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No Return to Large Congregate Shelters in America

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Action Alert

National Coalition for the Homeless Action Alert
Date: April 15, 2021
WHO: Local Continuum of Care Collaborative, Balance of State Coordinators, and HUD officials
WHAT: No Return to Large Congregate Shelters in America

As we come out of the pandemic and the emergency protocols put in place, we need to learn from our past as we rebuild the system for a homeless safety net.  The virus has devastated our community with job losses, evictions, outbreaks and loss of life.  It has also provided an opportunity to start over and learn from our mistakes of the past.  We cannot provide the least expensive large congregate shelters as the only choice for housing in a community.  With so many under threat of eviction, we need to implement bold plans to avoid a second national disaster of a wave of homelessness.  The hotel/motel program was a success in many cities and provided a dignified platform to begin building trust and finding long term alternatives.  The National Coalition for the Homeless is calling on all advocates to push for creating alternatives to large shelters that often strip people of their dignity.  

There are millions of dollars coming into the community provided by the American Rescue Plan, and the local community will need to implement plans to prevent evictions and provide housing to all those in need.  NCH is asking that the 2020 health crisis prompt a larger look at shelters and housing for those experiencing homelessness to transform them back to short emergency services and not long term housing solutions.  We hope that you will look at the entire system to make dramatic changes so that anyone entering the shelter system is brief and provides a path back to housing. NCH is urging that we offer people assistance tailored to their needs and no longer force them to bend to the one size fits all approach of the past.  The most important recommendation is to end the gymnasium size congregate living shelters without privacy and with all the problems that occur when we stuff too many people into a confined space. 

Other recommendations for local or state Continuum of Care Committees:

  • Build into the contacts an incentive system to move people into housing within 30 days of presenting.
  • Limit intake restrictions so that the process is simple and speedy without barriers to access or a long questionnaire that includes a detailed history, and there should be many points of access.
  • Work with local advocates to implement a city wide ban on government funded institutions discharging anyone into a shelter. 
  • Increase all local housing subsidies so that the family/individual can afford housing at the market rate and not be stuck in housing that pays the landlord less than market rates. 
  • Reduce hostile discharges from the smaller shelter system.  The discharge policies for homeless social services should be focused on restorative justice model and not a punitive system that results in a high number of evictions.  Force a high bar with much bureaucracy and greater transparency with the goal of moving people into a better situation instead of so many lateral moves or discharges onto the streets. 
  • Work with local groups with leaders who have experienced homelessness to collect and report feedback from those using the homeless social service that would result in meaningful oversight. We are not asking for token input of 1 or 2 homeless individuals but real empowerment of leadership groups to provide real involvement by those who have experienced homelessness. This entity needs to be staffed by those who have experienced homelessness and supported by public funding.  This so called “homeless ombudsman’s office” should be visible within the social service system to accept complaints and have the authority to act on those complaints.  
  • A comprehensive review of all agencies policies and procedures to assure that there are tough standards against harassment of clients or staff.  There are good models available and every social service provider should have strong policies with clear consequences for those who violate these standards. No need to contract with a consultant.  We are asking for common sense protections to be put in place for every group receiving public money.
  • A new project to hire currently homeless individuals as so called “mystery shoppers” to report directly back to the Continuum boards on the facilities and care that residents or clients are receiving. 
  • Once a problem is discovered there is due process for the agency, but the investigation and adjudication must be swift and consequential.  We believe these new policies should be published and that complaint process be transparent with the specific names withheld but all other information be released to the public. 
  • Again work with grassroots leadership development groups such as the Homeless Unions or those homeless led groups to provide current and formerly homeless individuals a meaningful role in deciding on local priorities for funding. These community leaders with lived experience should be consulted on how resources are divided within the community.  They should have a bigger role than the other communities of interest such as other homeless service providers, government or housing providers. It is our experience that when consulting people who have utilized the shelter system, the reliance on congregate living facilities is greatly reduced.  No one wants to have to sleep on a cot in a gymnasium without privacy because it only adds to the trauma of homelessness and strips a person of their dignity. 
  • NCH always recommends the importance of peer networks to ending homelessness.  We believe that for a large metropolitan area there should be a safe place for people currently experiencing homelessness can go to learn from those who lived through the trauma of homelessness.  We believe that there is no greater use of public resources than a mentoring network of trained individuals with lived experience who can help people who have recently lost their housing navigate the complicated system and can help to avoid the pitfalls or dead ends that often slow a person’s ability to find stability.  

Planning is already underway. Make your voice heard that Big Shelters with endless rows of bunk beds are fine for military boot camps, but we are the most advanced society on the planet and need to treat those living within our borders with dignity and respect.  Large congregate living shelters did not work and we should never go back to those days of addressing homelessness.  Let us know if you find success with this message in your local community.

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