Remembering the Forgotten Face of Homelessness

little girl and boy are walking on the street
little girl and boy are walking on the street

There's no denying that our nation faces a homelessness crisis. But media coverage about this crisis, and the policy ideas proposed to address it, often exclude a huge portion of the homeless population: women and their children.

Those of us who skim the news with our morning coffee would be forgiven for not knowing the damning statistics: nearly 40 percent of our nation's homeless are families; almost 25 percent are children. Nearly all of the families for whom we provide shelter at Win, the nonprofit I lead in New York City, are led by single women. Many have fled domestic violence.

These families are the forgotten face of homelessness in America. In New York City, they are actually the majority of the homeless population. They're our neighbors, our children's classmates, our co-workers. And as citizens of the wealthiest nation on earth, we know we can do better by them -- particularly the children. The time has come to stand up for these children and their families. The time has come to demand that our society breaks the cycle of homelessness.

President Obama is heeding these calls. Building on his progress in combatting veteran homelessness, his administration has proposed $11 billion in new funding over the next ten years to help homeless families. Nearly $9 billion is dedicated to housing vouchers -- funds that are dedicated exclusively to help the homeless pay their rent. If approved by Congress, this proposal will make a real difference in families' lives. But, given Congressional paralysis, that's a big 'if' -- and the most vulnerable among us will pay the price of their inaction.

Funding priorities like this are the start of a meaningful policy shift to embrace the needs of homeless mothers and their children. These vouchers have been proven to be a cost-efficient method of finding permanent, stable housing for vulnerable populations. By proposing a serious plan to provide sustainable funding streams for these vouchers targeted to families, the President has demonstrated the leadership and vision that is necessary to move our national dialogue about homelessness forward.

Four walls is only the beginning. Any funding commitment to housing, no matter how substantial, must be paired with other reforms that address the deeper roots of this issue. After all, more times then not, homelessness is not simply the product of a family running out of money.

In New York City, we have a model that recognizes this complexity -- and it should be deployed nationally.

Local government officials in New York, working hand in hand with the nonprofit sector, recognize that factors like inadequate job training, limited access to childcare, mental illness, and domestic violence all feed the cycle of homelessness. They understand that brick and mortar housing and shelter need to be seen as the foundations of a solution -- not its sum total. Families need access to comprehensive, holistic services that target the needs of both moms and their children.

We have experienced success with free, on-site parenting classes, financial literacy trainings, and health workshops in our transitional housing facilities. Job training and placement support can make a huge difference for those still looking for work, or those working -- as nearly 50 percent of Win moms do -- and not making enough to get by.

Importantly, local and federal commitment to increasing the stock of affordable housing could change the tenor of this conversation. New York has made meaningful progress toward making the city more affordable for everyone, and the City's recent reforms should be considered as a national model for every city struggling to curb skyrocketing rent costs.

These proposals should transcend partisan politics. By shoring up our society's safety net for the most vulnerable, and keeping families intact and secure while driving down skyrocketing costs to local governments, policies to address family homelessness should appeal to Democrats and Republicans alike. By preempting costlier interventions -- like medical and penal costs our society so often incurs when we leave homelessness unaddressed -- they should earn the support of every taxpayer. An ounce of prevention, after all, is worth a pound of cure.

As a former elected official -- I represented Manhattan's West Side in the New York City Council from 1999-2013, serving as Speaker for two terms -- I know how tricky it can be to enact real change through legislation. Two parties can agree on a concept and disagree on its implementation.

But if ever there were a time to cast partisanship aside, surely this is it. Our elected officials have established models of success to build on. They have a detailed, thoughtful budget proposal from President Obama already on the negotiating table. They only lack that which should be the easiest to acquire: the will to act.

A failure for our political leaders to address family homelessness would be a sad indictment of our fractured, polarized political system. But the other path -- a coordinated, substantive effort to break the cycle of homelessness once and for all -- could be its redemption.