Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Shelter Shelter Shelter Homeless

So many aspects of the homeless industry cause me to think, "this would be funny, if it wasn't so sad."

There are several types of shelter for the homeless, each trying to attack the problem of homelessness from a different angle, and each type of shelter has its own reputation, and varying reputations depending on who you talk to.   Some types are considered as more vital than others, some types are considered more effective than others, depending on people's expectations of them.  And that's before politics gets involved.

I am a big fan of Iain de Jong, CEO of  Orgcode.com.  He understands these complications better than most.   As he pointed out in a fairly recent video, many homeless service providers claim to provide one type of shelter service but actually provide a different shelter service.   I believe this happens because the people who fund homeless services don't really understand what it is they are asking for.   They say they want one type of homeless service, but they won't provide the funding and resources necessary to create that type of service.   So, the people charged with running these places will call their service what there funders were expecting it to be, but will only provide what they can afford to provide - and that is usually something much less than what they promise by way of name.   Often a homeless service provider will claim to be a "transitional housing provider" but what they really offer is only emergency shelter., etc.

The common names for homeless shelter types are:

  • Day Shelter - Open only during specific hours, these shelters may offer services that other shelters provide, except for a place to sleep.    They provide a place for the homeless to go during the day, or night, depending on the organizations particular hours. These shelters could be limited to just providing the homeless with a place to go out of the weather - but most provide additional services.   Day Shelters often provide food of some kind, shower and laundry facilities, storage, mail service, limited medical help etc.
  • Emergency Shelter - This term isn't used so much any more.  The word "Emergency" usually implies "immediate and short term" but now service providers admit that they cannot always respond to need "immediately" and that homelessness is not usually "short term" - at least not anymore.   This country has changed a great deal in the past fifty some years, and so their response to homelessness has changed as well - and not for the better.
  • Rescue Mission - this is the term given to any faith based organization providing services to the homeless.  Participation in religious activities are usually required of the homeless. These are usually Fundamentalist Christian organizations.  They usually operate as emergency shelters, often with attached rehabilitation through religious indoctrination programs.
  • St. Vincent/De Paul - Ladies of Charity - Catholic Charities - These are the usual names given to  faith based homeless services provided by Catholic Churches.  They provide a wide array of services.  Participation in religious activities is not usually required.
  • Salvation Army - Much like a rescue mission, being that it is a Protestant faith based shelter system, its services are usually limited in size if not in scope.
For the longest time, these shelters were it.  Nothing else was offered, nothing else was considered.   A homeless person was expected to find his own way out of homelessness while he stayed at one of these shelters.  For a while that expectation was enough.  Opportunities were sufficient for a homeless person to make that connection back to the real world on his own.   But in the past few decades, the distance between being homeless and being not homeless has grown to the point it cannot be spanned alone.   The main cause for this is the lack of inexpensive housing.   Not long ago, a person could rent a room with the income from a part time job.   That just isn't the case anymore - thanks to more of that "Urban Renewal."

As the cost of housing increased, in turn so did the demands on the homeless to "get their act together" so that they could earn enough to afford a place to live.   More effort was then put on rehabilitating the homeless.  Shelters started creating educational programs, offering GED classes, drug rehab, life skills classes, etc.   From this came the idea that a homeless person needed to overcome all his issues before assisting him with housing.  Out of this came the creation of programs called something like transitional housing, or supportive housing, or temporary housing. etc.  About this same time came the advent of the homeless family.  And being that people felt such sympathy for the children, families were prioritized in these programs.   Back in the early 80s, homeless families were very rare.  And if a family did show up at the rescue mission, the response was very quick.  Phone calls were made, some wealthy person would pay for an apartment for the family, a job was given to the father, some followup was initiated, but that was that - the family was no longer homeless.  The transition was often less than a day.   These days, homeless families are so common that whole shelters are built to cater just to them.

  • Transitional Housing - Temporary housing offered to the homeless, mostly to homeless families, lasting usually no longer than two years, and often is much shorter than that.   Assistance is given to people in transitional housing in finding jobs, saving money, and searching for permanent housing.
  • Supportive Housing - Temporary housing offered to homeless people, usually offering more intense support that transitional housing as it is more often given to homeless people with extenuating circumstances such as addictions and/or mental health issues.  Though temporary, time limits can vary depending on the condition and rehabilitation progress of the homeless person.  This housing usually comes with extensive case management.
  • Rapid Rehousing - A fairly recent development, based on the idea that the less time a person lives on the streets, the better and quicker his return to a normal life will be, rapid rehousing takes homeless people with minimal issues (no addictions, no serious mental health issues) and places them in apartments, usually for no more than 6 months, while they look for and find work, and being to pay for his housing and other needs on his own.   So far this approach is enjoying a high success rate.
  • Housing First - Also a fairly recent development, this program takes people who are chronically homeless and places them directly into an apartment or SRO (single resident occupancy) unit and then provides the homeless person with intensive case management.   It has been discovered that rehabilitation from addiction and mental illness happens better and quicker when the person is housed, as compared to living in a shelter or living on the streets.   Housing First is usually open ended, to last as long as the person needs to rehab.

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