More than 5,200 New York City families moved from homeless shelters to permanent housing during the 2022 fiscal year, according to the latest mayor’s management report. The vast majority of those families—about 80 percent—secured housing with a rental assistance voucher, like the municipal CityFHEPS program, which pays the bulk of their monthly apartment costs.
The number of move-outs decreased significantly from June 2021 to July 2022 compared to recent fiscal years, down more than 27 percent from the year before alone. At the same time, families stayed an average of four months longer in shelters last year than they did in 2017.
A major reason for the decrease was the size of the overall shelter population and the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Department of Social Services, which oversees the Department of Homeless Services (DHS). The number of families in DHS shelters reached a decade-long low last year during a statewide freeze on evictions and successful interventions to keep families housed. Now, however, the number of families in shelter has risen dramatically as evictions pick up, rents soar and thousands of newly arrived immigrants seek temporary placements.
A new report by the Institute for Children, Poverty and Health (ICPH) shows how DSS could accelerate move-outs with a few policy tweaks intended to streamline access to rental assistance.
The ICPH report, first shared with City Limits, features the results of a survey of families staying at four shelters run by the organization Homes for the Homeless (HFH). The right to shelter in New York City provides a vital lifeline to families and individuals in need, but imposes eligibility rules and requirements that can lock families out or complicate rapid moves into permanent housing, the researchers said.
“Families come into shelter wanting stability, wanting permanent housing,” said HFH Senior Policy Associate Caroline Iosso, one of the report’s authors. “It’s supposed to be a stopover point for them to collect themselves and access resources.”
The authors found that nearly a quarter of HFH families were granted “conditional status” to remain in the shelter while DHS officials investigated their shelter claims and determined their eligibility. The initial investigation is supposed to take 10 days, but only 15 percent of the HFH families were found eligible within that time frame. The rest were forced to reapply—on some occasions up to 10 times—until they were found eligible.
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The wait times add up: On average, ICPH found, the families spent roughly 40 days in conditional status, with nearly 15 percent spending 150 days—or about five months—waiting to find out if they could remain in shelter. The delays add to the mandatory 90-day waiting period before families can access CityFHEPS vouchers. The 90-day clock does not start ticking until a family is lifted from conditional status and found eligible for shelter.
Under city rules, families with children seeking shelter must apply at a Bronx intake office known as PATH, submit a two-year housing history detailing where they spent nights and prove they have no other housing options. One mistake or piece of missing information results in a denial.
Citywide, less than 40 percent of families with children seeking shelter were found eligible on the first application in March. In July, the most recent month for which data is publicly available, about 56 percent of the 331 families seeking shelter placement submitted just one application.
The rest must call the intake facility, known as PATH, to reapply and remain in shelter under conditional status or go back to living situations they found untenable, like overcrowded homes, the report’s authors wrote. The phone calls were a pandemic-era change, hailed by advocates, to make life easier for families by no longer requiring every member, including school-aged children, to return to the physical office to submit their new applications.
ICPH and HFH recommended halving the housing history to one year or simply considering consistent shelter stay as proof alone of homelesseness.
“As many HFH staff pointed out, if a family is in shelter each and every night, doesn’t that demonstrate that they have nowhere else to go?” the researchers wrote.
The report also recommends increasing PATH staffing—a potential challenge with hundreds of DHS positions vacant and budget cuts on the horizon—and introducing a dedicated eligibility specialist in each shelter.
Echoing other advocates, the researchers called on DHS to do away with the 90-day waiting period before families can be deemed eligible for a housing voucher, or at least include the conditional status period as part of the 90 days.
In June, city officials pledged to do just that. At an event unveiling Mayor Eric Adams’ new housing plan, Chief Housing Officer Jessica Katz said the city would eliminate the so-called “four-month rule”—the 90-day wait plus the eligibility determination limbo—that has limited access to CityFHEPS vouchers.
Three months later, the rule remains in effect.
Faced with a dramatic rise in the family homeless population, the policy changes would help clear shelters, the ICPH team said. Nevertheless, DHS still faces several obstacles outside its control that will require action by other public agencies and private institutions.
Shelter residents are also locked out of permanent housing because of a shrinking number of vacant, low-cost units, the city’s failure to finance and develop enough affordable units, complex administrative processes for applicants and landlords, and widespread discrimination against voucher holders by property owners and agents.
In response to questions from City Limits, a DHS spokesperson said the ICPH report was “overly simplistic, fundamentally misleading and inflates the average conditional length of stay.”
They said they work with each family on a case-by-case basis and connect them with other agencies, like the Department of Education, and medical partners, like the Floating Hospital, to meet their needs beyond housing.
DHS also said the report captures a small sample—families in just four shelters—in a much larger system.
“Our teams work around the clock to assess the unique needs of each and every family that comes to us and to provide them with the services and resources necessary to stabilize their lives,” the spokesperson said. “More importantly, this report fails to acknowledge the compassionate approach we took to address the COVID-19 crisis which prioritized stability for our clients by allowing them to re-apply remotely.”