In New York City, which rightfully prides itself on compassion and resilience, there are parents who are trying to rebuild lives with their families but are caught in the crosscurrents of temporary housing, mental health challenges, and the foster care system.
As a policy paper we recently released shows, parents residing in single-adult shelters who are eligible to reunite with their children have no path to appropriate housing that would allow them to have a life together. Fortunately, many of the fixes to the bureaucratic problems are easy, and I believe the city has the will to address the challenges.
Amanda, a 35-year-old single mother we describe in our recent paper, has worked hard to successfully address her mental health challenges. Her resilience enabled her to regain custody of her 7-year-old son eight months ago, but the rigid housing system keeps her in a single-adult shelter while her son remains in foster care.
It’s a harsh irony that systems meant to preserve or reunify families would thwart those very aspirations.
The biggest challenge we found is that the current supportive housing application process in New York City does not have a category for family reunification, which would ensure from the start of a case that the expected outcome is family housing. As a result, parents in single adult shelters, like Amanda, must return to a family shelter in order to qualify for housing of an appropriate size for a family.
For those seeking apartments in the community with vouchers, there is no process for a parent residing in a single adult shelter to increase their voucher size to secure housing of an appropriate size to live with their children. To address these problems, the city needs to modify the supportive housing application rules and revise the voucher process to allow parents who are leaving single adult shelters to qualify for larger apartments.
Other changes we recommend include data sharing between the Department of Homeless Services and the Administration for Children’s Services to identify parents with children in foster care who are eligible for reunification and incorporating appropriate clinical care — including trauma treatment and parenting skills training — into housing models that support family reunification.
The Institute for Community Living’s expertise in family reunification is based on more than 30 years of experience running Emerson-Davis, a residence for families seeking reunification or who are at risk of separation. It is the only housing program of its kind and works to support families facing the most significant mental health challenges. The program includes extensive support services and emphasizes flexibility, enabling families to transition seamlessly between different housing arrangements. Since 2008, 49 families have transitioned out of Emerson-Davis, with 74% remaining unified. The model for this program could be used as a blueprint to be replicated citywide.
Removing barriers to family reunification is a moral imperative. Children who languish in foster care, and age out of the system, experience significantly higher rates of behavioral and emotional challenges than their peers. They are more likely to grow up to experience homelessness and incarceration. Less than 5% graduate from a four-year college.
There’s evidence that reuniting families in permanent housing, rather than family shelters, also may reduce returns to foster care. And swifter reunification also makes sound financial sense. Reducing the time children spend in foster care could generate savings of $628 million in the projected foster care budget, according to the ICL Barriers to Reunification study.
We should do better, especially because the foster care system disproportionately impacts families of color, with Black families 13 times more likely to face separation. The city has the means to turn barriers into bridges and untangle the red tape that traps parents like Amanda.
I know the administration has the will to fix these problems. After all, New York City has made great progress in reunifying families. Our policy paper shows how we can build on this work.