A six-month cap on stays and a lack of permanent housing options have combined to drive more than 1,550 families out of domestic violence shelters and directly into the Department of Homeless Services system over the past two years, records show.
In late January, after years of abuse and harassment, L. decided to leave her ex behind and make a new start far from The Bronx neighborhood where they both lived.
L., who asked to go by her first initial to protect her identity, checked into a domestic violence shelter run by the organization Safe Horizon and, a little less than three months later, received a housing voucher through the state FHEPS program, a rental subsidy for families experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
But so far, her housing search has hit nothing but dead ends. She said she viewed 10 apartments and applied for dozens more, but has yet to find a landlord or broker willing to return her calls or emails, let alone offer her a unit once they learn she has a housing voucher. Her applications for city-financed affordable housing lotteries have similarly gone nowhere, she said.
“I’m just trying to hold it together,” she told City Limits. “I just really need help and I just need a place to live right now.”
But the clock is ticking for L. and her son. State law caps stays in domestic violence shelters at 180 days, though the family managed to get an extension in July. If she is forced to leave before securing an apartment, L. said her next stop will likely be the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelter system—a network of facilities now stretched beyond capacity by a dramatic rise in unhoused residents, many of them recently arrived immigrants.
L.’s experience is typical for families in New York City domestic violence shelters. According to annual reports compiled by the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA), 1,553 families who left the specialized shelters over the past two years immediately entered the strained DHS system. During that same period, the average length of stay in DHS family shelters reached nearly 18 months.
DV-to-DHS shelter pipeline
The shelter shuffle affects more than half of the households who enter domestic violence facilities, and is driven by a combination of factors: The 180-day cap on stays, “administrative discharges” for rule violations and a citywide lack of permanent housing options.
Around 53 percent of the 4,564 families discharged from domestic violence shelters administered by HRA in 2020 and 2021 were forced to move into a DHS shelter or another HRA facility for families who surpass a 180-day limit. The city covers the full cost of stays for families who exceed the six-month limit, with no reimbursement from the state.
Those statistics have frustrated advocates for survivors of domestic violence who say the city and state could do far more to streamline moves to permanent homes while limiting disruption for families. The DV-to-DHS shelter pipeline has several causes, among them a failure to help households secure apartments using city housing resources and rental assistance vouchers.
“I’m positive we can get people housed in less than 180 days, we just have to commit to it,” said Nicole Branca, executive director of the organization New Destiny Housing, which builds and runs supportive housing for survivors of domestic violence. “Having to move again and again and then moving schools for their kids again and again is re-traumatizing.”
Just five of the 4,564 families discharged from a domestic violence shelter in 2020 and 2021 landed an apartment in supportive housing, according to the annual HRA reports. Families in domestic violence shelters have also been locked out of the few units set aside for homeless New Yorkers in city-financed buildings—an exclusionary policy that Mayor Eric Adams pledged to correct in his housing plan.
Meanwhile, only around 2 percent of the 4,564 families managed to move into permanent housing using a rental assistance voucher before the 180-day time limit imposed by the state. The 2021 report was obtained via a Freedom of Information Law request by New Destiny Housing and shared with City Limits.
All told, 116 households in domestic violence shelters, including single adults, successfully secured an apartment with a rent voucher in 2020 and 2021. Just 15 used the state FHEPS subsidy, while 86 had CityFHEPS. The rest used the federal Section 8 program. Another 185 households, including single adults, found permanent housing without rental assistance.
The DHS shelter system is frequently a last resort for New Yorkers facing homelessness. Too often, the agency is left to absorb families who fall through tears elsewhere in the social safety net, said Catherine Trapani, executive director of Homeless Services United, which represents shelter providers. She said the shifting of people from domestic violence shelters to the DHS system felt like “running on a treadmill” and can often lead to people returning to their abusers.
“The DHS system is fed by the failures of other systems,” Trapani said. “One way to do homelessness prevention is to look at the feeders and give them resources.”
Families and individuals in HRA domestic violence shelters typically have access to a more intensive set of services than residents of the DHS system, including legal assistance, counseling, childcare and safety planning. But those supports can disappear when they are forced to leave the shelter.
Though they are not counted in the DHS shelter census frequently cited by policymakers, records obtained by City Limits through a Freedom of Information Law request show that around 3,100 people stayed in HRA domestic violence shelters every night from Jan. 1 to March 22. Last year, 10,201 people, including 481 single adults and 3,628 families composed of adults and children, stayed in HRA’s 47 domestic violence shelters.
About 55,000 people now stay in shelters administered by DHS, according to the most recent data tracked by City Limits.
The problem of domestic violence is immense. Last year, the NYPD recorded 89,032 complaints of domestic violence—a fraction of the true total—and, prior to the pandemic, domestic violence emerged as the leading cause of homelessness in New York City.
Christine Quinn, the CEO of family shelter provider Win, said about 80 percent of the households her organization serves have experienced domestic violence. Many of them came to Win after timing out in domestic violence shelters, she said.
“It’s another disruption,” Quinn said of the forced moves. “You take a leap of faith and you don’t know if there’s something under you.”
Delays make deadlines harder to meet
It’s not supposed to take so long for families in HRA domestic violence shelters to get back on their feet. In theory, they have immediate access to rental assistance vouchers through the municipal CityFHEPS program, unlike families and individuals in the DHS system who must wait 90 days to get a voucher.
In practice, however, households who qualify based on their income still wait months before they get their CityFHEPS or state FHEPS vouchers. Both programs pay the bulk of the rent for low-income households, but recipients encounter rampant, and illegal, discrimination by landlords and brokers who are unwilling to accept rent subsidies.
The delays make it virtually impossible for most recipients to find a landlord willing to accept them, receive approval from the city and state agency that issued the voucher and finally move before the six-month limit on their shelter stay concludes, Trapani said.
“Domestic violence shelter residents have to burn through half their stay before they can look for an apartment,” she said.
The city released a trove of federal Emergency Housing Vouchers for survivors of domestic violence last year, but actual lease-ups have been slow. Only around 16 percent of the 7,800 vouchers that New York City received and distributed to homeless residents, including survivors of domestic violence, since June 2021 have been used to rent an apartment, according a federal tracker.
A collection of accounts from shelter providers compiled by the Family Homelessness Coalition (a City Limits funder) describes voucher delays and bureaucratic snafus that hinder residents as they run up against the 180-day limit. In one instance, a shelter resident was repeatedly denied a voucher because HRA mistook her for her mother, an undocumented immigrant. In another case, a landlord threatened to pull out of an agreement after it took four months to process paperwork.
The recent increase in the DHS family shelter population, including thousands of newly arrived immigrants, has also left little space for families timed out of domestic violence shelters.
Amid the surge, the city’s Department of Social Services (DSS), which oversees DHS and HRA, has sought waivers from the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) to allow families to remain in domestic violence shelters past the 180-day mark, a spokesperson said.
The agency has also suspended a hard-fought policy that allowed survivors of domestic violence to make a “seamless transition” from a specialized domestic violence shelter to a DHS shelter without having to prove their eligibility at a Bronx intake office known as PATH. Just over 300 families made that streamlined move last year, according to the annual HRA report. That means families may now have to go to PATH to prove their eligibility, an arduous process—and risk being denied placement.
DSS told City Limits it has paused that policy as it struggles to house the number of homeless families entering DHS shelters. With the city’s existing family shelter stock near full capacity, many new applicants are being placed in one of at leased 15 commercial hotels around the city which DHS has leased for homeless families, many of whom are recently arrived immigrants.
Trapani said she found the decision alarming because it could mean families moving back in with abusers. “These are consequences that have a real human impact,” she said.
The need for more time
The 180-day limit is the result of state law passed in 2012, which extended the time households could stay in shelter from 135 days. Extending the duration again would take another piece of legislation. Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, who chairs the social services committee, told City Limits she is working with experts to draft a bill that would allow for longer stays in domestic violence shelters.
“So much has changed over the last 10 years in terms of the availability of affordable housing and the needs of domestic violence survivors,” Rosenthal said. “With an unabating homelessness crisis and skyrocketing housing costs, a six-month stay in a DV shelter is no longer enough time for some to secure appropriate housing and support services.”
OCFS spokesperson Jeannine Smith said the state agency is also working with HRA to add more shelters for survivors of domestic violence.
“We have heard and understand domestic violence survivors’ frustration and the challenges surrounding the length of stay in shelters, which has been further exacerbated by the pandemic,” Smith said. “OCFS stands ready to assist and expedite in the certification of additional shelter beds as requested by HRA.”
Back in The Bronx, L. said she is desperate to find a place before she is kicked out and forced to seek a new DHS shelter placement through PATH. She said she has received little assistance from shelter staff, and even a friend who works as a real estate broker told her he couldn’t help her use her voucher.
“Even my friend wouldn’t help me, which is bad,” she added.
She said she hopes she can stay put until she finds a permanent apartment because her son’s school is located nearby. Safe Horizon declined to comment on a specific resident’s experience.
L. recently connected with the organization UnlockNYC, which helps voucher-recipients combat source of income discrimination by contacting law-breaking landlords and alerting the depleted city agencies that are supposed to enforce those rules. They also help voucher holders find landlords who readily accept the subsidies.
In the meantime, L. said, she continues looking for work as a designer and applying for affordable housing lotteries. But the shelter stay and the stress have taken a toll on her son.
“He said, ‘Mom, I didn’t think we were going to be here this long,’” she told City Limits. “I thought we were going to find an apartment.”
City Limits’ series on family homelessness in New York City is supported by Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York and The Family Homelessness Coalition. City Limits is responsible for all editorial decisions.