We Still Need Shelters

As you may know, I’ve been speaking up for Rescue Missions and shelters, while much of the country has been discrediting our work.  In some recent blogs I have said:

“Resources are moving and moving quickly, away from shelters and transitional housing beds, towards housing first initiatives, which is believed to be the new way to end homelessness.  See my earlier blogs for notes on this.  As the resources move, shelters, transitional housing, and the beds therein are being removed from the scene, and the number of precious people on the streets, in tents, and in cars continues to increase.  However as the next count rolls out, the easier more accurate part of the count-those in shelter and transitional housing beds-will have dwindled, and the more difficult, nearly impossible part of the count, going out on the streets looking for people, will continue to be difficult, and it will appear, or be made to appear, that homelessness has decreased, when in fact, homelessness has increased”.

Estela Lopez credits this rise in homelessness to three things.

”I attribute this to 3 major factors: the worsening economy bringing high unemployment and a lack of services to people in need, the one size fits all move to Housing First which has caused the limited resources available to move away from emergency services and to permanent supportive housing only, and the recent federal court ruling in favor of LACAN which protects the property of people experiencing homelessness to the extreme point that any type of clean up of Skid Row by anyone is not allowed.”

-Estela Lopez Executive Director, Central City East Association

As you may have gathered already, I would add the Home for Good push to Estela’s list of causes. Home For Good backers (The United Way of LA, Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, and Federal and local government) strongly marketed Home For Good as the one size fits all solution to homelessness.  They even contrasted this new “better” solution to the “archaic, ineffective” shelters and services that have failed to solve the problem in the past.  I even heard that now, instead of “managing” the problem of homelessness, as in the past, Home For Good would solve the problem. I would counter that, now, we are not even coming close to managing the problem.  It is out of control! This unfortunate, inaccurate marketing has funneled resources to Home For Good and away from many very effective non-profits around LA County.  It has caused the closure of much needed beds and services, producing a lack of services to people in need, and placed an incredible amount of people on the streets, doubling the number of people on the streets of Skid Row since Home For Good was launched!

The truth is if Home For Good was the most effective strategy for all people experiencing homelessness, there would be a cost increase, not a decrease.  The capital costs alone to permanently house all people experiencing homelessness in LA alone would be $15 billion and the operating costs to provide supportive services would be around $5 Billion per year.  I’ve based these estimates on the original costs of the Project 50 in LA.


These were just a few of the criticisms I shared to even out the attack on shelters and Rescue Missions that came from permanent housing proponents.  There is no doubt that permanent housing is a very good additional strategy to be added to the arsenal of strategies fighting homelessness, but it has been a mistake to say that it is the only proper method to end homelessness.  Now, one of the biggest proponents of permanent housing as the solution, Nan Roman, the head of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, has admitted that shelters are still needed.  That is what I wanted someone to finally admit! Please take time to read this excerpt from her recent remarks. They speak for themselves.  I’ve included her recent remarks to close my blog;

The other issue that we at the Alliance have been examining is the homeless crisis system: how it should be sized and what it should look like. For many years now the design of the crisis system has largely been neglected, and the idea of emergency shelter as a solution has been demonized and characterized as inadequate – as a mere “Band-Aid.”

It’s true that the shelters ALONE are not the solution, but it is equally true that the majority of people who become homeless are single, able-bodied adults for whom the interventions of permanent supportive housing and transitional housing are too intensive. As we do with other human service programs, we tend to think of the crisis system in terms of the people who stay there the longest. But in reality, the majority of people who enter emergency shelters quickly move in and then move on. For them shelter is an effective short term solution – as it was designed to be.

For most people, the shelter serves its purpose as a temporary place to stay while they work out whatever kind of housing crisis they are experiencing. Most people do not stay in the system long, and they typically do not come back, or only come back once.

The crisis system also serves a vital sorting function. People enter the system when they need to, but because it is so bare bones and so unpleasant, they have little incentive to stay longer than is absolutely necessary. In this way the system sorts the people with the greatest need, the people who require the most intensive interventions, from the majority of people who are experiencing a crisis that they can handle more or less on their own. To design a good shelter or crisis system, we must answer the following questions.

  • What should it do?
  • What should be its overall size?
  • What types and number of specialized beds should be available? Most jurisdictions have a good number of beds for single adult men, but have few or none for couples, youth, people with pets, or for people who have active substance abuse issues.
  • Who should manage the shelter system, and who should be responsible for determining how many and what kind of beds are needed, and who gets each bed?
  • What is the relationship between shelter, detox and rehab, and what should it be?
  • What should be the length of stay?
  • How should the shelter system link to the back door?
  • Do the centralized one-stop-shops and campuses really work? Are they more effective or less effective than a decentralized approach?
  • If you want to fix your shelter system, where do you start? What is the first thing to take on, what is next, etc.?

Today we recognize that, if we are to end the problem of homelessness, we must transition from a program-based approach to a systems-based approach. Figuring out what the crisis system should look like is a crucial part of that, because it is sure to remain the front door and the point of assessment for further interventions. Re-tooling this system is absolutely critical, and something we are anxious to explore with you over the next year. But if you thought I would have answers to the questions above – not yet! We do, however, have a few ideas.

We firmly believe that the time a person spends in shelter should be very short. One key goal set by the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act is that no one experience homelessness for a period longer than 30 days. Ideally, people should move through the shelter system fast. The faster people leave, the greater the turnover rate, the fewer the number of beds needed, and the greater the likelihood that the quality of shelters can be addressed, which is important, because right now the quality of shelters must be improved. In many places the standards remain very low.

To accomplish this, shelters should be a place of assessment, and shelter personnel should have a variety of tools to draw upon in order to provide the help people need to move on. More rapid re-housing tools would certainly facilitate this process, and people in the shelter system could be connected to community-based service slots. In short, shelter personnel could probably empower people in the shelter system to accomplish on their own many of the things that transitional housing and other back end interventions currently do for them.

-Nan Roman The National Alliance to End Homelessness

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