The Child Advocate

By Lindsey Davis

Barbara and her 18-month-old daughter now have a safe place to sleep, but it wasn’t easy. As a child she was removed from her abusive mother and put in foster care. When she turned 18, she found herself pregnant and homeless. With nowhere else to go, she moved back to her childhood home. After the first year, the abuse escalated. Now fearful for her young child, Barbara knew she had to leave. She had no alternative but to apply for shelter at PATH, the City’s homeless intake center. When DHS learned that there were rooms at her mother’s home — failing to acknowledge the domestic abuse that drove her out in the first place — they denied Barbara and her daughter a shelter placement. She sought refuge in a hospital emergency room before learning of the Coalition for the Homeless and our Crisis Intervention Program. She met with one of our advocates and discussed her relationship with her mother and the circumstances of the time she spent living in the home. We noticed that Barbara was displaying symptoms of depression and referred her to our onsite psychiatrist, who provided care as well as thorough documentation that the conditions at home had deteriorated her mental health and that the home was in fact an inappropriate placement for her family. The re-application took months, but with this documentation the family was finally found eligible for shelter placement and provided with a place to stay, away from the abuse.

In October of 2007 the Department of Homeless Services implemented a policy denying access to overnight shelter placement for homeless families whom the City’s investigators believe have alternative housing available. As a result, for the first time in decades, there have been children sleeping on the streets of New York City. City administrators claim that this policy is necessary to keep families who have access to other housing options from going into the shelters and taking space from families who are truly in need.

However, data published by DHS itself indicates that while two thirds of applicants are found ineligible on initial application, at least half of these families are later deemed legitimately homeless and subsequently provided shelter. This means days — sometimes months — go by as hundreds of parents who are truly homeless, but have been rejected due to careless investigations or paperwork errors, struggle to find a safe place for their children to sleep. The Coalition’s Crisis Intervention advocates are the only ones there, fighting for these families and working endless hours to ensure they get a shelter placement.

Thanks to the generous support of the Deerfield Foundation, the Crisis Intervention Program has been given the ability to hire a Child Advocate whose work will focus on providing intensive case management to ensure families like Barbara’s have their rights defended at PATH. The Child Advocate will perform outreach at the intake office, represent families at legal conferences and will help to navigate the complicated application process according to each family’s needs. This position will be a great asset to the department and will allow us to reach out to, identify and serve families in need with a focus and flexibility not available to other members of our Crisis Intervention team, given the volume of families and single adults they must serve each day in our offices.

As the circumstances of the economy and City policies continue to drive families into the shelter system, we expect to see not only an increasing number of applications for shelter at PATH, but also an increased number of families wrongly denied access to shelter. The addition of this position will help us to meet this growing need and ensure that homeless families’ rights to shelter are upheld.

Published in Safety Net, Autumn 2011