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Concepts of Homelessness: What’s Wrong With Shelters and How We Can Change That Picture

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“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

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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.

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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).

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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.

For now, let me know what you think about this perspective on homelessness. Have you seen high-quality shelters in action? Can you think of ways that we can improve upon the system? Please share your thoughts.

Photo credits: Roryrory, GratisographyWikimedia Commons

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8 thoughts on “Concepts of Homelessness: What’s Wrong With Shelters and How We Can Change That Picture

  1. Pingback: Concepts of Homelessness: Why Shelters Are Not the Solution | The City Space

  2. Pingback: Concepts of Homelessness: Interview with Abbilyn Miller | The City Space

  3. I am the pastor of a church that houses a homeless shelter. I can tell you that at least 80% of the men who show up at our door are mentally ill, drug or alcohol addicted, or both. I’ve been reading articles by people arguing against curfews and rules at homeless shelters. Believe me, if we had the resources to provide an apartment to these men, we’d be doing it. As it is, about the best we can do is keep people from freezing to death in the winter, and being robbed, beaten or murdered in the summer. If it were not for our rules against bringing weapons, alcohol, drugs, lighters and tobacco products into the shelter, we would have massive problems. We already have the occasional theft and fistfight between guests. What would happen if they were armed? We do not proselytize, and we do expect men to perform chores around the shelter. We do not have enough paid staff or volunteers to keep the place clean. We do not believe it is too much to ask of the men staying there to do a half hour’s work to help keep the place open. I really resent the homeless or formerly homeless complaining about what we have to offer. It is better than nothing, and we are doing everything we can to make it the best place it possibly can be. They need to blame society at large which does not provide enough funding to help people who are living without shelter. I wish we were in a positive to enact a “housing first” policy and do away with the cots in our church basement, but the money just isn’t there. So, please stop criticizing us, and realize we are doing the best we can, and we know it is far from good, but again, it is better than freezing to death.

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    • Hi Kim,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. While I can’t speak for Abby, I can provide an idea of her perspective, and it’s a perspective which I share. Currently I’m working at a community center with a homeless shelter component serving men, women and families that’s very similar to the shelter you described. We have a curfew here, we don’t allow weapons or drugs on the premises, we require residents to do chores etc. I see these rules as practical for the emergency shelter model. The issue is not that service providers are at fault or these rules are at fault. Rather, the issue is redirecting focus towards permanent affordable housing.

      Shelters are currently serving as a stand-in for permanent housing. Hundreds of clients that come through our center have been in shelters on and off for years. They don’t need more time in a shelter; they need a viable option for permanent housing–whether they’ve been addicted to drugs for years or never took a drink in their life. In my opinion, from all that I’ve seen in my work, the two biggest things that will prevent and end homelessness are a higher minimum wage and more affordable housing, especially small affordable housing units. The latter is particularly essential.

      You state that your shelter is “better than nothing” and “better than freezing to death,” and that’s precisely the problem. Emergency shelters are appealing to the lowest common denominator of survival. The goal is literally just to keep people alive another day. Permanent housing and supportive services work to create a better life for individuals and families. These options provide a foundation from which a person can grow and thrive for years to come, not just survive one more day.

      You also stated that you don’t have the resources to provide apartments for homeless people, but I have seen many communities across the nation create housing options for people in need with very little money. Is your shelter in a particular area of your church buidling? Why couldn’t you convert that space into apartments or rent it out to someone else and use the money to help pay for external apartments? Do you have volunteers or staff who give their time towards supervising the shelter? Why couldn’t they use that time to help the homeless search for apartments? Do you have parishioners who donate financially or in-kind to the shelter? Why couldn’t you ask them to shift their donations to pay for permanent housing? Here are some good examples of rapid rehousing successes for very little money across the nation: http://www.endhomelessness.org/library/entry/rapid-re-housing-successes and here are some good resources about Housing First in action http://www.endhomelessness.org/pages/housing_first

      -Rachel

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      • Hi Rachel—we actually collaborate with other agencies in town and work towards housing these guys. Last year we had over 200 men pass through the doors, and over 50% of them were able to move into permanent housing. Unfortunately, there is not enough county money to provide caseworkers to follow up with all of these, and some refuse caseworkers. We know of some who have lost their housing again because theyve ended up back on the doorstep of the shelter. So we take them in and work with them all over again to get them housed.

        I absolutely agree with you that a higher minimum wage and more affordable housing is needed. What also is needed in the small crumbling former steel mill town we are located in is some cooperation from the city government. We actually ended up opening the shelter illegally because they refused to allow it. They closed us down after a year and a half and let us open up six weeks later because thy realized instead of guys breaking into abandoned houses and sleeping on park benches, they were in the shelter.

        I am aware of the rapid rehousing and housing first approaches, that is why we work with other agencies in town. But my congregation cannot do it alone. We have about 40 elderly people on a Sunday. We opened our church building when no other church in the county who was approached by the shelter board was willing to do so. We are the only men’s shelter in the county. As far as converting part of the church into apartments, that is not going to fly with the congregation because, they have already been more than generous with their building, and all of the aggravations which come with a homeless shelter have been suffered by the congregation. Other churches will throw a hundred bucks at us once in a while, or provide volunteer or a meal, but they have not assumed the major burden of the expense of the shelter which my congregation has. (When I say major expense—-I mean about $4800 a year more in utilities. That would pay the rent for one apartment for a year. Instead, but giving the guys temporary shelter, they have the opportunity to have a base to work out of while they are seeking employment and permanent shelter.) We do not have enough volunteers, we do not have the right person serving as the shelter director, and the guys who are the overnight staff are not terribly responsible. We’d do better with volunteers, but we couldn’t find volunteers who were willing to stay overnight.. We are currently asking the city to give us a vacant lot that we can begin to build a mall concrete block building on.

        We are not a big city shelter, we don’t have a lot of money, and with the exception of one paid staff member ($24,000 a year plus health insurance) we are a totally volunteer organization, who, as I pointed out—–helped about 100 guys move into permanent housing last year. As far as the other other 100 or so who passed through our doors, once again, they didn’t freeze and weren’t murdered on the streets. I’m not going to apologize for that.

        I totally agree with you that the best model is housing first, but that takes the money from all levels of government, cooperation by the local government and community, and lots of collaboration by many faith related organizations and other community organizations. Twelve years ago a number of social service professionals began to dream about having help for homeless men in the county. It wasn’t until five years ago when my church offered space that there was anything available. The local cities and towns preferred to send them to homeless shelters in three surrounding counties. We are a work in progress, and the board is aware that what we are providing isn’t perfect. But I’ll stick with my “something is better than nothing” philosophy. we’re doing what we can. And an awful lot of the men who have passed through our doors appreciate the help they’ve been given.

        When I win the Powerball, we’ll be in a position to do something different, but until then……

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  4. I’ve just recently stumbled across this site. Good thoughts here! I look forward to reading more!

    I, too, am the pastor of a church that is involved in sheltering our homeless neighbors (along with other churches in a rotating, PADS-style arrangement). But this post doesn’t sound like it’s directed at us or Kim. It sounds like it’s directed to either the community at large, who have to decide what they want to see happen in their community, including what they’ll give their time and money to, or directed to those in power like city and county governments, who set zoning ordinances, decide what projects receive public funding, etc. Speaking for our work, we’re clear that we’re not providing homes for the women who sleep on our church floors through the winter. We’re providing hospitality: a safe place for them to sleep, eat, and be treated like human beings. We catch them on the day they become homeless and work with a handful of other agencies in town who help them find a way to affordable, more permanent shelter — typically a small apartment run by a housing-related non-profit in town. These other organizations are doing wonderful work to expand the capacity of affordable housing, supportive housing, etc, in our community. But they have waiting lists for these apartments, and so the churches have banded together to provide hospitality to people while they wait and look for other options. Some are with us only a few days. Some are with us for several months. But nobody sees it as permanent.

    Temporary shelters are much better than freezing to death or being abused, but they’re no substitute for long-term housing.

    To learn more about what’s going on here, visit http://www.ValpoShelter.org.

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    • Thanks for reading! I definitely think there is a place for temporary shelters within the fabric of homelessness prevention. They provide a necessary service, but hopefully that is only very temporary. I’m glad to hear that you connect your clients with permanent housing options.

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  5. Rich, it sounds like you have a similar set up to us, with the exception of the fact that your shelter rotates between buildings. I don’t know what we’d do without our partner agencies in town that help the guys find employment and housing. One of the frustrations I feel is that even when guys get a job and an apartment, it is not infrequent that some of them end up back on our doorstep a few months later (I can’t say what percentage of men that is.). They need emotional support, assistance to kick drug and alcohol problems (which often lead to unemployment), and often, practical help with learning how to budget and make better choices in general about their money. Some of them also need mental health treatment. Unfortunately, without these things some percentage of them lose their housing. The sad fact is that there is not enough public funding to provide those things, and there are not enough volunteers or wealthy churches which are stepping up to the plate to help.

    I truly believe that a clean, safe, affordable place to live should be a human right, but I don’t know what to do with the fact that I see a lot of people struggling to acquire and maintain that for themselves, but somehow they pull it off. They do more with a small amount of money than I think I could. And I understand the frustration of some “working class,” lower middle class, and even middle middle class people who do not believe that they have the resources to contribute more tax money or charitable dontations to help those whoare really struggling. We have seen that in our current political and economic climate that corporations and the truly wealthy are unwilling toassume this responsibility. So what do we do? The author of the article, if I understood correctly, espouses that society allow the “space” for “alternative housing,” including tent cities. The picture in the article shows the trash floating in the river alongside of the “tent village” under the bridge. I can’t imagine that communities without proper sanitation or trash disposal facilities are intended, but that is what we end up with because our society is not structured in such a way as to make to prevent such scenarios. I’ve seen with my own eyes the squalor in third world shanty towns. We all know the statistics of infant mortality in such communities, and the other ills which accompany such settings. The conditions in certain areas of our own inner cities are not far from that. I can in no way envision how those conditions will ever go away,given the dynamics of poverty and wealth in human socities. I think Jesus spoke very realistically when he said; “The poor you shall always have with you,” because he knew human nature, and how human beings and human socities operate.

    I am curious about your thoughts on this. I don’t know if I’m being pessimistic, or just realstic.

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