10 Critical Questions for Every Shelter and Shelter System

At National Alliance to End Homelessness Conferences the past couple years, in our training and transforming of shelter providers and shelter systems, and one of the foci of our upcoming How to Be an Awesome Shelter Learning Clinic in Dallas, are these 10 critical questions that every shelter and shelter system should be asking themselves:

1. Is shelter a process or a destination?

When shelters are a process, the focus is on housing from the moment they show up seeking services. It starts with diversion. When that is not possible, there is unrelenting focus on getting people into housing as quickly as possible through self-resolution or through housing assistance programs. When shelter is seen as a destination, the focus is more on programming within the shelter that can inadvertently result in people staying in shelter longer – and sometimes becoming so integrated into the programming and comforts of shelter that they begin to see shelter a home.

2. Are the people getting access to shelter those that need it the most or those that were lucky enough to get it?

Many communities are starting to wrestle with this very question if they are integrating shelter access into their coordinated entry process. Homelessness has a longitudinal bias – the longer you are homeless, the better you are at navigating and surviving within homelessness. This includes knowing how the shelter system works, where to show up, and the behaviour expectations when seeking shelter. This does not mean the most acute are being sheltered. It means those that know how to navigate the shelter system are being sheltered.

3. Do we attempt to heal or fix people?

Shelters quickly become therapeutic incarceration when there are attempts to heal or fix the issues a person or family presents with, rather than focusing on housing. Remarkably imperfect people are fantastic at being housed. A deficit-based approach to shelter places the emphasis not on housing, but on things that are best focused on once the person or family gets housed, not before. Are some people or families going to need a lot of support? Yes. But thinking issues need to be resolved to get someone ready for housing is misguided.

4. Do we provide a social service? Or are we exercising social control?

It can be uncomfortable to look at the rules of a shelter and how they are applied. Why? Because you come face to face with the reality that while you often remark that you are non-judgmental, strength-based, person-centered, and/or trauma-informed, your rules and practices surrounding those rules prove otherwise. Compliance-based sheltering essentially says, "Act the way I tell you to in order for me to provide you what you need." As many shelters we have worked with come to realize, you can focus on six or seven expectations rather than pages of rules. And the good thing about expectations is that they are socialized rather than enforced.

5. Does the built form and layout promote dignity and decrease conflict?

Often the provision of shelter occurs in a building that was never purposely designed or built to be a shelter. And if the building was purposely designed and built to be a shelter, I often am perplexed by the decisions that are made which often have to do with what is easiest or best for staff – or the color palette or design features that middle class folk may like – rather than examining what trauma-informed building design tells us is best by way of common spaces, corners, lighting, color choices and the like.

6. Do we believe that homelessness should be short and non-recurring – and that shelters have a role in making that happen?

Too often shelters are seen – by themselves and by others – as a place of last resort. It is accepted as dumping ground for hospitals, corrections, older adult care, youth aging out of care and so on. If shelters really want to play an important role in a system of care they need to stop being anyone’s last choice or dumping ground. They need to own the space of being the place of first choice for people with a housing stabilization crisis as the premiere opportunity to become re-housed again as quickly as possible.

7. Do we restrict services only in limited circumstances, in a transparent manner, and for justifiable reasons?

The reasons a person or family can be asked to leave a shelter are quite varied, sometimes within the same community working with the same population group. The length of time they are asked to leave is also variable. It raises the question of why we are asking people to leave in the first place. Is it supposed to be punishment? Retribution? Rehabilitative? Will taking away a life necessity like the roof over a person’s head make them more likely to behave to your requirements in the future? What if their inability to follow your rules is because of a brain injury, mental illness, or chemical dependency? Sometimes the argument raised by shelter providers is that they have dozens of other guests, as well as staff that they need to keep safe. In other words, they are willing to sacrifice the one for the many. But where is that person to go? If they die tonight because of circumstances related to not being sheltered, can you live with that on your conscience? A high performing shelter system of care ensures that there are some shelter beds for those that would otherwise not be able to conform to behavioural expectations elsewhere.

8. Is there any group of people we automatically disqualify from services?

There is no shortage of exclusionary criteria that one sees in shelter systems across the developed world. Sometimes it is a family shelter that does not accept teenage boys. Sometimes it is a shelter that does not appropriately engage or shelter people based upon their self-identified gender, and insist on supporting people based upon biological sex. Sometimes it is married couples that cannot sleep in the same shelter unless they can produce a marriage certificate. Sometimes it is registered sex offenders or sexual predators. And so on. If not your shelter, where is the person or family you are excluding supposed to be sheltered? And where there are very practical considerations (like, say, a father that cannot be in a family shelter because he is a sex offender and would violate the conditions of his release by being in proximity to certain people), do you have creative solutions like motels that you can activate solely for that purpose?

9. Do we have professional staff with suitable training?

Homelessness is maybe the only industry where we continue to confuse a big heart with a big head – that somehow if you care enough you are qualified. The argument usually goes that somebody has to do something, and better that untrained but sympathetic people do the work instead of nothing. And then we end up killing people with kindness or incompetence. This is akin to me finding busy emergency rooms and going to practice medicine at those places, even though I am not a medical doctor, because the wait times are too long and there are people suffering. Other shelters hire people that once used their shelter, but with no additional training. The thinking is that these people are experts in homelessness and sheltering because they have been homeless and stayed in shelter. That is like me saying I am qualified and should be able to surgically remove your gall bladder because I have had my gall bladder out. If shelters are going to do what they need to do to help end homelessness, they need to professionalize their staffing with the right training.

10. Do we measure what we do and make refinements based upon data?

Only three measures matter in sheltering: how long were people homeless; how many moved on to a positive housing destination; and, how many came back. When we focus on things like bed nights or meals served within the shelter, we are focusing on the wrong things. The measure of a shelter is how the shelter ends homelessness, not how busy it was in sheltering.

About Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.


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