I meet with different homeless people every month in a formal advisory capacity, and I can tell you that building shelters is not one of their priorities. There are shelters in every one of our big cities and most of our small towns, but they serve only a small minority of the population. Whenever we talk about solutions to homelessness, we start with shelter. We need to start talking about solutions and begin with affordable housing. Housing seems so expensive and such an overwhelming undertaking that we concentrate on easy to open shelters and we never get around to solving the problem of homelessness. To the people walking the streets waiting to get into shelter they see all these abandoned buildings and vacant property taunting them. They wander the city thinking that it would be so easy just to give these buildings over to the residents of the shelter and their homelessness would be solved.
When the housed drive down Superior Ave, we think why aren't these guys in a shelter. But most of us would find any alternative to spending a night in shelter, and the guys on Superior are part of that majority. We are wasting resources and energy when we create more shelter. We staff those shelters and we audit those shelters and eventually we forget why we put those shelters up in the first place. The staff forgets that they were constructed to move people from a temporary emergency to stability. They give up on advocating and demanding affordable housing instead toiling all day on keeping people alive and in effect homeless. Shelter staff should all spend a portion of their day stopping the flow of people into the system and demanding alternatives to shelter from their government.
We have a long history of homelessness in Cleveland and have decades of trying to throw shelters at the problem without much success. Shelter is not the answer because:
1. Emergency and overflow shelter are in place only to keep people alive. Any illusion that they do anything further is propaganda by the service industry. Shelters are needed in a community because some will use them as a stepping stone, but there has to be a limit. The only way additional shelters should be built is if you have people who die on the streets because they were turned away from shelter. I think that in Cleveland if we keep the safe haven open that we have enough shelter space available year round to assure that those who want out from the bridges have a place to go. We should spend our energy on clearing out the shelters and convincing those guys under the bridges to come inside on their terms not based on our rules.
2. Group quarters are not appropriate for everyone. There are many people who do not want to go to shelter. My experience is that one-half to two-thirds of the population do not believe that shelter is right for them. They have mental health paranoia problems or they feel group quarters are a severe come down and too great of a blow to their self-esteem. Also, the common rules set up by most shelters for the safety of the whole community make them inappropriate for many if not most of the homeless people. If you are a drug or alcohol addict and they do not let you in because you have fallen off the wagon, what is the use of the shelter system? Shelter is not the answer for even the majority of the homeless population. We are not representing the interests of the entire community of homeless people by advocating for shelter.
3. The problem with adding shelter beds is that the leadership in the community will feel that they have accomplished something and walk away from the problem. I hear all the time from elected officials, "Isn't that new shelter great, why are there still people sleeping on the streets?" I always tell them that it is great until you have sleep there. I am sure local elected officials have a warm feeling in their heart when they drive by the shelter they helped to create, but warm feelings do not get people off the streets and into housing. The shelter is a down payment on keeping people alive, but the real transaction needs to take place with putting them in housing.
4. We are institutionalizing the problems with shelters. We have transformed the problem from an emergency situation that has a short-term impact on families and those economically homeless to a long-term life changing state. Why not put money into preventing eviction so people could get vouchers to avoid shelter or direct housing programs? Direct housing allows you to provide support services to singles and families in housing so you don't have to build these expensive physical structures. Studies have shown that direct housing of the mentally ill and families is way more successful than shelters and you don't have the expensive overhead.
5. If you build it people will come. The dirty secret that we never talk about it publicly is that the people who need shelter most are afraid or have too much pride to go into these large facilities. Shelters are often used by people who have alternatives, but take the easiest way out. For the mental health of the staff, shelters skim off the easiest to serve and let the rest of our friends fend for themselves. Shelters refuse to allow people who are drunk into their facility. There are very few places for a person to go to recover from drug or alcohol addiction. Every place requires the homeless individual in need of help to cure themselves, and then they will treat them for drugs or alcohol. They usually do not even take people with a slight mental illness like a personality disorder. Again, meet people on their terms and give them independence with vouchers and support services instead of trying to change them to fit the system. We force people to change to suit the needs of these group quarter facilities instead of serving their needs on an individual basis.
6. Building shelters allows the government an easy way to stop providing services. The parole officers will no longer have to assist people with housing because they can use the modified jails that we call shelters. The psychiatric nurses and hospital social workers can drop people at the shelters instead of placing them in long term care facilities. It takes the pressure off of the government to find solutions to poverty.
7. We have found that a better use of resources is to improve the conditions and thinking of the existing social service industry. Construct arbitration boards with more involvement by homeless people in the administration of these facilities. Homeless people know what they need and they know what works. They are the best experts on the merits of shelters. They do not need some agency coming in and telling them what they have to conform to in order to get services. Unless shelters are run with a high degree of involvement by homeless people they create a great deal of resentment. Again, this extends the length of time people spend without housing.
Government will always take the path of least resistance. Shelters give them the easy way out. I believe that we should strive to get homeless people off the streets as fast as possible, and shelters do not do that. Remember that we are Americans imbued with that independence that we see on television almost every night. Afterall, Charles Ingalls, the Barkleys from Big Valley, Rambo, Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, and the cops from NYPD Blue would never be caught dead sleeping in a homeless shelter and neither would most homeless people.
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #48 -2001