One organization offers New York City's homeless families more than just shelter and explores their attitudes toward family values.
Today one in every four children in the United States is born to a single mother. One-third - or 400,000 - of these mothers are teenagers.(1) These staggering numbers have been the driving force behind a growing clamor to restore family values.(2) Ever since then Vice President Dan Quayle focused popular attention on this issue, illegitimacy has been blamed for the dramatic increases in substance abuse, school dropout rates, and crime. The reality of American family life today, however, is far more complex than the simplistic picture painted by rhetoric and anecdote. Our nation's poorest families are at risk and will remain so unless we make a serious attempt to understand and address the crisis of stability that faces them.
Since 1986, Homes for the Homeless, a private nonprofit organization in New York City, has operated four family-focused, residential, education-based facilities - the American Family Inns - serving over 8,400 families and 18,300 children. Located in four of New York City's five boroughs - Queens, Staten Island, Manhattan and the Bronx - these centers, which currently serve over 540 families daily, have had enormous success not only in ending the cycle of homelessness but breaking the cycle of dependency as well. Two years after leaving these facilities, 94 percent of families are still living independently.
To place the family-focused approach of the American Family Inns in context, however, one must first understand how New York City's homeless families view traditional "family values." In July 1994, Homes for the Homeless and its research division, the Institute for Children and Poverty, conducted a study of family structure and values among the city's homeless families. Using a detailed, 70-question survey, we interviewed the heads of homeless families whom we serve through the American Family Inns; 498 families participated in the study, representing roughly 8 percent of all homeless families in the city shelter system.(3)
Our study found that not only has the traditional family structure broken down, but with this erosion have come stark contradictions between the reality of homeless women's lives and the values they hold. In fact, preliminary findings suggest that the traditional family may be obsolete for this population. Of all the findings, however, one trend is paramount: Education is a strong predictor of the stability of family structure and of a family's ability to rise out of poverty and become independent.
In essence, the results of this study demonstrate that, for America's poorest, the family has become a loosely knit, transitory group. And unless education is emphasized, children may grow to adulthood without the critical skills, values, and self-esteem typically instilled in a traditional family structure.
The challenge that emerges, then, is not simply to attempt to instill "values" by placing children in orphanages or through sanctioning single mothers financially, but rather to develop viable policies that enable families to remain intact and become self-sufficient.
The Obsolete Family?
Our research with families indicates that the typical homeless family in New York City today consists of an unmarried 20-year-old mother with one or two children under the age of 6, likely fathered by different men. In all likelihood, she never completed high school, never worked to support her family, and had at least one abortion by age 16. There is a one-in-five chance that she was in foster care as a child; if so, she is more than twice as likely as other homeless mothers to have an open case of child abuse or neglect with a child welfare agency.(4)
Although some will argue that this snapshot reflects a deterioration in family values, what it also depicts is a fundamental change in the makeup of America's poorest families. Homeless mothers may believe in the ideal of the traditional family - children living with their married parents - but for most, that image has little connection to their current reality. For these mothers, marriage has all but disappeared and single-parent households have become the norm. Today, 87 percent of these mothers have never been and perhaps never will be married; and over the last decade, the rate of births to unwed teenagers increased by a daunting 120 percent. In fact, homeless children today are three times more likely than nonhomeless children to be born to single mothers.(5)
Just as significant is the steep decline in their ages. Only a decade ago, the average age of a homeless mother was 35; today it is only 20.(6) Young and on their own, many of these mothers either never had the opportunity to learn the values needed to build stable, supportive environments for their children, or simply chose to disregard them. Whatever the case, these families are in the midst of crisis.
The "Notched Down" Generation
The childhood histories of these mothers provide startling new insights into the changes in their family structures and values. Many people assume that today's single mothers must have been raised in equally poor and fragmented families and were not exposed to traditional family values such as marriage or a strong work ethic. Our study found that this was not always the case. Roughly 50 percent of the mothers themselves were born into two-parent households. More than half grew up in families that were self-sufficient and received no public assistance.
These women and their children represent a disheartening phenomenon in our society: They are the "notched down" children of the working poor. Like their middle-class counterparts, they have had to accept lower standards of living than their parents. For the middle class, that decline meant smaller incomes, smaller homes, and fewer children. For those from working-poor families - who were already living at the fringe of poverty - it meant dropping out of school, having a child, moving onto public assistance, and even becoming homeless. The economics of the 1980s forced many Americans to tighten their belts and "notched" the children of the working poor down the social and economic ladder into dependency and homelessness.
Regardless of whether they grew up in families dependent on public assistance or in working-poor families, life for all these women quickly became uniform:
* 71 percent did not plan their first pregnancies
* 63 percent gave birth in their teens
* 21 percent gave birth by age 16
* 56 percent have had at least one abortion
* 30 percent had an abortion by age 16
As for their children, close to half have had no contact with their fathers, three in four receive no financial support from their fathers, and virtually all are growing up dependent upon public assistance.
Pushed into dependency at such early ages, these mothers either have never acquired or have disregarded traditional family values for themselves. This abandonment of values places yet another generation - their children - at risk of dependency.
Beliefs and Values: Far from Reality
Not surprisingly, with the rise in single-parent families has come a shift in beliefs about marriage, family, and independence. Although nearly two-thirds of the mothers agreed that marriage has a positive effect on children, barely half felt it was important to be married. Their attitude, as they put it, is that marriage is "no guarantee for the ideal family." Most did not want to marry the father of their children and did not. Whether it was ever an option for them, marriage simply was not the answer for these young women.
Whether they grew up on public assistance or in working-poor families, virtually all homeless mothers today receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Because AFDC is driven by the presence of children in the household and not by marriage, single women who have children - heretofore, at least - have been guaranteed steady incomes. With their own welfare checks, mothers have no longer needed to depend on husbands to support their families. Homeless mothers are under the illusion that they are the "Murphy Browns" of poverty: "My child and I are making it alone," more than one mother said.
In reality, however, they are lost in the cycle of dependency. Although homeless women can bear children alone, they have neither the skills to support them independently nor the skills to raise them to be independent. Unlike their middle-class counterparts who may receive alimony or child support, these young mothers receive no support and have few choices. Without a complete education and work experience, they are unequipped to succeed. And although homeless mothers may not depend upon a wage earner in the family, they have become dependent upon public assistance. In fact, a family headed by a single young mother is seven times more likely to end up on welfare than is a two-parent family.(7) Unless their current circumstances change dramatically, they may never be able to break this cycle.
Our study revealed that, despite fundamental changes in the structure of low-income families and the mothers' cynicism toward marriage, the values they say they want to instill in their children are those typically associated with a traditional family structure: responsibility, self-sufficiency, independence, and commitment to family.
Although many people still argue that these mothers are content to simply live off of welfare, the reality is that they aspire to live independently and responsibly, if not for themselves, then for their children. Most of the women declared that they plan to be off of public assistance in two years, and 90 percent intend to get full-time employment to support their families.
The experience, however, is that these mothers probably cannot achieve long-term independence from welfare. Although they may desire to become independent and self-sufficient, the obstacles they face are far too daunting to overcome without intervention. They not only lack housing and jobs, but in addition are frequently forced to contend with a host of other problems - a lack of education, domestic violence, poor health, and substance abuse.
Likewise, their independent living and parenting skills are stunted, further jeopardizing their children's chances for healthy development. Without education, their children may grow up to perpetuate the only reality they know: dependency, chronic poverty, and homelessness.
Education: Unlocking the Door
Most paralyzing for the notched-down generation is their incomplete education. Almost two-thirds of homeless mothers we interviewed did not graduate from high school. In fact, most dropped out before the 10th grade, and many have less than a 6th-grade literacy level.
Not surprisingly, our study revealed that the one in three who did graduate from high school tended to come from more stable backgrounds with more traditional family values. They were more likely to have been born to married parents and more likely to have grown up in working-poor families. Furthermore, a greater percentage of graduates said that they wanted to raise their children the way they were raised and that they thought marriage had a positive effect on children.
In keeping, mothers who graduated were much more likely to achieve traditional goals. Compared with those who did not finish school, graduates were
* four times more likely to have begun a family after age 18,
* three times more likely to have married their child's father,
* and almost twice as likely to have only one child.
Without a doubt, education is the key to better family planning, more stable family structures, and a greater chance of escaping poverty. For homeless mothers, however, this key is missing. Unfortunately, just as most mothers have abandoned traditional family values, they have abandoned education; employment; the institution of marriage; and, ultimately, independence. Without intervention and assistance, a homeless mother's final abandonment may be the most costly - her children.
American Family Inns
As this study reveals, family structure has broken down and values have become increasingly at odds with reality. With even less than their parents had, homeless mothers are preparing to hand down this legacy to their children. Unfortunately, although suggestions for remedying the crisis of welfare are filled with the well-intentioned rhetoric of "responsibility," they are often misguided and shortsighted.
Neither substituting harsher welfare eligibility standards for disadvantaged families nor relocating children to orphanages and ushering parents to single shelters, are positive solutions. Either will, in fact, result in enormous social and economic costs. Historically, orphanages and group homes have not worked; and presently, young, single, female-headed families are failing. Simply put, these alternatives will further notch young families down.
What, then, is to be done? In American Family Inns - residential education and employment-training (RET) centers for entire families - parents can return to their education while their children begin theirs; a young mother can become job-readied and trained for employment; and independent-living skills can be instilled, eliminating dependence on public assistance. In essence, these inns are the "main streets" of the 1990s - one-stop shopping centers where all necessary services can be provided, cost-effectively and efficiently, under one roof. Without separating the family, American Family Inns can foster independence and initiative - keys to family responsibility. As Figure 1 illustrates, families move from education and social services to job readiness; to job training; and, finally, to permanent housing and employment.
While living in these RET centers for approximately 12 months, families learn responsibility and embark on the socialization process of education, employment, and traditional family values. Through the educational jump-start initiated here, families leave the RET centers with the desire to continue on to higher levels of training and education - imperatives to compete successfully in the increasingly sophisticated workplaces of the future.
The RET center model is both effective and affordable. The overall cost of operating the American Family Inns is approximately the same as operating emergency shelters or welfare hotels. Yet, dollar for dollar, American Family Inns dedicate at least 10 times more to programs and services than do emergency shelters or welfare hotels because their funding is a creative and interlocking series of public and private grants. Approximately 89 percent of the operating costs - the residential, child care, and social services - are funded through AFDC money available for shelter costs.
Funding for all specialized program services - such as after-school education, job training, family literacy, and crisis nurseries - comes from a mix of public- and private-sector grants; and services provided through the AFDC funding stream are supplemented with private support to enrich their offerings. Homes for the Homeless currently receives support from over 40 foundations and corporations and a dozen city, state, and federal agencies, such as the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Key components of the American Family Inns concept include
* Intake and needs assessment. Within 24 hours after entering a RET center, each family is assigned a caseworker who will continue with that family throughout their stay. The caseworker will develop a service plan for the family, taking into account their unique needs.
* Health services. Through linkages with health care providers and local hospitals, the RET centers provide families on-site health services, including medical evaluations and preventive services, such as prenatal care for pregnant women and immunizations for children.
* Educational opportunities. On-site alternative high schools, provided through New York City's Board of Education, enable adults to complete general equivalency diploma (GED) programs. Family literacy programs, funded through a HUD grant, provide adult basic education and engage the entire family in learning. Early childhood development centers are enriched with private-sector support to provide preschoolers with a jump-start on their education. After-school accelerated learning programs, made possible through support from the Merrill Lynch corporation and other foundations, supplement students' public education. Recreation programs, including theater, dance, and art enhance children's creativity and socialization skills.
* Foster care prevention. Innovative crisis nurseries, funded through the New York State Department of Social Services and HHS, provide safe havens for children at risk of abuse. Intensive family counseling and crisis intervention are available to parents and children, helping to prevent at-risk families from having their children placed in foster care.
* Independent-living skills. Workshops address such issues as parenting, domestic violence, child development, self-esteem, household maintenance, and budgeting to assist families in developing the independent-living skills necessary to retain housing.
* Substance abuse treatment. Through linkages with alcohol- and substance-abuse treatment providers, the centers offer on-site counseling programs that encourage family preservation by including children in therapy - unlike many programs that remove children from the family.
* Employment training. HUD funds an employment-training program that gives adults the motivation, knowledge, and experience to move from welfare to work. On-site employment specialists at each inn help residents find jobs once they have graduated from this four-month program.
* Housing assistance. When residents are ready to leave the transitional housing provided at the American Family Inns, on-site housing specialists assist them in locating adequate housing.
* Aftercare services. Once families move to permanent housing, state funding allows aftercare workers to visit them for up to 18 months and offer counseling, client advocacy, and linkages to available community resources. For instance, aftercare workers may help families arrange for their landlords to perform needed repairs or connect families with health care or child care services.
To provide this breadth and depth of services, Homes for the Homeless has found an economy-of-scale in size of operation to be between 90 and 120 families for each American Family Inn, although Homes for the Homeless does operate one facility that accommodates 225 families.
Central to success in all these program areas is the environment of the American Family Inn: clean, safe, and structured - a variation of a school campus operating year round, 24 hours a day. These inns provide strict and controlled settings, guided by rules and regulations exactly what has been missing in these families' lives. The facilities afford homeless women and children a second chance - in some cases, their first chance - to be socialized to the values of a "traditional life." In essence, for homeless families, this approach represents not just a first step, but a quantum leap in redirecting their lives.
Perhaps the most powerful support for the American Family Inn concept is demonstrated by those who have graduated from these facilities and moved to permanent housing: approximately 94 percent are still living independently 24 months after leaving the facility. When compared with the 50 percent return-to-shelter rates for New York City, the American Family Inn approach clearly holds great promise.
Table 1. Cost of Family Preservation vs. Cost of Family Separation (per family/per year, in 1995 dollars)
American Orphanages Family Inns and shelters $25,000 $98,000
Sources: New York State Department of Social Services, Division of Medical Services; New York City Child Welfare Administration; and the New York City Commission on the Homeless.
For today's homeless families, the opportunity has never been greater, and the probability has never been higher, for profoundly affecting and redirecting their futures. Moreover, all this can be achieved for a far lower cost than other alternatives. As Table 1 illustrates, the cost of breaking up an average family of three on public assistance - placing the children in orphanages and forcing the parent to an adult shelter - is roughly $40,000 per child and $18,000 per adult, or nearly $100,000 per family annually.(8) Exorbitant as these figures are, they are minuscule when compared with the social impact and financial costs that will result from this kind of stopgap solution.
By contrast, the expense of preserving family unity through the American Family Inns is nominal, financed by a combination of federal, state, local, and private funding. Placing a family in an American Family Inn costs roughly $8,300 for each person, or $25,000 per family annually. And if the tens of thousands of multiple-dwelling properties owned by the federal government's Resolution Trust Corporation and existing emergency shelters across the country were converted into American Family Inns, the operating cost could in fact be reduced further.
American Family Inns cost roughly one-fifth the expense of breaking up a family but provide up to 10 times the services, with tangible, long-lasting results. Considering that children could live in orphanages as long as 18 years - their entire childhoods - and that transience in and out of shelters can last a lifetime, the savings of American Family Inns become apparent.(9) The need to replicate this standard is clear, and the social impact of the concept can be phenomenal. Regardless of how so many young families have become less functional and more dependent on public assistance than at any other time in our past, there should be little debate as to what should be done.
If we do not learn from history, we will surely repeat its mistakes. By once again placing children in orphanages, and young mothers on the street, we will simply be warehousing poverty. The key is not family separation, but family preservation through education, job-readiness training, and the socialization of responsibility and independence. With the American Family Inn approach, we have the opportunity to make history; without it, we risk repeating one of the past's less sterling moments, with perhaps millions of children placed in orphanages, hundreds of thousands of young women in shelters, and hundreds of billions of dollars in unwarranted costs. No child should be at risk, nor should the American family be allowed to become a myth.
1. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States 1993 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1993), 77-78; Children's Defense Fund, The State of America's Children: Yearbook 1994 (Washington, D.C.: 1994), 53.
2. Family values, as discussed here, are defined as attitudes and opinions toward marriage, parenthood, education, employment, independence, and responsibility. This article discusses preliminary research that demonstrates the paradoxes inherent in family values, particularly within the context of homeless mothers and children on public assistance. Further research will be necessary to gain a more solid understanding of the causes and effects of the complex trends highlighted in this article.
3. We derived this 8 percent estimate from New York City Department of Homeless Services, The Emergency Services for Homeless Families Monthly Report (July 1994).
4. Unless otherwise noted, the data in this article comes from the Institute for Children and Poverty's July 1994 survey of 498 homeless families.
5. Ibid.; Children's Defense Fund, State of America's Children 1994, 75; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Monthly Vital Statistics Report 35, Supplement (October 1995): 9.
6. Institute for Children and Poverty, 1994 survey.
7. Sar Levitan, Programs in Aid of the Poor (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990).
8. The costs of foster care, home, and group placements were obtained from 1991 data from the New York State Department of Social Services, Division of Medical Services, and the Child Welfare Administration of New York City. The cost of adult shelters was obtained from the New York City Commission on the Homeless, The Way Home: A New Direction in Social Policy (New York: 1992).
9. House Committee on Ways and Means, 1994 Green Book: Background Material and Data on Programs Within the Jurisdiction of the Committee on Ways and Means (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1994), 636-637.
RELATED ARTICLE: American Family Inns at Work: "Sherice"
"Sherice," age 20, has a two-year-old daughter, "Tonya," and no one to help out. Like Elena, she was trapped early in the cycle of welfare dependency.
Sherice grew up on welfare and had to care for her 10 younger siblings because their mother was alcoholic and frequently absent. At 17, Sherice dropped out of high school when she became pregnant with Tonya. After her baby was born, she was forced to leave the family's overcrowded apartment and move in with reluctant relatives. Sherice's options ran out when this living situation also proved inhospitable; she found herself with no one to turn to and became homeless.
Sherice and Tonya were referred to an American Family Inn in Queens, where they lived for 10 months. After Sherice obtained her GED through the on-site high school and completed a four-month job-training apprenticeship in food services, the on-site housing specialist found her a place to live. With the help of the American Family Inn's employment specialist, Sherice entered the New York Restaurant School with a parital scholarship so she could pursue her goal of becoming a chef.
Sherice recently completed her demanding cooking classes and has begun an externship at a local catering company. She plans to use the skills she has learned to eventually form her own catering company after she graduates in December 1995.
RELATED ARTICLE: American Family Inns at Work: "Elena"
"Elena" is an 18-year-old single mother with a 2-year-old son, "Ricardo." She has never been married, has never lived independently, and receives public assistance. She is a typical mother residing in an American Family Inn.
Elena has a fractured and unstable past. She was shuffled between her mother and father until age 5, when she was placed in the first of three foster homes because she was being physically abused by her mother. At age 14, Elena moved in with her boyfriend and his parents; at age 16, she dropped out of high school to give birth to her son. Her relationship with her baby's father deteriorated as he increased his drug use; she left with her son and moved back in with her mother until her stepfather forced her to leave.
"I don't want my baby around his father, because he's a crackhead," Elena says. "I won't have Ricardo see that stuff. It's not right."
Elena had no other choice but to enter the shelter system. Prior to arriving at the Clinton Family Inn in Manhattan, Elena had lived in an emergency assistance center, a short-term shelter, and a welfare hotel. The day after she arrived at the Clinton Family Inn, she enrolled in the on-site programs, including the alternative high school, where she is working toward completing her GED; the Child Discovery Center, a licensed daycare center, where her child is being socialized to the norms of education; and the independent-living skills workshops, where she is learning parenting, budgeting, nutrition, and preventing family violence.
Elena also has begun intensive job readiness and job training. Each afternoon, she fulfills her internship requirement as a teacher's aide in the Child Discovery Center. She expects to complete the program in the next several months, move into her own apartment, and either find full-time employment or enroll in a community college to pursue a higher education.
Elena says, "I feel like this is a place where I can get my life together. My mother never cared whether I went to school or not; she never told me about having babies or being a parent. The people here and the programs here are helping me. I'm learning to be a teacher's assistant so that I can go to college and start my own business - and get off of public assistance."
Elena's and Ricardo's names have been changed.
Ralph da Costa Nunez is the president of Homes for the Homeless.…