Shelters or Permanent Housing?
As communities around the country build up their homeless services systems, a question frequently comes up. Should we build more shelters or permanent supportive housing units?
The answer is both.
Some community members believe that shelters are just not necessary if you have enough housing for everybody. The truth is the problem is not so simple.
Shelters are a part of the emergency response system in homeless services. When people find themselves without homes, they need a safe place to sleep that night and for, at least, a few weeks or months.
It is impossible in most circumstances to assess a family's housing needs and rehouse that family in one day.
Trying to rush the process can result in serious mistakes being made, like providing a family with long-term support when it might very well manage with assistance over a few weeks only.
Taking the time to carefully evaluate the situation helps us avoid costly mistakes for the system and makes it so that we are not sending a disempowering message to parents by signaling that they need more help, and are therefore more vulnerable, than they really are.
The bias against shelters comes from the fact that many shelters do not offer adequate facilities or services.
In fact, the mere word has negative connotations.
To many, "shelter" means overcrowded, hectic places where people are preyed upon and cannot maintain proper hygiene or get ahead due to a lack of services.
They conjure up images of people trapped in ever expanding cycles of homelessness.
Where it is true that many shelters function that way, some service providers are offering nice accommodations in small shelters that operate like households, with people coming and going as they need to in order to rebuild their lives with dignity.
Friendship Place happens to have such shelters in its Washington DC network. These programs are often centered on job placements and produce excellent outcomes, with residents having a job and a new place to live within a few months, on average.
The key is to give residents enough autonomy so they can accept jobs with non-traditional hours, which greatly increases their employment opportunities.
In traditional shelters, residents need to report back in the evening or risk losing their beds.
In our shelters, people may stay home during the day and catch up on some sleep as needed if they have worked during the evening or the night before, or simply relax, the way we all do at home if we have no pressing business to attend to.
Removing the pressure to pack up your belongings and be out by 7AM alleviates stress and allows the shelter to run like any other household.
At the systemic level, we need to take these program models to scale and have them impact on large-scale shelters.
These programs will be located in clean environments that will offer enough privacy for people to rebuild their lives in good conditions. They will be population-specific and staff will be trained accordingly to support seniors, members of the LGBTQ community, or victims of domestic violence, as a few examples.
These shelters will also be service-enriched to empower people to rebuild their lives faster and more effectively.
The question is not a choice between shelters and permanent supportive housing.
We need to develop better sheltering programs while also building up our housing stock.*
So ending homelessness does start today...
*By the way, not all this housing actually needs to be built. Much of it is ready for us as long we can access enough funds to rent it.