Council Bill Requires Mental Health Services Availability for Families in Shelters

Image credit: New York City Council.

On March 14, 2023, Mayor Eric Adams signs Local Law 35 of 2023. The new law was originally introduced as Int. No. 522 on June 16, 2022, by Council Member Erik Bottcher. This law requires mental health professionals to be available in each Department of Homeless Services shelter that serves families with children. The bill would require a ratio of one full-time mental health professional for every 50 families.

The purpose of this law is to ensure families at shelters have access to mental health services. At a hearing on March 3, 2023, Council Member Cabán testified that the circumstances surrounding homeless families are often traumatic and due to financial hardship or fleeing situations such as domestic violence, mental health counseling is highly beneficial to supporting this population.  According to a report by the Coalition for the Homeless, as of January 2021, there were over 13,000 families with children in New York City shelters, comprising more than 40,000 individuals.

To enforce this law, the Department of Homeless Services would be required to maintain a pro-rated ratio of at least one full-time mental health professional for up to every 50 families with children. The professionals must be available onsite or via telehealth at each shelter who hosts families and children.  This bill would also require the Department of Homeless Services to annually report to Mayor Eric Adams and the City Council Speaker Adrienne E. Adams on the activity of mental health professionals in shelters that cater to families with children and post such report on its website. The Department of Homeless Services must also supply the technology, like tablets or computers, necessary for the mental health sessions.

On September 13, 2022, the Committee on General Welfare held a hearing for eleven proposed bills relating to homeless services. Marricka Scott-McFadden, the Deputy Commissioner for Intergovernmental and Legislative Affairs and Department of Social Services and the First Deputy Commissioner, Department of Homeless Services testified that though the bill’s intent seems helpful, there are several functional concerns. The Deputy testified that the bill would be extremely costly and due to national shortages of mental health professionals, it could be difficult to comply with the bill’s ratio requirements. Additionally, the deputy testified that the reporting requirements of the Int 522 would be burdensome to the administration given the absence of resources included in the legislation.

At that September 13 hearing, Homeless Advocates, including President and CEO of Women in Need, and former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, expressed her strong support of Int. 522. Quinn testified that becoming homeless and experiencing homelessness in and of itself is a traumatic experience and providing clinical resources for homeless families is imperative to support their journeys towards wellness and permanent housing.  Christine Quinn also highlighted the difficulty for homeless mothers and families to obtain a mental healthcare appointment, citing that one of her clients was referred to an excellent hospital yet she faced a three and half month wait for an initial appointment.  Prior to being signed into law, the full City Council approved the bill on March 3, 2023.

Local Law 35’s rollout will be staggered. The city’s 30 largest family shelters are expected to have on-site mental health services available by July 2024, according to the new law. Services at all remaining family shelters should be up and running by July 2025.

By: Kiera Latham (Kiera is a New York Law School student, Class of 2023.)




One thought on “Council Bill Requires Mental Health Services Availability for Families in Shelters

  1. 12 years ago when we started building supportive housing concentrating on homeless families it was to change the reality as much as possible for the children. The resistance to family supportive housing was unexpected (coming even from the non-profits and government believe it or not) but we were most shocked to find that no mental health assessments were being made of parents in homeless families in the shelters (such assessments were part of the routine for single individuals). While I don’t like having to legislate this kind of specific rule as is proposed here – management should already be doing this – I am forced to conclude there is no other way to get the funding allocated for this most essential need.

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