Support for New Families in Shelters

Families are spending an average of more than 400 days in New York City homeless shelters, and nearly half of all their children are under 6 years old. Last year, some 1,800 babies were born to mothers living in city shelters. Yet there are virtually no developmental supports in place for homeless babies and toddlers, a recent investigation by the Center for New York City Affairs found.  

For newborns, that's about to change. In the coming months, health educators from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's (DOHMH) Newborn Home Visiting Program will begin calling on babies whose first home is a shelter. "These are kids who are being born into the most significant social, emotional, economic and health challenges you can be born into, and we want to do whatever we can to support their mothers and fathers," says George Askew, M.D., deputy commissioner of family and child health at DOHMH.  

We’re kind of flying a small airplane and we’re going to make it a big airplane.

The program, which was established in 2004 and visited just over 2,300 families during 2014, sends health educators to visit parents with their babies in their homes soon after a birth. During one or two home visits, educators bring gifts for the baby and assist moms with breastfeeding and discuss other ways to bond with their newborns. They also scan homes for issues of safety—such as window guards that aren't properly installed, or defunct smoke alarms.

With the ambitious aim of now reaching all babies born to mothers in shelters, DOHMH will need to find ways to tweak home scans for shelters and make the visits appealing to residents. Askew would like to see it expand its services as well. "It has great potential for looking at maternal depression or screening for it. There's an opportunity for screening for paternal depression," he says. "We're kind of flying a small airplane and we're going to make it a big airplane."

For more information about the Newborn Home Visiting Program, call 311.