Instead of shared housing, a better name for this might be "shared living." The phrase describes an arrangement that is used more and more commonly in homeless services across the country to give participants faster access to housing. It is the agreement between two or more unrelated adults to share an apartment or a house. If this sounds a lot like an old roommate arrangement you have been a part of before, that's because that's all it is: two or more people agreeing to share living space for a determined period of time.
The difference with regular roommate households or group houses is that, in this case, staff assists people in securing the living situations.
So, what is shared living and what is it not?
In shared living arrangements, tenants usually sign individual leases with landlords that govern the conditions of their stay in the households. Unlike other rental agreements, each lease starts when the individual signing it moves it. This means that within the same household, each tenant is on her or his own schedule in relation to the lease period covered. In other words, leases are likely to expire at different times in the year.
Because many of the programs securing living situations in such households are short-term rapid rehousing programs, members of the same household may be at different stages of their service cycles with the organization. For instance, a household member may already have graduated from the program when a new household member with a few months left in the program moves in.
This is important in terms of exchanges within the household and of the perception community members might have of households like these. For service providers, it also adds complexity because some housemates are done with services while others are actively participating in them, meaning that expectations are different.
From the point of view of community perception, these households are just like any other shared households. They are made up of people of have an economic interest in lowering their rental expenses by sharing living space so they can live within their means.
One thing these households are not is group homes. They are not residential programs and do not have to be licensed as such - even in cities where landlords are required to license all their rental properties. The licenses these landlords obtain are only for renting purposes.
By extension, neighbors should not feel that these households have to be "monitored" like residential rehabilitation programs. It is helpful for staff to be mindful of this. The presence of the household in the neighborhood does not have to be justified.
Another perception to undo in this relatively new model for service providers is the idea that somehow the homeless services organization that has assisted people in obtaining this housing is responsible for the site. It's not.
The organization is responsible for providing services to each person in the household, but not for the site itself. The landlord is responsible for the site. The house or apartment is not a "facility." It is a place where two or more people have chosen to live together and are responsible for their own tenancy.
It is also important for service providers to remember that the organization does not belong in the relationship between a tenant and a landlord. The single adults moving into these households have the right to interact with their landlords directly and service providers should be careful not to undermine them by providing assistance when it is not necessary.
Of course, there is a lot staff can do through supportive counseling and community relations to help solve problems that may arise between a tenant and a landlord, but, in the end, the legal agreement is between the two people whose names are on the lease: the tenant and the landlord.
This model is flexible and allows thousands of people to secure housing they can afford faster. It also allows some people to find added stability and to create families of choice. Because of this, it presents tremendous potential for homeless services organizations in the country. Just like with any other service model, service providers should pay close attention to boundaries to ensure that program participants get the most out of it.
There is also a great need to educate landlords, neighbors, and the media so new neighbors in shared households set up this way integrate well and are not stigmatized.
A better understanding of the shared living model will also shelter homeless services organizations from misrepresentation by the media that sometimes assume that the service provider is opening facilities all over town in a rapid and, perhaps, irresponsible way. This is simply not the case. Instead, the organization is helping people who are living doubled up, on the street, or in shelters move into homes they can afford for the long term on limited budgets.
And that's a good thing.