Abstract: Early Trends in NYC Families with Children Shelter Applicants during the COVID-19 Pandemic (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Early Trends in NYC Families with Children Shelter Applicants during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Friday, January 13, 2023
Camelback A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Ryan Ahern, Sr. Policy Analyst, NYC Department of Social Services
Edith Kealey, PhD, Research Director, New York City Department of Social Services, New York, NY
Kinsey Dinan, MA, Deputy Commissioner, New York City Department of Social Services, NY
Background and Purpose The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically impacted New York families’ daily lives in ways that potentially influence housing stability. Increased unemployment, domestic violence, and family discord related to school closures could have pushed families toward shelter, while policy responses that strengthened the social safety net may have preserved families’ ability to stay in their homes. More broadly, the health risks and related fears associated with the pandemic could have heighted or reduced the likelihood of shelter application. Program monitoring data from the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) in the early months of the pandemic showed a 9 percent decline in the average daily census of families with children (FWC) shelters, driven primarily by a decline in shelter applications. This study was conducted to explore how the composition of FWC shelter applicants changed with the onset of the pandemic, in an effort to shed light on mechanisms driving the change and implications for ongoing shelter dynamics.

Methods We used data from the DHS system of record (CARES) to compare families who applied for DHS shelter during the first six full months of the COVID-19 pandemic (April-September 2020) to families applying in the same six-month period in 2019. We supplemented this with data on neighborhood characteristics including poverty, COVID case counts, and the distance between each city neighborhood and the city’s family shelter intake center. Bivariate statistics were used to explore significant differences in five domains: family characteristics, shelter history, prior housing characteristics, neighborhood characteristics, and application and shelter use outcomes. Multivariate logistic regression was used to identify factors associated with a reduced likelihood of applying for shelter during the pandemic.

Results The number of unique families applying for shelter during the first full 6 months of the pandemic (April-Sept 2020) was 49 percent lower than the number who applied during the same period the prior year. Multivariate models showed that “new” families (with no shelter history), primary tenants, and eviction-eligible applicants were significantly (and substantially) less common among pandemic cohort applicants. Conversely, the proportion of families found eligible due to domestic violence rose notably during the pandemic, although the absolute number of such families fell. Pregnancy was also a statistically significant predictor of pandemic (vs. pre-pandemic) application, while age was not.

Conclusions and Implications Findings from this study suggest that overall, pandemic conditions—coupled with the policies designed to promote economic security and reduce eviction during COVID—served as a deterrent to shelter entry. Future increases in FWC applications may therefore be disproportionately driven by primary tenants and families with little or no prior history of FWC shelter. Recent policy changes, including expanded resources to support housing affordability for low-income tenants, and future labor and housing market conditions will also substantially influence shelter utilization as New York City emerges from the pandemic. Additional research on longer-term shelter dynamics among early pandemic FWC entrants and on changes in application patterns in light of policy changes could inform future efforts to secure permanent housing for vulnerable families.