02/07/2012 03:48 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2012

New York Homelessness Targeted In New Shelter Proposal As City's Poverty Continues Rise

As a tide of poverty rises throughout the country, the Bronx stands out as a place where the waters have climbed especially high. So it's no great surprise that a recent review of U.S. Census data by the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, a New York-based nonprofit, found that nearly a third of applicants to New York City's family shelter system started out in the Bronx.

What's more dramatic are the organization's reasons for releasing the report. The group hopes that, by drawing attention to the persistence of homelessness in the Bronx and elsewhere, it will encourage the city to substantially change the official approach to dealing with the problem.

As the report notes, nearly one in three Bronx residents live below the poverty level of $18,310 per year for a family of three, and nearly one in seven experience severe poverty, surviving on less than half of what the government considers a poverty-level income. By both measures, 30 percent poverty in the Bronx is twice as high as the national rate. In Congressional District 16, the situation is even worse. Better known as the South Bronx, it is the poorest congressional district in the country, and its poverty rate is 6 points higher than the borough-wide average.

Combined with a shortage of available apartments for low-income people, the pervasive poverty has forced families to choose between severely overcrowded apartments and the shelter system. "For the time being," the report noted, "the Bronx is, and in all probability will remain, the doorway to homelessness in New York City."

According to Sabrina Harris, a policy analyst for ICPH, the group released the report in order to bolster the argument that the city's strategies for helping homeless families from the Bronx and elsewhere aren't working. In January, the group published a proposal for what it called a "new path" to reducing family homelessness, which urged the city to create a new kind of shelter that would accommodate about 15 percent of families in the existing system -- those in need of longer-term assistance, according to the report. These new shelters would offer beefed-up services aimed at helping families climb out of poverty, including extensive programs focusing on job training, child care and mental health.

Seth Diamond, the commissioner of the city's Department of Homelessness Services, said he was familiar with the group's recommendations and argued that some of them are in line with what the city is already doing. As it stands, there are caseworkers in the shelter system who help homeless parents apply for job trainings, child care and other supportive services. But the city differs from the nonprofit group on question of where those services should be performed. "We don't believe these type of things are best done in shelters," he said.

Diamond and the city's policymakers subscribe to what's known as the "rapid housing" philosophy: get people housed as quickly as possible. That often means connecting them to services offered by neighborhood organizations as opposed to the shelter system. "We don't think people should stay in shelter any longer than they need to," he said. The average stay for a family in a city shelter is nine months.

The ICPH sees things differently. Though the organization agrees that the New York's rapid rehousing strategy works for most families, it maintains that some families would benefit from longer stays and more on-site services. "We believe the shelter can be used as a one-stop shop where services can be provided, rather than forcing families to shuttle throughout the city to get the necessary help," said Diana Scholl, a spokesperson for the group.

If the city were to adopt the ICPH plan, some families could extend their stays in the shelters to 18 months, and would receive child care and other services before leaving the system. According to ICPH President and CEO Ralph da Costa Nunez, the proposed model has implications that extend well beyond the Bronx. Nunez described it as an "immediate action that can serve as a guide to cities, suburbs and rural communities throughout the country.”