Promoting Literacy Among New York City's Homeless

Last month the the Library of Congress honored the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) for its exemplary, innovative, and replicable work promoting literacy among NYC's homeless population. We are joined by Karen Shaffer, Executive Director, Office of Public Private Partnerships at NYC DHS.

We at the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) employ a variety of innovative strategies to help families and individuals successfully exit shelter and return to self-sufficiency as quickly as possible.

One of those strategies is to make sure that families in shelter have access to strong literacy programming to promote academic achievement and enrichment, invaluable to a family’s path to permanency. This is what led us to develop our Library Pilot Program, a collaboration between DHS, other NYC agencies, and organizations that makes reading materials and education activities available through onsite libraries, currently operating in 30 family shelters. 

The NYC Department of Homeless Services’ Library Pilot Project was proposed by the New York City Children’s Cabinet, which Mayor Bill de Blasio inaugurated. The Children’s Cabinet is a multiagency initiative to bolster communication and coordination among more than 24 city agencies and provide a space to identify and analyze individual and common areas of work that affect child safety and well-being. Providing literacy services to school-age children is a key goal of the Children’s Cabinet.

The Library Pilot Project was launched in 2014 and is led by the DHS Office of Public, Private Partnerships’ Education Services team. This work is done in partnership with our Division of Family Services and their nonprofit shelter provider partners; NYC Service; Scholastic; and the Brooklyn, Queens, and New York Public Libraries. Together we have created more than 30 shelter-based libraries and have plans to open even more.

Children in shelter can struggle academically. To address this issue, the Library Pilot Program provides homework assistance for students. But it doesn’t stop there. It also brings a college preparatory program for high school seniors to increase applications and enrollment. Parent-child reading activities, one-on-one reading enrichment sessions, and skill-building games and arts and crafts sessions provide a forum for younger children to express their feelings on a wide range of subjects.

The Library Pilot Program also links each participating shelter to its local New York City public library in the hopes that families and children will come to access library services on their own. To facilitate this, the Program offers library card drives, group visits to local branches, and book discussion groups for families.

Through our partnership with New York City’s public libraries, we’ve been able to collaborate in developing library programs that did not exist before, such as parent and child story time, after-school tutoring, college programming, and GED prep and financial literacy workshops for adults. These programs bring stability to the lives of children and families. A NYC agency partner, NYC Service, helps us recruit volunteers from across the city to increase staff capacity in a sustainable manner.

As we make strides in reducing homelessness and improving lives, increasing awareness of and access to literacy resources remains fundamental to empowering families. And so we will continue to explore expanding the Library Pilot Program to reach even more families in shelter. We were particularly encouraged to do so when, last month, the Library of Congress recognized the project as 1 of 14 programs from around the world implementing best practices in literacy promotion.

 

Photo via Nicola Avery