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Stresses of Shelter Life Rip Homeless Families Apart, Study Finds

By Amy Zimmer | May 16, 2017 11:18am
 Eli Ramos shared his story about being in a shelter with his girlfriend and toddler with the Center for NYC Affairs.
Eli Ramos shared his story about being in a shelter with his girlfriend and toddler with the Center for NYC Affairs.
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Center for NYC Affairs/Katherine Hoskins

MANHATTAN —  A record 23,000 children — nearly half of whom are under 6 — are now living in the city's shelter system, and more often than not, their families are placed in shelters far from their communities, according to a new report from the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.

Currently there are about 62,000 people in the city's shelter system, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.

The stress of shelter life adds up, especially as the average length of stay has also reached new heights: Families with children are staying about 14 months, the report released Tuesday found. The pressure is corroding family ties — spurring partners and spouses to separate or driving parents and children apart as kids are placed in homes with friends, relatives or foster care.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has recognized the problems of uprooting families from their existing social networks, which is why he's described his plans to add 90 new shelters across the city as a way to ensure people are in shelters "as close to the neighborhood they come from as possible," he said in February.

So far, four of those 90 shelters have opened, with some of the nearby residents complaining that their neighborhoods are bearing more than their fair share of the homeless crisis.

As those controversial plans move forward, the report provides a nuanced picture about why moving families far from their homes destabilizes families and the harsh realities, in general, for families in shelters.

Nearly half of families entering shelters are placed away from their youngest child's school, landing far from their houses of worship, doctors and neighbors in unfamiliar neighborhoods with poor-performing schools, little access to healthy food, and high crime rates, the report found.

The percentage of such families has grown by over a third in the past five years.

“Families are moving far from their neighborhoods and aren’t necessarily given better opportunities in terms of food [access] or crime or schools,” said report author Kendra Hurley. “That’s not good for families.”

When Eli Ramos was 19 he spent nearly a year at a Bushwick shelter with his girlfriend and their 2-year-old, feeling isolated since visitors weren't allowed and making it hard for his son’s grandmothers to visit from The Bronx. He remembered how the searches by the shelter’s staff of his nearly empty refrigerator and pantry made him feel judged rather than supported since the searches never came with the promise of help.

“There were little things piling up and piling up where I wanted to burst and lash out at these people and say rude things,” Ramos said in the report.

He and his girlfriend almost split up under the strain, he said. “We were continuously arguing over little stuff, and our son used to watch it and that put a toll on him,” he said. The pair eventually landed an apartment in public housing soon after the birth of their second child.

The Center for New York City's report highlighted that interventions like training and coaching case managers — even if they are not social workers —  can help when working with families who have undergone trauma.

One homeless service provider for women and children, Win, for instance, piloted a program teaching staff to avoid re-traumatizing families and de-escalating tension rather than engaging in a power struggle — but had to hire a staffer to supplement trainings with coaching when the new strategy proved difficult to implement initially.

HELP USA, another large homeless service provider, began allowing residents to look after one another’s children, reversing a policy that made it hard for parents — especially single mothers — to work more or make quick trips to buy diapers.

At Siena House, a small shelter in a former convent in The Bronx, volunteers and staffers lead discussions with new moms on topics like breastfeeding, baby massage and how to create a soothing bedtime ritual.

“There is a sense that there are kids living here and spending time in shelters, so let’s try to make it as productive as possible, and, at least, not be damaging,” Hurley said of the “depressing” reality. “It does feel like there’s an acknowledgement now that families have nowhere to go.”

Through the de Blasio administration's ThriveNYC initiative, the city is adding one social worker for every 25 families, and the administration earmarked $10 million for hiring social workers at public schools with large homeless populations, city officials said.

Department of Homeless Services spokesman Isaac McGinn added that the existing shelter system was built up in a "haphazard way" over the past four decades, with little thought about placing residents outside their communities.

"Our plan for addressing the citywide challenge of homelessness establishes community as its guiding principle," he said, "offering homeless New Yorkers, including the nearly 70 percent of our clients who are families with children, the opportunity to be sheltered closer to the essential anchors of life, like schools, and communities they used to call home in order to get back on their feet."