Can’t We Have Both? Short-term and Long-term Shelters

Can your community have short-term and long-term shelters? Sure. Should you? Absolutely not.

Unless you have no desire to ever end homelessness. If that is the case – if you want homelessness to continue so that all shelter employees will have a job for life – try to make all of your shelters as long-term as possible. Heck – make them people’s homes and just call them shelters. Let people put up posters and personal knick-knacks around their bed. Give your long-term stayers special jobs like sweeping the floors or helping in the kitchen. Ensure that you have as much programming in your shelter as possible.

I do not hate shelters. In fact, I think shelters are quite important. But as I outlined in a recent friendly video rant, I want shelters to perform their intended function – short-term, infrequent stays. They are intended for housing emergencies. A focus on helping people through rapid re-housing or housing first is NOT anti-shelter. It just means that shelters are places that people can get out of homelessness and into housing as fast as possible; not places where people are trapped or expected to stay long term.

I know a lot of shelter providers were well intentioned as their program models evolved. Some of the things I have seen a lot of in my travels (and I figure I have been in over 200 homeless shelters):

Employment programs in shelters. The thinking is that people can get the employment skills they need towards self-sufficiency. There are a couple of problems with this. One, long-term employment access and stability is unlikely to follow, according to available data. Two, it keeps people in shelter for a longer period of time. This is a rather expensive way to provide an employment program. Get people out of the shelter and into housing, and connect them to employment assistance as they are moving into their housing.

Treatment/sober living supports in shelter. The thinking is that helping people achieve sobriety will put them on a pathway of ongoing success when they are in housing. There are a few problems with this. One, sobriety is not a precondition for housing success. Most people with addiction to alcohol or other substances will never experience homelessness. People can be housed just fine and still use. Two, a lot of the shelter operators with this sort of programming call what they do a “homeless shelter” but they are really operating as an un-licensed and un-regulated treatment facility. Three, many (though certainly not all) of the people I have met that operate these sorts of programs in shelters have zero training in addiction treatment. Sobriety should never be a condition of shelter access. Perhaps behavior, but never sobriety. If sobriety was a condition for having a roof over your head, I suspect many of you reading this blog would have to turn over your keys and become homeless every weekend (unless you are one of those people who enjoy a glass of wine with dinner each day).

Socio-recreational programs offered through shelters that require a person to be homeless in order to participate. The thinking is that you can help people establish social relationships and networks that will help them when they are housed. The problem is that if we want to reinforce social relationships and networks we should do it within the broader community, not ghettoize people into only hanging out with other lower-income, homeless shelter dwellers.

Life skills training. Sigh. This is probably one of my biggest beefs. First of all, I have not met many people who want to raise their hand and say “My life skills suck. Please, let me be part of your highly structured, condescending, deficit based approach to putting me in a room with all of my peers so we can demonstrate our incompetence to each other.” Okay, that may be paraphrasing and a tad harsh. You want people to know how to cook, clean, do laundry, create and follow a budget, grocery shop, etc? Great. Do it within their natural settings of where they live – in their home! Make life skills training one on one, catered to specific strengths and in a place where people can best practice their skills.

Those are the biggies. There are others too. But I will leave it at that.

So how do you make shelters work well for ending homelessness?

  1. Divert as many people as possible from the shelter system. Make sure people have no other natural supports they can rely on that are safe and appropriate before admitting someone to shelter.
  2. Have coordinated access and a common intake for all shelters in your community. This increases the likelihood of getting the right person/family to the right shelter. Clear shelter standards help in this regard too in order to get everyone on the same page.
  3. Triage housing assistance resources to those with the deepest needs that have been in the shelter longest. Yup, these are probably some of the same people you or others have declared that helping them get into housing would be “setting them up for failure” or that they were not “housing ready”. Right. Maybe the true failure is the shelter provider that hasn’t found the way to get them out of shelter and into housing. Oh, and I suspect they were never asked if they were “homeless ready”. The key is to provide the right supports in housing.
  4. Most people will end their own homelessness within a short period of time and are never homeless again. For every person that comes into shelter for the first time in their life, give them about 7-10 days to try and figure things out on their own before you go about offering supports. And when you do start to offer supports, focus on progressive engagement – the least amount of service to get them out of shelter and into stable housing. No point drowning people in an ocean wave of support when a turkey baster of support is all that is needed.
  5. Make shelters as open and accessible as possible, while supporting emotional and physical safety. If someone is going to be denied shelter entry it should be only in extreme cases, for a short period of time, and with some sort of resolution process. Denying someone access only because they drink or have a previous criminal offence (which may even be decades ago) is absolutely ludicrous. And where there is perceived adverse behavior, that requires risk assessment and modified engagement strategies. It doesn’t mean people should be left outside. (Yes, I can hear the sort of dude I heard a couple of weeks ago arguing with me that people will never learn natural consequences in life unless they learn to alter their actions to conform with what shelters expect from them. All wrong; the human mind does not work that way, even though your own personal values may want the change in others to occur that way.)
  6. Ensure shelters are open during the day, BUT only offer supports that help people get out of the shelter. If a shelter is only open at night, people who stay there will likely spend their day going from place to place just trying to survive rather than actually being able to take care of their housing needs. During the day, shelters should be filled with housing locators and housing case managers helping everyone who has been there longer than 10 days to locate housing and figure out the supports that are needed. Do NOT put any socio-recreational programming or any other events like that in the shelter during the day. Do not let people just hang around and watch TV all day. Be friendly and persistent, using assertive engagement as necessary, to break through and help people realize the importance of being supported and housed.

Shelters are invaluable. Let’s promote their invaluable contributions by having them do the right things to end homelessness. I frequently say shelters are like fire stations – you never want there to be a fire, but you sure are glad they are close by when a fire starts. Can you imagine if the fire department refused to put out your fire because you were a drinker or smoker? Or refused to put out the fire because you didn’t take your medication? Or refused to put out the fire because in 1991 you started an 8 year sentence in a federal prison? Or determined that your entire house and all of your belongings burn to the ground just to teach you a lesson and allow you to truly start all over again? No. I didn’t think you could imagine that. Now I hope you will never be able to imagine shelters as something other than a place where emergency needs are met.

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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