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Posts Tagged ‘Emergency Shelters’

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.

Open Letter to NYC Department of Homeless Services

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Action Alert, Blog

To: Ms. Joslyn Carter
New York City Department of Homeless Services

We read the NY Times story about the Bronx Parent Housing Network shelter and the allegations of harassment by the former director in February 2021.  The National Coalition for the Homeless is concerned that the repeated allegations were made over a long period of time and no one seems to have acted on them until the New York Times front page story.  We know that the City is under court supervision to provide shelter to everyone who seeks assistance, which has led to an explosion in shelters and the funding of shelters.  The National Coalition for the Homeless is concerned that the system has become so huge that it needs a complete overhaul and is beyond mere agency personnel changes or updating standards to have any impact on protecting the end user. 

It seems as though there are broader community wide policy changes that need to occur in order to stop the tide into the system and make the time that a person is without housing as short as possible. We recommend looking at a complete overhaul of the homeless social service system to prevent discharges from subsidized housing through eviction as well as medical facilities including drug treatment and mental health facilities into the shelters.  We support increasing the local housing subsidy to those struggling with homelessness so that they have more options in the market and could receive a subsidy that beats or at least matches the federal Housing Choice Voucher program. Shouldn’t the goal of the homeless shelter system in New York be to decrease the time spent in the homeless social services to the shortest time possible?  We believe that the goal could be written into every contract to get those seeking assistance out of the shelter/housing assistance programs as soon as humanly possible?  Maybe an incentive package for the homeless assistance industry for moving families into stable housing in under 30 days?

We understand from local advocates that you have set up an impressive system for input by current members of the homeless community to provide input to the Continuum of Care funding, but we also understand that these are only a fraction of the homeless assistance funds in New York City.  We ask that you consider expanding the oversight by homeless people to include all homeless social service funding and constructing a peer network in which those using the facilities could receive help from graduates of the programs.  This could be a model for programs from around the country and it would stem criticism of this giant bureaucracy unresponsive to the needs of its constituents. We are not asking for the hiring of a consultant who will spend the next year with focus groups to prevent sexual harassment in the shelters, and in the end will produce $1 million poster that says “Sexual Harassment is Wrong—If you see something say something.” We all know that sexual harassment is not acceptable especially in a shelter serving domestic violence victims, and we all understand that women who have few choices are especially vulnerable.  From our perspective, we see a need for reform within  government that failed to set up protections, and once there were allegations, failed to respond quickly?

We understand that the Department of Homeless Services is reviewing the situation with the Bronx Parent Housing Network and will work with a caretaker CEO to make changes. NCH is asking that this incident 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 protected from predatory behavior and has access to a process to report abuse that will result in immediate actions. We have some recommendations:

  • 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.
  • 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 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 groups like Picture the Homeless or Urban Justice Center 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 Department of Homeless Services 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 Picture the Homeless or the Urban Justice Center 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. 
  • Finally, the National Coalition for the Homeless was founded by a group of homeless and formerly homeless people in New York and Washington DC, and for our 40 year history we have always attempted to demonstrate the power and wealth of experience of those who have survived homelessness.  To that end, we have always recommended 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.  

We would be happy to set up a meeting to discuss any of the issues we have raised.  We are not trying to criticize your work, but we only offer an outside perspective.  We all want to see a better environment for the people we both serve.  We all want to reduce the trauma associated with homelessness and to fund projects that we would be willing to see a relative effectively utilize.  Thank you for all your hard work in protecting fragile populations in our society. 

Sincerely,

Donald Whitehead

cc: Mayor Bill DeBlasio

Back at NCH, and report out from Cleveland

Written by admin on . Posted in Blog

By Brian Davis

In January, I took on the Director of Grassroots Organizing role, formerly held by Michael Stoops, and am so honored to be working again for the oldest homeless civil rights organization in America. I was a board member of NCH from 2001 until 2017.

I previously worked 23 years for a small advocacy organization causing trouble in Cleveland, OH. I oversaw the homeless memorials, Stand Downs and constructed programs to better serve those without a permanent residence. I registered thousands of people to vote and sued the State of Ohio to protect the voting rights of low income people without identification. I also regularly organized lawsuits against the City of Cleveland when they attempted to make it illegal to be without a home. Every month I was the guy who faced people living in shelters and on the streets and had to answer their criticism for what a stupid system we the people had constructed for those who were hungry or struggling with housing. I worked for 23 years attempting to amplify those voices so they were heard at the County administration building, City Hall, and at hearing rooms in the Rayburn Office Building of Congress. 

Report out from Cleveland:

According to the US Census, Cleveland once again became the poorest city in the United States in 2020. One third of the total population of poor people in Ohio live in Cleveland even though the city on the shores of Lake Erie only represents 3% of the total population of the Buckeye state. The County that Cleveland sits in runs most welfare programs, and funds the addiction services as well as the mental health system, but that often means that people experiencing homelessness are not treated as individuals. They are instead told to conform to the one-size-fits-all approach to receiving help or do it alone. 

For decades the city had been one of the few cities in the United States that offered guaranteed access to shelter for anyone who wanted it. This became moot in the 2010s when the conditions in the shelter had deteriorated to the point that the reputation of the shelter was so bad many found that sleeping on the street was more attractive than staying in a shelter. In addition, HUD’s policy of funding permanent supportive housing over everything else closed most of the family shelters in Cleveland. The waiting list for housing was years long and the waiting list for a decent shelter bed was also excessively long.  Before the pandemic there were 22,000 to 24,000 evictions a year, and a severe lack of beds for women fleeing domestic violence, and no specific programs for young people. So, in one of the poorest cities in America, the safety net for homeless people was in tatters then a global pandemic hit.  

The congregate living shelters in Cleveland were all big facilities housing between 100 and 400 people in the same space. Back in March 2020, these shelters were ordered to reduce the population by half and a few facilities decided to close because they could no longer staff the facility during the pandemic. The County decided to either take over shelters, or begin to fund nights at a couple of hotels operated mostly by some sketchy landlords. They started moving people into hotels, which were operated similarly to the transitional shelters that changes in HUD funding priorities had nearly completely eliminated from the social service system. There were hotels for women, one for men, a mixed gender hotel and a Covid positive hotel. The hotel that the County paid to put families up in was actually a really upscale facility, and provided a degree of respect to low income people that we are not accustomed to seeing in this mean city. 

The hotel rooms have been a lifesaver, and advocates hope that they continue past the pandemic. Advocates and service providers in Cleveland have really worked to keep people safe, especially severely mentally ill people who during a normal winter would be sleeping on the streets. Doctors and nurses from the local public hospital have taken it upon themselves to regularly check in on homeless people now spread out in hotels and shelters across the city.  There hasn’t been much organized governmental coordination in response to the pandemic, but community groups have stepped forward to take the lead. 

There are still holes and problems come up every day during a pandemic especially since it has dragged on for such a long period of time. There are not enough tests for the staff or residents –  hotels are not a priority for testing since they are not considered “congregate living facilities,” even though people have to gather for meals and pass each other in halls. There are way too many older folks being discharged from residential facilities, hoping that people will just survive alone in hotel rooms until a vaccine is available to them. While there are far fewer campsites, the number of people who ride around on public transportation all night is way up, and this has spread out the population in a bigger geographic area.  Staff are completely stressed out and afraid, and there are far fewer volunteers to make meals and care for the population. 

One good thing is that because of there being fewer unsheltered folks, the number of homeless deaths has come down. Turns out if you offer someone a space in a private room instead of just a bed in a dorm with 100 other guys, they are going to take it, and it is going to keep them safe!

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