Each day in America opens a new chapter in our long-overdue reckoning with our country’s shameful history of racial injustices. From police brutality to higher death rates from chronic illnesses to the impacts of addiction and incarceration, conversations around racial inequities are expanding, and not a moment too soon.
As Mayor de Blasio and the City Council look to address stark racial disparities in our city, they must make combating New York’s family homelessness crisis central to their efforts. That’s because, in New York City, several statistics cut straight to the heart of any discussion about the historic impact of racism and inequity for people of color. Families with blackheads of households live in poverty almost twice as often as their white counterparts. Even more sobering, families with children represent nearly 70% of the city’s shelter system, and 94% of those families are made up of black and Latina women and children.
Those of us on the front lines of New York City’s homelessness crisis see the devastating effects of systemic racism and racial injustice every day. We see tens of thousands of black and brown children growing up in shelter; their parents facing constant barriers to stable employment, education and health care; and countless families of color trapped in a cycle of poverty.
We see the effects of structural racism play out in the lives of women like Naomi. Naomi is a woman of color who has struggled for years to get her family into stable housing. After a period of homelessness, she was finally able to move into her own apartment only to deal with constant leaks, mold and rodent infestation. To top it off, her 8-year-old son has chronic asthma.
How can we accept the large numbers of black and brown children enduring the psycho-social stress and disruption caused by homelessness and unstable housing?
The same structural racism that puts black Americans at an exponentially greater risk of being killed by police is also responsible for disproportionate poverty among black and brown families, and overrepresentation in shelters. These are the same families hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has only exacerbated existing economic deprivation and proven to be twice as deadly in communities of color. The Citizens’ Committee for Children recently found that New York’s black and brown neighborhoods — including East Tremont in the Bronx, East New York in Brooklyn, and Elmhurst/Corona and Jackson Heights in Queens — are most likely to see a surge in family homelessness after the eviction moratorium lifts as families with limited resources will be unable to pay back rent.
So, what do we do now? New York City must invest proven housing supports to help families maintain housing stability. Increasing rental subsidies in both the short- and long-term will help families get back and stay on their feet as adults find work. Expanding services that help families avoid shelter in the first place, such as rental assistance navigation, service referrals for childcare and workforce development, will give families the tools they need to stay stably housed.
Investing in rapid rehousing options would ensure that those languishing in shelter as well as those who need housing on short notice, like domestic violence survivors, are in a home as soon as possible. Each of these initiatives are essential to addressing New York’s family homelessness crisis, which goes hand in hand with righting historic and present-day racial discrimination that lead to disparate outcomes for communities of color.
These solutions are not new. However, as COVID-19 continues to exacerbate existing inequities, the need for change has never been greater.
At this moment of profound loss, uncertainty, and despair, there is an opportunity for tremendous change. Uprooting racism from our laws, policies, and systems will take a long-term, comprehensive plan, and addressing our city’s family homelessness crisis is key to our path forward.
Rodriguez is the associate executive director for policy and advocacy at Citizens Committee for Children a co-convener of The Family Homelessness Coalition. Santana is the Vice President of Empowerment at RiseBoro Community Partnership