent homelessness rates. He’s stymied by a lack of state and federal aid and though he has an ambitious affordable housing plan, it is just getting rolled out.

“The market dynamics here are forcing people out faster than all of our tools can compensate,” the mayor said in a recent interview with the Daily News editorial board.

Housing, Shelters, and Collaboration: Plans Moving Forward
If there is some hope in the student homelessness crisis, it is that the population is disproportionately young. “A little more than half of all children in the shelter system are under six…That’s your opportunity!” says Nunez, of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness.

The heavy proportion of young students applies to the public school system as well: 43 percent of unhoused students are in third grade or below. If the city is able to implement worthwhile changes and move quickly enough, its actions could have an especially potent effect.

Four general points of improvement emerge as goals:

Increased Affordable Housing
Nothing new here. Homelessness will not decrease if there are not enough affordable homes.

Student homelessness, the affordability crisis, and their effects on student learning are so staggering Chancellor Fariña suggested using public high schools as student dormitories back in 2013. "We need to turn some of our large high schools into dormitory schools," she said at a conference, before she was named chancellor by de Blasio.

Highly unlikely, a much more plausible solution would be to ensure the development of low-cost residencies, which is at the heart of de Blasio’s housing plan. Some, though, point out that even “affordable” units are too expensive for many New Yorkers living in poverty, some of whom work full-time.

Although the mayor has pledged to create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over ten years, the problem, as Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale put it in a recent Gotham Gazette column, is that almost none of them will be affordable to homeless people.

One key to housing, though, that many point to is simply a continued boom in residential building, as more units on the market may let some air out of the supply-demand problem leading to ballooning prices. This is part of de Blasio’s push to rezone a variety of neighborhoods across the city to allow for greater density. Part of the rezonings will be a commitment from developers for “affordable” units. The question will continue to be if they are affordable enough for the types of families facing homelessness.

Still, Alyssa Aguilera, political director of VOCAL-NY, a grassroots community organization, wrote recently, also at this publication, that Mayor de Blasio must simply “demand more dedicated housing for the homeless from developers reaping massive profits through tax subsidies and land deals.” She, like many others, also sees Governor Cuomo as having an essential role, calling on him to fully fund tens of thousands of units of supportive housing, under a NY/NY IV agreement.

Shelters as Community Resource Centers
Dr. Ralph da Costa Nunez sees better shelters, not more affordable housing as the most effective route to properly supporting homeless children.

He advocates for the idea that shelters need to be turned into community resource centers with a residential component.

“We still, after thirty years, see shelters as temporary emergency facilities,” he says. When families are staying longer than ever in homeless shelters, this no longer makes sense, he argues. “How can we get ahead of the curve?” Nunez asks, “Change the nature of what a shelter is. Stop opening shelters in communities that people hate.”

“Why aren’t we building, instead, ‘community residential resource centers’ that have a residential component for the homeless family, but also have a community piece,” Nunez continues. “You have the daycare here for not only the homeless families, but the community; the after-school programs for not only the homeless families, but the community; the employment program for the homeless families and the community. Now you have a community resource. Now you have something that people welcome.”

Better DOE-DHS Coordination
Even though the Department of Education and the Department of Homeless Services have teamed up several times recently, there’s room for the two departments to be more coordinated.

For one, the two departments count homeless people in different ways. While DOE includes doubled-up families and unsheltered people in their tally, says Nunez, DHS only counts the people registered within its shelter system.

The figure of 84,000 students without stable housing is not one that DHS recognizes, instead it puts forth the number of children sleeping in homeless shelters, which is around 28,000.

Jennifer Pringle, of Advocates for Children of New York, says that DHS should also consider other data points, while also improving shelter placement. She says that if the city wants to stabilize its homeless students, “One thing I would love to see is making sure that the DOE was integrated into the shelter intake process.”

This would involve several things, including “a much more deliberate attempt to place families in shelters located close to the communities of origin.” If there are not any local shelter spots—which is often the case—Pringle suggests flagging families with children as first for any spots that do open up.

She also suggests that families in cluster units—apartments in regular rental buildings used by DHS to house families—receive more direct educational counseling services. While a Students in Temporary Housing liaison from the DOE is stationed in every shelter, these liaisons are often difficult to access for families put in cluster housing.

Community Collaboration
“Homelessness is a structural problem,” de Blasio said when talking with the Daily News editorial board.

Elizabeth Clay Roy and Abelardo Fernandez, co-directors of South Bronx Rising Together--a coalition of government, business, and community leaders--have this concept as central to their approach.

“We are really focused on making sure this is a cross-sector initiative,” Ms. Clay Roy told Gotham Gazette of the community-based work the organization is doing in some of the most impoverished territory in the country.

In an attempt at systemic change, SBRT employs a method known as “Collective Impact...in which local institutions, community-based organizations, higher education, business, philanthropy, the government, and the public join together around a common vision and hold themselves accountable for achieving shared outcomes.” In Clay Roy’s and Fernandez’s case this means addressing the civic and social challenges of Bronx Community District 3.

SBRT’s Leadership Council is a key example of the Collective Impact design. Including professors from surrounding colleges, representatives from the DOE, NYCHA, Jobsfirst NYC; Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.; the city’s Community Schools Director Chris Caruso; and a host of nonprofit leaders, the panel of experts works to provide “strategic direction”  to come up with solutions for the issues SBRT cares about most: child health, early education enrollment, success in school, positive community engagement, graduation rates from high school and college, and post-collegiate employment.

The ideas that come from this body, Clay Roy explained to Gotham Gazette, are then implemented through partnering community organizations and businesses. To help with their recently announced school attendance initiative, for instance, SBRT has enlisted Kinvolved, a tech company that works to increase communication between family and schools.

The SBRT dream is for its collaborative network to develop the community’s young residents into powerful, educated community leaders.

Yet as part of the poorest Congressional district in the nation--63.1 percent of children in SBRT’s target area are born into poverty--South Bronx Rising Together faces steep challenges.

One demographic central in this challenge is homeless students. Spanning school districts eight, nine, and twelve--respectively ranked tenth, first, and second in concentration of homeless students--the 1.6-square-mile area SBRT covers includes seven of the city’s 94 Renewal Schools.

If SBRT can help break through in Community District 3, the model is likely to be successful elsewhere.

Although the coalition has yet to release any concrete results, its “Collective Impact” strategy does have a history of success. The national organization StriveTogether has implemented the model to favorable results in multiple locations across the country. One of these places happens to be Cincinnati, the city whose “community learning centers” inspired Mayor de Blasio’s Community School Initiative.

***
by Colin O’Connor, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette 

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In Effort to Ensure Sound Education, City Battles Student Homelessness Mon, 19 Oct 2015 05:00:00 +0000
City Fights to Stem Annual Tide of Summer Family Homelessness http://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5806-city-fights-to-stem-annual-tide-of-summer-family-homelessness http://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5806-city-fights-to-stem-annual-tide-of-summer-family-homelessness BdB Taylor DHS

Mayor de Blasio, at podium, & DHS Commissioner Taylor, left (photo: @NYCDHS)


New York City is home to about 10 percent of the homeless population in the United States. By the end of 2014, the number of homeless in the city's shelters reached a historic high of nearly 60,000 that included 25,849 children. But since the start of this year, there has been an 11 percent decrease in homeless children. As of July 10, the figure stood at 22,864 homeless children according to city data (with 55,837 total homeless individuals).

Traditionally, though, when the school year ends there is a jump in the number of families applying to stay in homeless shelters. This year, New York City may have broken that trend.

While the number of single adults in the city's shelters is still increasing, there has been a slight but steady decrease in the number of homeless families. This reversal is giving hope to those advocating for the homeless that the summer spike in family homelessness may not be happening this year. They credit this to new programs under the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio to help homeless families move out of shelters and into housing. The administration has also upped efforts to help at-risk families stay in their homes.

New programs are tailored to help homeless families whose situations are often different from those of homeless single adults. About one-third of homeless families have at least one working adult, according to Gabriela Sandoval, policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit group. "It's not that they don't have an income, it's that their income might not be enough to have an apartment," she says of these families. Eviction, domestic violence, and overcrowding of one apartment by multiple families have been identified as the main causes of family homelessness in New York City.

The last few years, the summertime increase in family homelessness has been significant. While the number of homeless families has been rising consistently for years, there is typically a sudden jump of about 500 or more families around the end of each school year, according to Sandoval.

There are several reasons for this surge. To avoid moving to a shelter during the school year, many families double up, that is, live with other families in cramped living conditions. When the school year ends, all the children from both families are home during the day. This increases stress on the host family, often to a point where they ask the other family to leave.

Going to a homeless shelter can mean disrupting or changing a child's school. Some parents who are trying to give stability to their children end up staying in normally unacceptable living conditions while waiting for the end of the school year. Landlords are also less hesitant to evict families with children in the summer than they are in the wintertime.

Families that enter the shelter system at the start of the summer do not necessarily leave once the summer ends, of course. For many, initial sheltering becomes long-term, with the average family stay in the shelter system at over 400 days.

"The kids are really the voiceless victims in the whole system," says Sandoval. Jeff Foreman, policy director of Care for the Homeless, agrees and describes the impact of homelessness on children as "phenomenal."

Last year, 1,800 babies were born in New York City's shelters. "Kids who are born in shelter can be in shelter long enough that they have those incredibly important developmental years—learn to walk and maybe talk—while they're growing up in a shelter," says Foreman. This is the case for Elizabeth, whose grandchildren are growing up in a shelter and who spoke with Gotham Gazette about her family's experience. Elizabeth came with her daughter and her children to a shelter three years ago, hoping that the stay would be temporary. "His first steps, he took in here," she says of her three-year-old grandson growing up at the shelter.

Shelter conditions affect parents and other caregivers, which in turn affects children in the family. Elizabeth and her daughter both regularly meet with a therapist to treat depression. Even though the family has an apartment in the shelter, they still have to deal with a curfew, restrictions on visitors, and water getting cut off for hours at a time. Last winter, Elizabeth and her family had no heat or hot water for three days. "There's nothing you can do," she says of the situation. "The stress is getting to me."

Studies show that homelessness also takes a toll on children's academic performance - it leads to more missed school days, and higher dropout and grade failure rates. Homelessness also leads to developmental delays, health problems, and higher rates of depression and other emotional problems. "It's a life-long impact if you're in a shelter long enough," says Foreman.

The summer spike in family homelessness has occurred consistently since at least 2005 when the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg ended programs that gave homeless families priority access to public housing. The administration felt that this policy was an incentive for families to become homeless so that they could jump the line and get quick access to subsidized housing.

In the decade that followed, the number of homeless families in New York City increased from 8,722 to a high of 14,524 in January 2015. The situation worsened in 2011 when the administration, facing budget issues on the city and state levels, also ended its Advantage program, started in 2007, which was providing temporary rent subsidies to families. Once again, the administration felt it was incentivizing homelessness. "One theory is that some people have been coming into the homeless system, the shelter system, in order to qualify for a program that helps you move out of the homeless system," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at the time.

The current commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, Gilbert Taylor, does not share that view. "These are not single individuals who enter the shelter system by themselves. But rather these are mothers and fathers, these are aunts and uncles, these are grandparents, who are caretakers of the children who are in tow," he told Gotham Gazette. "And it matters. If you have a child, you really think about what's best for your child."

The current administration has introduced eight new programs to decrease homelessness. Many of these programs are targeted at helping families with children. In 2015, there appears to be something of a breakthrough, with a sustained decrease in the number of homeless families. "We've been hopeful for a very long time. It's just that this year, we're finally seeing...some changes in the right direction," says Sandoval.

At an affordable housing press conference on Monday, de Blasio discussed the state of homelessness in the city, saying, "Homelessness is not going up, thank God. The number of street homeless has gone down a little. We have a long way to go. The number of folks in a shelter has gone down about two or three thousand. We have much more work to do."

The CITYFEPS and Living in Communities, or LINC, programs provide eligible families with assistance in paying rent to move them out of the shelter system. CITYFEPS is a rent supplement program for families that are living in or at risk of entering shelters due to a recent eviction or foreclosure. LINC are rental assistance programs that are also intended to move families out of shelters. Three of the six versions of the LINC program are specifically for families. LINC I is for families with at least one working adult, LINC II is for families that have had multiple stays in shelters, and LINC III is for victims of domestic violence. "There's really evidence here of the start of the success of these programs," says Foreman.

The city is also financially supporting landlords who are often reluctant to rent to homeless families. This support includes providing incentives such as a signing bonus and security fund. The current administration has also restored priority access for homeless families to public housing. These policies led to over a thousand families making the transition from shelter to public housing in the last fiscal year.

In the past, the city often coped with the summer increase of homeless families by opening new shelters. But many of these emergency shelters lacked facilities, such as kitchens, needed for family living, like the Pan Am Hotel in Queens that was converted into a shelter last summer, and was widely criticized after bug and rat infestations were exposed.

This year, to check the summer increase in homeless families, DHS has stepped up efforts to prevent families from becoming homeless.

The recently passed fiscal year 2016 budget, which went into effect July 1, increases funding for homelessness prevention. This builds on last year's increase when the administration doubled Homebase, the homelessness prevention services that DHS provides through various nonprofit organizations. Homebase tries to keep families out of the shelter system by providing legal services, rent arrears and other grants, as well as mediation to help them stay in their homes. DHS boasts a 95 percent success rate for families it helped keep their homes last year through Homebase. The agency has also stepped up outreach efforts with an ad campaign targeting at-risk communities as well as a television ad encouraging families facing eviction to contact Homebase. Toward the end of the school year, DHS partnered with the Department of Education to reach out through schools to help families identified as at risk of losing their housing.

Through its programs, DHS is also trying to provide after-care services to avoid families returning to shelters when their subsidy ends, as happened at the end of Advantage. "We offer after-care services that help our clients connect to their communities in a way that will make their movement from shelter be long-standing and permanent," said Taylor. "Part of the after-care services for working families is really thinking about ways in which those employed can build wealth, can build income, and be prepared to afford and maintain their housing at the end of the subsidy period, which is up to five years."

These after-care services are targeted to the particular need of the population of each program and include help with maintaining employment and building income, providing access to vocational training, and aid in safely maintaining housing. "I would like to hope that it is a sustainable decrease, that the number of families that are leaving are leaving permanently," says Sandoval.

The city's fiscal 2016 budget is seen positively by providers of homeless services. "There's a lot of big victories in there," Foreman says of this year's budget. He estimates that there is theoretically enough funding to provide housing vouchers for 800 households under the eight new programs. This could mean thousands of people moving out of shelters and into permanent housing. Another victory in the budget is more funds for DHS to hire housing specialists to help homeless individuals find and keep permanent homes.

Despite the beginnings of progress, as de Blasio said on Monday, a lot more needs to be done to combat the city's chronic homelessness problem. Advocates would like the five-year time limit on the LINC programs for families to be extendable on the basis of need to avoid a return to shelter after the subsidy expires. And, while this administration is allocating 750 NYCHA apartments annually to the homeless, advocates want the number increased to at least 2,500.

Advocates are also seeking over 30,000 new supportive housing units in the city through New York/New York. These are affordable units, jointly funded by the city and the state, with targeted support services within the building for tenants with particular needs such mental illness, substance abuse, or having exited the foster system or incarceration. In New York City, many of the people in supportive housing have come through the shelter system.

On Friday, July 10, New York State Assembly Social Services Chair Andrew Hevesi released a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo calling for 35,000 new supportive housing units. The letter, signed by a bipartisan group of 133 Assembly members, specifically asked for 10,150 units for families. "There's definitely more that the city should be doing," says Sandoval, "and the state should be doing."

For now, the city is processing summer shelter applications from homeless families. While a summertime increase is expected, the numbers may finally be smaller this year. For those who do come to the city's Bronx family intake center to apply for shelter, DHS will also be providing resources to help them stay in their homes in the chance that it is still possible. What will not be known until later in the year is if the summertime surge, even a smaller one than usual, will be offset by the number of families moving out of shelters.

"You don't turn a ship in a day," said Foreman, before adding, "it is beginning to work."

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by Zehra Rehman, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

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City Fights to Stem Annual Tide of Summer Family Homelessness Mon, 13 Jul 2015 22:32:45 +0000