Sheltering Shelters

Sometimes shelters are amazing. They do incredible things to help people achieve housing quickly and appropriately. Sometimes shelters are the antithesis of ending homelessness. It is healthy to create a voice for people on the frontlines that are confronted with these challenges to share their experiences so that we can all understand where to support and push for reform. I invited Jessica Douglas to contribute to this blog based upon a recent experience. I hope it is illuminating for you and leads us all to greater examination and professional change in sheltering services when it is warranted. Thanks Jessica for such an important guest blog.

I’ve gone back and forth in my head all afternoon with different ways to go about writing this blog. Since this is my first blog, I wasn’t sure what was acceptable or what would get someone’s attention. But then it dawned on me – honesty. Yep. That’s what I came up with. Sounds pretty boring, but I’m going with it.

Let me start out by saying, I’m a pretty approachable person. Recently described by a co-worker as being calm and centered, today I was pushed to the brink of going completely unprofessional on another provider. In all of my professional adulthood, I have never wanted to go completely “postal” on another person. When is it acceptable for a provider to “shelter”, and I don’t mean put a roof over their head, an individual to the point where they can’t leave the facility to go have lunch with someone?

For a few months now, I’ve been out in the field, meeting with clients and other providers! I love it! It’s where I’m most comfortable: interacting with individuals on the streets and those who have been recently housed. What I do not like is providers who feel as if they are “protecting” their clients by monitoring their every move. How is this benefiting those individuals? Well, in my professional opinion, it’s not. It is, however, benefiting the facility because they are able to count them as widgets.

It’s not allowing them to grow as a human being, to give them the opportunity to obtain a job, meet new people (outside the facility), to find an apartment or a home. SAY WHAT?!? A JOB? A HOME? It’s as if those are words not to be discussed, because as I heard a resident say today in the lobby of this shelter (as he was signing 3 pages of rules), “This is my home away from home”.  How sad is it that this facility has residents thinking this is their final destination?

Today I was told I was not allowed to pick up a client because she didn’t have prior permission to leave the shelter. Mind you, this person did have permission to leave with me 2 hours later than when I tried to pick them up. I was told that she was not allowed to just leave whenever she wanted to that it had to be approved. Yep, you heard that right, a person who is not in JAIL or on HOME CONFINEMENT, has to have permission to come and go. Oh, and yes, this person is 18 years or older. This isn’t the first time we’ve had issues with picking this person up and taking them out to enjoy a nice day away from the shelter. Every single time she is dropped off she is interrogated by staff, and other residents, who want to know if she was given money and/or what did she do.

I was also told that I couldn’t just move her out whenever I wanted to, proper staff had to be present to make sure nothing left the shelter that wasn’t hers, meaning she couldn’t leave during the weekend. Without given a chance, they already expect the worst of the every person who walks through their door looking for a safe place to stay. They expect to be stolen from. They label everyone who enters, possibly in the midst of the worst crisis they will ever experience; being homeless and having no one must indicate that you are a thief.

The most disturbing thing I was told today, the thing that pushed me over the edge, is that we were “going behind their back”. We went behind their back to do what is best for this individual, move her out of a situation where they are hindering her ability to grow as a young adult, and moving her into STABLE HOUSING. SHOCKING, right? Why the best interest of this individual isn’t their top priority, I may never know. What I do know, we at WVCEH are doing the right thing, we are moving her out, into her own apartment at the end of the week where she will receive intensive case management by people who truly care about her and success.

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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