A seemingly miraculous thing happened in New York City this Christmas season. After skyrocketing throughout the year to almost 60,000 people, the homeless shelter population plummeted by 1,000 during the last two weeks of 2014. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has started taking flack for the record-breaking rise in homelessness during his first year in office, finally had cause to celebrate.
Disappointingly, homelessness is creeping back up in the new year. What was it about Christmas that brought temporary relief to the city's overstretched, billion-dollar shelter system? Family.
Contrary to popular wisdom, people don't automatically become homeless when they lose a job or get evicted from an apartment. Most people are able to avoid shelters or the streets when bad luck hits, by turning to family members, relatives and friends. But when luck does not turn around quickly, social support can wear thin. For others, these ties were not very strong to begin with. Christmas has a way of keeping families together - at least for a little longer.
New York City seems to understand that keeping people tied to their support networks and using the savings to fund other social services can be a better use of limited public dollars. When a family applies for shelter, administrators immediately call relatives and friends who supported them in the past, trying to iron out disputes and even providing temporary assistance for those who step up.
But after a family enters the shelter system, the city's focus on outside family support ends. At that point, the city sees only two ways out of shelter - self-sufficiency or government housing subsidies.
Self-sufficiency in New York City is not easy, with rents high and getting higher. It doesn't help that only 28 percent of sheltered families have an adult working at least part-time. While every effort should be made to get people into full-time work and give them access to other mainstream support, that has often proved difficult. Families in New York City shelters now stay for an average of 14 months. For many, shelter has become more stable than a standard apartment lease.
In contrast, government housing subsidies can get people out of shelters quickly. But subsidies are expensive. And in a housing market like New York City, they can set families up for failure when they expire. One study found that half of all families receiving temporary rental subsidies between 2007 and 2011 eventually returned to shelters.
Fortunately there is a third way out of shelters aside from self-sufficiency and housing subsidies - moving in with family or close friends. Of course, passively hoping that the families and friends of those in shelters will magically start welcoming them in is not a recipe for success. In some cases relationships may already be strained, and in other cases, families may simply lack the resources to help their down-and-out kin.
An active approach is needed. At a fraction of the cost of shelter or housing subsidies, New York could offer subsidies to families exiting shelters for stable, home-sharing situations with family or friends. Subsidies could cover moving costs, contributions to utilities, extra furniture and even a portion of the rent or mortgage. Home-sharing subsidies would not only save money, but could strengthen social networks to overcome future hardships.
While families should be an important part of the solution to homelessness, they are not a solution for everyone. Some people are homeless because they are fleeing harmful family environments. Domestic violence victims should not be encouraged to move back in with abusive partners. Other homeless households have no family networks that can take them in. For them, some combination of self-sufficiency and housing subsidies is still the best approach.
And even when home-sharing subsidies get people out of shelters, they are not a complete solution. Poverty is still hard even when it's shared. Social services should continue to help people become more self-sufficient so they can support themselves and their family members when things go wrong. Investing in both family support and work is the best way to shield entire family networks from the threat of homelessness.
Mayor de Blasio and New York City are taking a page from the same old playbook when it comes to dealing with homelessness in New York City - housing subsidies for some and self-sufficiency for the rest. The result will be continued long stays in shelter and returns to homelessness when subsidies expire. It's time to embrace family as a third way out of the homelessness crisis in New York City. Otherwise, we may have to wait until next Christmas for the shelter rolls to start falling again.