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Posts Tagged ‘Shelter’

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.

Homelessness is No Longer an Emergency: Commentary on the release of the 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Blog

There was a time in US history, around 35 years ago, that homelessness was an emergency. There were a few long term homeless people who were well known around town (Otis from Andy Griffith Show), but the majority of the population were unfamiliar with the concept of homelessness and when it occurred, religious groups, neighbors and sometimes government would quickly respond. If a family with children were to show up without a place to live, the community would not rest until that family was in a safe space.

We started opening church basements, then government office buildings at night when they were not used, and eventually gymnasiums, but all under the banner of a temporary space while this emergency is dealt with in the United States.  We, the people, all recognized housing was the best for everyone concerned and the leadership of the dominant religions, community groups and local government all had a common set of beliefs that housing was a critical need for a functioning society. This is all to say that the Department of Housing and Urban Development released their 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report Part 1 on March 18, 2021, which is the exact opposite of homelessness as an emergency. 

This is not a criticism of HUD.  They stepped up when no other federal agency was willing to take on the challenges of addressing homelessness in America.  The staff at HUD have saved millions of Americans from hypothermia, exploitation, and death with the housing and services they have funded.  Everyone who has ever worked at HUD should be proud of the amazing things accomplished with so little.  They have had to deal with every hole in the US social safety net while attempting to manage the complex world of financing affordable housing. When AIDS was ravishing our community, HUD stepped up with housing opportunities.  When Veterans were not being served well by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, HUD stepped up with services and housing.  When the opioid crisis was killing Americans at an alarming rate, HUD was there with permanent supportive housing.  

But the reality is that they have institutionalized homelessness as an industry to manage poor people, and unfortunately most of those individuals and family members come from a minority population.  It is now studied, counted, tested, screened, assessed, observed but never solved.  How is it useful to report on the number of homeless people in January of 2020 before a pandemic hit the country if we considered homelessness an emergency?  Sure, if this was an after action report a year and a half after Katrina to tell the American public what went wrong and what we can do better next time, then this would be a useful piece of information.  The 580,466 people identified by HUD in January 2020 who were homeless on that one day may still be homeless today.  They are still living through the nightmare of waking up in the morning not knowing where they will lay their head tonight.  We are still living through this crisis as a nation 35 years on, and we should not be spending our time counting people when so many are sleeping in tents in the richest country on the planet.  

When Hurricane Laura hit Cameron Louisiana in August 2020, FEMA did not send volunteers out to count the number of people who lost their housing and then work on a report for the next 14 months on the demographics of those who lost their housing.  That would be unthinkable and useless information to have.  Presumably by the 14 month mark, all of those people would have settled their insurance claims and would be well on their way to returning to normal.  To the person facing eviction, they feel like a hurricane just hit their life and they want government and community groups to respond with highest degree of urgency.  It is so frustrating and upsetting to see resources spent on an annual assessment, a central intake, a survey to assess the best service for your needs, and a shelter being built to house 400 people a night when the mom is just looking for a safe secure quiet place to rock her child to sleep.  The fact that every city in America now has an Office or Department of Homeless Services and few have a Department of Housing Placement or an Office of Job Referral is the clearest sign that we have made the crisis into a way of life.  

The National Coalition for the Homeless appreciates that HUD recognizes how racist the system has become in saying, “people of color are significantly over-represented among people experiencing homelessness.” That is not really news that needed a study.  Just because members of Congress don’t believe that homelessness is real or that racism exists, we should not have to spend millions on reports for them.  They will continue to stick their head in the sand no matter if there is a report from HUD or just the word of advocates who testify before them.  We could have told you that more people were homeless in January 2020 just based on the increase in requests for food, the kids who reported being homeless in schools across the United States and the call volume to the 211 system.  We really did not need a report to say that American is failing to deliver a basic human right: housing.  The report is deeply flawed in its methodology and we have written about that in the past, but the conclusions are important. Things were bad in January of 2020 and they only got worse during the pandemic.  Now what are we going to do about it?  

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

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