12/10/2013 04:36 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2014

Failure at the Finish Line: How the Bloomberg Administration Increased Family Homelessness

As the Bloomberg administration comes to an end, it leaves behind a disappointing legacy in the area of family homelessness. When Bloomberg came into office there were almost 7,000 families and over 13,000 children living in New York City's homeless shelters. As he leaves, 12 years later, there are over 12,000 families with more than 22,000 children in shelter.

The administration might argue that these increases were driven by the Great Recession and a growth in poverty, but that is only part of the story. The Bloomberg years focused on big promises that could never be met and strategies to fulfill them that were never fully thought out.

For six years family-shelter policy stumbled from one initiative to another, causing chaos in the shelter system and sending the number of homeless families through the roof. In 2004 the mayor announced an aggressive program to rapidly rehouse tens of thousands of families and reduce homelessness by an astonishing two-thirds, something no previous mayor had ever done. In taking that approach, his administration failed to understand that family homelessness is not a one-dimensional issue -- that not all families become homeless for the same reason. For some, a one-time event like the loss of a job or an illness temporarily impedes their ability to maintain income and housing. For these families, homelessness is a brief, isolated occurrence and a short-term rental subsidy may be an effective way to end their homelessness. On the other hand, many homeless families face one or more longer-term challenges -- whether incomplete educations and a lack of viable job skills, or histories of physical and sexual abuse, or a lack of family and social supports, or other barriers to remaining housed. Without appropriate interventions these families are hard-pressed to transition out of homelessness and instead reappear in shelters over and over again.

Without coming to grips with these realities, those in the Bloomberg administration were never able to get ahead of the issue. They focused on numbers and statistics instead of real families with social needs. As a result, the "Bloomberg dream" of reducing homelessness by two-thirds actually nearly doubled the number of homeless families in New York City. By introducing rental subsidies to rapidly move families out of shelter, the administration drew into the shelter system thousands of families who had been living doubled-up or in substandard conditions and who now sought to secure subsidies. By focusing only on the numbers of families moved out of shelter, rather than the social problems that had brought them there, the administration drove up the return-to-shelter rate. Presently, over 56 percent of formerly homeless families have come back into the system, pushing the shelter census to its highest level in history and the average length of stay in family shelters to over a year -- 409 days. Furthermore, the administration's rapid-rehousing policies led to an unexpected increase in shelter costs of over $1 billion, with little to show for it.

Nonetheless, there is a positive side to the Bloomberg legacy concerning homelessness. The administration has demonstrated clearly that one-size-fits-all policies for the homeless don't work. Family homelessness is a multidimensional issue.

To truly break the cycle of family homelessness, the Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has the opportunity to develop a fresh strategy that redefines the role of shelters in helping homeless families return to their communities permanently. The city could transform the current shelter system into a single, comprehensive network of support services, capable of addressing families' specific needs with a view toward their long-term stability and independence. Understanding that not every family faces the same challenges, the city could institute a triaged family-shelter system that provides a range of service-delivery options.

Level 1 of this system would consist of short-stay facilities. If rapid-rehousing strategies are used appropriately and rental-subsidy programs intelligently, families who simply need a chance to get back on their feet can do so within an approximate 30- to 60-day window. This step alone would immediately take pressure off the system, by rapidly rehousing families who can transition from shelter successfully.

Level 2 would comprise an array of more specialized facilities with lengths of stay up to six months. A transitional program would allow those families who need more structure a little extra time to learn or relearn valuable skills and stabilize their situations. Those families would be readied for re-employment and independent living and moved out of shelter as soon as they were ready to go.

Level 3 would consist of a network of highly technical facilities to serve the chronically and long-term homeless, the most frequent users of public assistance and the hardest to help. These facilities would provide intensive, specialized services to help families tackle the complex causes of their own homelessness, such as domestic violence, insufficient education and employment skills, and the effects of child welfare and neglect, among others. The lengths of stay at these sites could be as long as 12 months or more, if need be.

Such a restructuring of family shelters would result in a system that is more manageable, cost-efficient, and successful in permanently moving homeless families into housing. If services are triaged, families will not only move out of shelters faster, they will be more likely to stay out permanently.

While New York City clearly needs more affordable housing, it also needs a more vibrant, well-organized, and well-run shelter system. Shelters have become a more permanent part of our communities and at present operate as a surrogate for low-income housing in our city. As such, they are no longer emergency facilities but Residential Community Resource Centers, serving the poorest of our poor and the community at large. They can and must, as discussed above, become a positive force for reducing family homelessness, rather than hopeless way stations where families spend idle time waiting for housing that never comes.

The homeless-family policies of the Bloomberg years have been both fiscal and social failures. With over 22,000 homeless children's futures at risk, the time for bold new action and change is now.

Common sense dictates it. Mayor-elect de Blasio has the opportunity and power to do the same.