Chirlane McCray (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
Questions have been raised recently about the cost and achievements of the ThriveNYC mental health initiative. This is no surprise: big, high-profile, efforts like ThriveNYC have always been susceptible to such criticisms.
But ThriveNYC is just the unifying umbrella of more than 40 different pilot programs attempting to deliver innovative mental health interventions across multiple city agencies. Organizing these disparate efforts into one initiative helped get resources for many long-needed mental health services unlikely to be funded on their own.
However, bundling these relatively small, experimental programs together into one big initiative makes them all a target in the event that just two or three of the interventions turn out to be ineffective, or take too long to get off the ground.
This is unfortunate, because in our experience, ThriveNYC provides critical new funding for skilled staff positions essential to our efforts to improve the quality of services to homeless families.
For example, we have long known that homeless children struggle to attend school regularly. Just 34% of homeless children have “good” attendance (90% of school days or better), while over 73% of their housed counterparts meet this threshold. Low school attendance is one of the most damaging outcomes of family homelessness, with often-lifelong negative consequences for children who fall behind in their educational progress.
Gateway Housing and its partners are reducing chronic absenteeism among homeless children through our Improving School Attendance for Homeless Children (ISAHC) initiative. Piloted at three city shelters operated by nonprofit providers BronxWorks, Win, and HELP USA, the ISAHC initiative uses data, training, and coordination to identify and assist families struggling to get their kids to school.
In just its first four months, the ISAHC program has already achieved measurable improvements: one-third of homeless students who were chronically absent or worse have now improved to good attendance under ISAHC, and we believe further progress is likely.
The ISAHC initiative could not have achieved these positive outcomes without staff funded by ThriveNYC.
Better coordination and a laser focus on attendance identifies kids who aren’t getting to school. But every day, we come across children with poor attendance whose families are experiencing severe mental health issues. We refer these families to new specialists employed by DHS’ nonprofit shelter providers, called Client Care Coordinators. Over 300 Client Care Coordinator positions in nonprofit-run family shelters have been created with ThriveNYC funding.
Before ThriveNYC, we would have had very little to offer the children of homeless families facing the most complex challenges. With ThriveNYC, we now have a chance to help them and their families with professional interventions not available before the initiative existed.
Service providers are seeing similar benefits of ThriveNYC-funded initiatives that expand access to Naloxone, provide mental health services in youth shelters, and offer Assertive Community Treatment mental health teams, to name three more ThriveNYC programs that are demonstrating real results for the most vulnerable New Yorkers.
Measuring the performance of new interventions is important – no one wants to spend taxpayer dollars on ineffective programs. That’s why Gateway Housing has independent researchers tracking ISAHC to see if it works, and whether it can be replicated at other shelters.
But implementing effective social services takes time and experimentation. While the jury may be out on some of ThriveNYC’s more ambitious initiatives, we have clear evidence that at least some of its resources are making a measurable difference for homeless children, today and for the rest of their lives.
Mental health needs are all too often overlooked and underfunded. We should preserve ThriveNYC funding to continue the good work already achieved by its most effective programs, and to give its more daring, experimental efforts a chance to demonstrate success.
Ted Houghton and Brendan Cheney are President and Associate Director of Gateway Housing, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the homeless shelter system. On Twitter @Gateway_Housing.