“Thinking about “home” leads people to focus on the attendant assumptions of what a home provides—namely privacy, safety and security, permanence, comfort and the like. Thinking about “homelessness” leads people to focus on the attendant assumptions about the individual, for instance, mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, poverty, unemployment, and others.”
–Abbilyn Miller PhD, Determining Critical Factors in Community-Level Planning of Homeless Service Project
In my last post, I talked about my experiences with the American homeless shelter system, which is failing to properly meet the needs of the people it seeks to serve. I argued that, with numerous homeless shelters currently standing in as long term housing for millions of people—a purpose they were never intended to fulfill—we should open our eyes to this misguided format of sheltering and move in a new direction. In today’s post, I will share with you evidence and arguments from a well-reasoned thesis by Ms. Abbilyn Miller that deals with many of these issues. She’s a PhD and all-around badass lady whom I know and trust, and her work has a lot to teach us.
Abby argues that however we choose to define the purpose of a homeless shelter (either as a service center, a containment space, a roof over someone’s head, or a “home”), that will guide our creation of shelters and will effect the impact that shelters have on their residents. The input that we seek when determining the best form of shelter also matters. We must ask whose needs are being prioritized during this process; citizens who possess homes and do not wish to see “vagabonds” and “bums” on their streets, or citizens who simply cannot afford traditional housing?
Abby’s thesis compares the independence and autonomy of a tent-community in the city of Champaign, IL with the varying degrees of control, home, and service provided by homeless shelters in the same city. Her project involved years of on-the-ground study in homeless shelters, transitional housing spaces, tent cities and local government circles. I urge you to read the whole paper, but for now, I’ll outline some of her key arguments here and add my own reflections.
The tent community upon which Abby’s work focused was a safe, self-governed community that existed in 2009 where individuals that society would label “homeless” made homes out of tents in an empty lot. When the government of Champaign threatened to kick them out, they fought back. Abby writes, “The spectacle of [this] self-consciously independent and politicized community that made demands upon the local government challenged the belief that “good” homeless people submit to what is offered public and non-profit organizations by confessing their wrongs, developing habits of personal responsibility, and promising to reform themselves” (Miller 7). Here is the heart of the issue: while shelters conceptualize the homeless as a special population that must have guidance and rules placed upon them in order for them to earn a roof over their heads, alternative housing options offer independence and self-sufficiency for low income, unhoused people.
On the one side, politicians and community leaders (i.e. the people with power) are usually more comfortable with shelters that provide services which promise to alter the activities of homeless people and transition them into “normal” life. Abby also noted during a community meeting to discuss a new shelter in Champaign, “Despite a lack of empirical evidence linking crime rates to homelessness, multiple stakeholders argued that the presence of housing or shelters for the homeless raise crime in an area” (110). Once shelters are running, service providers respond to the wishes of the consulted stakeholders by implementing rules for shelter life, including forbidding alcohol and weapons on the premises, banning visitors, mandating chores and setting up supervision systems.
I remember this at the women’s shelter where I volunteered during college. It had a designated “lights out” time of 11pm, a sign-in sheet, and several other strict procedures. It felt like summer camp. The idea that homeless people can’t control themselves and must have limits placed on their comings and goings demeans them and removes their sense of independence.
To be fair, homeless shelters take on a variety of forms, everything from cots on the floor of a church basement to full-fledged housing complexes with dormitory-style living, but despite this range, the majority of them share these common characteristics of imposing certain codes of living upon the people who reside there, and straddling a line between long-term housing and roof-over-head dwelling. What exactly are homeless shelters trying to be?
If these spaces endeavor to be “homes,” they must provide more than mere shelter. Other essential characteristics of a true home, Abby writes, include privacy (both for safety and mental wellness purposes), hearth (that is, a warm and welcoming atmosphere), heart (meaning: emotional security and social support), and personal roots. As Abby explains, “[S]helters are painted as a blanket ‘public good,’ with no attention paid to how well these shelters provide heart, hearth, roots and privacy, so the public is left with the sense either that shelters provide for whatever a person may need or that a person’s needs, beyond physical, are unimportant as long as they are homeless” (276).
(Because I want to keep this piece within a reasonable length, I’m not including any coverage of Abby’s arguments regarding the gendered nature of sheltering, but Chapter 5 of her thesis provides serous, compelling evidence for the fact that homeless women are viewed as needing hospitality and warmth, while men are viewed as vagrants undeserving of anything beyond mere shelter. Indeed, in my college town of about 30,000 people, there were two shelters for women and children, one Christian family shelter and one Christian men’s shelter. So basically, if you were male and you didn’t want to be proselytized, you were out of luck.)
Again, these issues come back to the question of what we believe to be the purpose of a homeless shelter and who gets to define that purpose. Reflecting on her time at a men’s shelter, Abby writes, “The way that these men are framed by the community has an impact on how their needs are conceptualized. If they are framed as “homeless,” the need appears to be shelter beds. If they are able to frame themselves as people in need of inexpensive housing, then the need is framed as inexpensive housing” (269).
As I wrote in my last post, homeless shelters are frequently used for months or years at a time, even though many of them are only intended to be “emergency” housing. This plainly demonstrates just how badly we are in need of affordable and alternative housing options in America. By forbidding alternative housing structures, yet failing to provide homeless people with proper housing in exchange, governments and service providers ensure that homeless people remain dependent on this inadequate shelter system for indefinite amounts of time. If the trend continues, it would be most ethical and compassionate to allow alternative housing structures for those who frequent shelters, or to drastically reconfigure existing shelters for greater independence and more home-like features.
Furthermore, tent cities and other makeshift residences are springing up all over the world, wherever housing is too costly for people of a certain income bracket to afford. Under the current American economic conditions, we can expect alternative housing options to appear—legal or not—and it’s up to our local governments and community leaders to decide how they will handle it. Zoning codes should not be used as a weapon to keep the poor out of sight. Abby advises, “Sharing power requires valuing the perspectives of homeless individuals and incorporating them as equal members of the community and of the decision-making process” (266).
I’ll be posting an interview with Abby shortly, which I hope will add even more to this discussion and its implications for policy and activism.