Last night, more than 10,500 families, including more than 17,000 children, slept in New York City homeless shelters. That’s nearly enough kids to fill the Barclays Center. On average, these children will spend roughly 18 months in temporary housing, while their parents work to gain stability, increase their incomes and find apartments that they can afford in a city that is increasingly becoming unaffordable.
Families in shelter are struggling to secure the most basic needs: a stable home, a steady income and healthy meals. They must also balance their immediate daily needs — like getting their kids to school and putting food on the table — with longer-term priorities like obtaining mental health care. But in so many cases, that critical piece of their long-term success isn’t being met, making it harder for families to leave shelter and more likely that they will return.
Our city is letting our most vulnerable New Yorkers down by not providing accessible mental health care, and the ripple effects are massive.
If a homeless mother broke her leg, everyone would agree she should get immediate health care, especially before she is expected to do the hard work required to leave shelter. But right now, thousands of parents and children in shelter are living with mental health challenges — including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and self-harm — at far higher rates than the general public, and without the on-site clinical care they need. The results can be said, with mental health challenges putting lives in danger, making it harder for families to leave shelter, and making it more likely they will become homeless again in the future.
For New York City to have any shot at ending our serious family homelessness crisis, we must do more for families with unmet mental health needs. That’s why we have worked together — lawmaker and homeless shelter provider — to introduce a critical piece of legislation that would require the city to fund mental health professionals at every family homeless shelter.
Homelessness is, in and of itself, an immensely traumatic experience. From the agony of being forced from your home by eviction or domestic violence, to New York’s onerous and traumatic intake center, where homeless families are “investigated” to ensure they are truly homeless, it should come as no surprise that 93% of homeless moms have a history of trauma and roughly half suffered from PTSD, according to the US Department of Health & Human Services.
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Homeless mothers aren’t the only ones suffering. Last year, the US surgeon general issued an advisory about the nation’s urgent youth mental health crisis, warning that children who were already vulnerable, such as low-income and homeless youth, were at a heightened risk. In fact, homeless children experience emotional and behavioral issues at three times the rate of their housed classmatescompounding the educational interruptions and learning loss they have already experienced due to their unstable housing situation.
Our shelter system needs to be more than merely a bed for the night. It must be a place for New Yorkers going through some of the most horrific moments of their lives to recover, find respite and rebuild. That reset should not and cannot be just a financial and physical recovery; it must also nurture the entire person. To do that, it must include mental health care and substance abuse treatment.
Currently, people living in shelter who need mental health care are referred to clinicians who aren’t based in a shelter. While this may be a good option for some families, and one that facilitates continuity of care after they leave the shelter system, it does not work for many families. These clinics’ long wait times, distances from shelters, and limited operating hours that fail to accommodate nontraditional schedules only further increase roadblocks to receiving appropriate care.
While the city introduced social workers into family shelters six years ago, the large caseloads they handle and restrictions in their contracts prevent them from providing the full clinical services families need, like ongoing therapy and medication management.
By providing the funding for dedicated mental health professionals who are experts in diagnosing and treating adults and children in the shelters where homeless families live, we will correct this omission and help begin providing the healing these families need.
Mental health care is just that — health care. Now, our city has an opportunity to ensure the more than 10,500 families currently in shelter have access to the care they need and deserve. Providing these resources is the right thing to do — plus, it will help families who find permanent housing stay there. It’s a win-win we should all be able to get behind.
Quinn is the president and CEO of Win, New York City’s largest provider of shelter, social services and supportive housing for homeless families. Bottcher represents the neighborhoods of Greenwich Village, Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen in the City Council.