Homelessness & Poverty
Homeless Not Helpless

Hosting a Homeless Shelter

This is the text of an article I wrote for churches and other community groups who are considering hosting a homeless shelter. If anyone has further information to add, please do so. If you know anyone who could use the information, you have my permission to forward it.

Does your church or community group want to host a homeless shelter? What do you need to know to make it work, for everyone involved?

The Need

Homelessness is a growing problem. Almost no community has enough shelter or services to fill even the existing need let alone tomorrow's. Long-term solutions include preventing homelessness and helping people who are now homeless become self-sufficient, at an income level with a margin for future emergencies. But in the meantime there are women, children and men who need warmth and safety tonight, or they aren't going to benefit from long-term solutions.

Many community organizations have some empty space that is not used at night, and are contemplating opening it for some form of homeless shelter. Seattle's oldest church, First United Methodist, hosts a large number of community services, in almost every existing space. The Church of Mary Magdalene and Mary's Place, a day program for homeless women, use their lower floor; at night it is used by Compass Cascade service agency as a shelter for homeless men. One of their upstairs rooms, Drury Hall, is used by Columbia Senior Citizens Club during the day, and was the oriiginal site of a homeless women's shelter for severe weather.

Seattle has more homeless shelters than almost any other city its size, but still has approximately 2,500 men, women and children unsheltered each night. I have been involved in opening several shelters: I am offering this article summarizing what I have learned.

Basic Requirements

Whatever type of homeless shelter you decide to host, you will need several basics:

There are shelters in Seattle that host as few as 5 people, and others that host as many as 100. Every bit helps, so even if you have a small available room, you may consider opening a shelter. Having clear floor space, however, is essential. Folding tables and chairs can be put away at night and set up again in the morning. A room with heavy or built-in furniture probably isn't usable.
Available use at least 10 hours on a fairly set schedule.
You want to allow the people who use the shelter at least eight hours of sleep, with time to get in and settled at night, and time to get ready to leave in the morning. Also allow cleaning time between the day's activities and the shelter opening, and between the shelter closing and the next day's activities. In most hosted shelters, there are occasional activities that require the shelter to open an hour late, or close an hour early. If the shelter hours fluctuate constantly or are consistently less than eight hours, however, it's not going to be workable.
We would all like to be able to offer homeless people real beds, showers, laundry, kitchen facilities and a place to store their belongings. This usually isn't within a church's resources. A mat on the floor with two blankets sounds grim, but it is a lifesaver, compared with the alternatives. Having bathroom facilities, however -- a toilet, sink and soap -- is a minimum necessity and required by health code.
You will need some storage space for the mats, bedding, cleaning supplies, and whatever else the shelter uses exclusively for itself.
For the sake of both your church and the members of the shelter, the area used by the shelter should have a separate entry and closed doors between the shelter space (including restrooms and supply storage) and the rest of the church.
Manageable space.
It is much easier to manage a shelter if it is one continuous space, with all parts visible from any point in the room. I am not implying that homeless people need to be watched like a hawk at all times. But you probably wouldn't feel comfortable if you were hosting a luncheon in which 50 people were scattered in individual nooks over three separate rooms; you'd have to run your feet off making sure everybody had what they needed, and you would undoubtedly need help. If you don't want to be housing more staff members than homeless people, find a room that's easy to manage.
A managing agency.
You may want to open your shelter yourself and staff it with volunteers from your church. Or you may feel more comfortable forming a contract with another group that is experienced in operating shelters, with you providing space and some volunteer help and they providing management.
If you partner with another agency, they will usually pay for the extra insurance your insurance company -- and local government -- will require for the shelter. Otherwise, you will have to provide this yourself.
Even for a bare-bones shelter, some supplies will be needed: toilet paper, cleaning supplies, light snacks and coffee.
Blanket washing.
If another agency is managing the shelter for you, they can arrange this. Making sure it is done, though, should be part of your contract with them.
Public notice, or referrals?
Announcing that your shelter is open and waiting for people to come to your door may be frustrating if no one comes, or overwhelming if you aren't prepared for who does. Most churches prefer to let service agencies refer people in need: the agency will often have a pretty good idea of who will do best where, and can also provide transportation (at least a bus ticket) to and from the shelter.

Who does your congregation feel most called on to serve?

Do you want to provide an all-woman shelter? A shelter for families with children? A shelter for couples? A shelter for youth? A shelter open to both single men and single women (with separate sleeping areas)? A shelter for men only? A respite shelter for people with illnesses or injuries that require bed rest but not hospitalization or nursing care? What is within your capabilities? The decision about which group you want to serve will influence your choice of which agency you want to partner with.

Choose a Shelter Model

There are several shelter models:

Staffed shelter:
This is the traditional shelter, with professional paid staff. It is the most expensive model. Some agencies that will be willing to run a staffed shelter will want a space where they can set up beds, showers, and other amenities.
Volunteer staff:
Many local shelters run smoothly with a rotating staff of volunteers. Local service agencies send referrals, with blankets. The church provides space, including bathroom facilities and storage for mats. The volunteers provide light snacks and supervision. The shelter members set up their own mats and clean up after themselves.
Self-managed shelter:
SHARE, the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort, is a group of homeless and formerly homeless men and women who organize their own self-managed shelters and other survival resources, while doing self-advocacy for the social changes to end homelessness. Some other cities have groups like SHARE. SHARE has fourteen shelters hosted by churches and other community groups. The key to the shelter space is kept in a central location. Each night, a responsible shelter member picks up the key, the shelter record book, and bus tickets for shelter members. The shelter members go to the shelter, let themselves in, and set up for the night. They govern themselves according to agreed upon rules. In the morning, they clean up after themselves and let themselves out. Shelter supplies are provided by SHARE. Once a week, volunteers from the shelter wash the blankets with transportation and laundry facilities provided by SHARE.
Mixed model:
A number of shelters run on a mixed model, with both staff and volunteers, or self-managed with one staff member or a volunteer present to facilitate.
Day center:
If you have a room available even for only a few hours of the day, just being able to come indoors, sit down, have a cup of coffee, browse the papers and chat is a blessing. Being out on the streets from the time the night shelters close at perhaps 6:30 AM to when they open at perhaps 9 PM is a physical hardship on almost anyone. The isolation of homelessness is as much of a hardship.


The level of funding you need will depend on the model of shelter you choose and the level of services you want to offer. Self-managed emergency shelters cost approximately $3 per person per night. Our mixed-model mats-and-blankets severe weather shelter costs approximately $6.50 per person per night. A professionally staffed shelter offering beds, storage, phones, meals, showers, laundry and case management counseling can cost $40 per person per night.

Sources of funding may be your own church budget, special fund-raising among your donors, or, if you partner with a non-profit shelter management organization, a cooperative fund-raising effort that may include private and public grants. The federal government funds homeless shelters through both the MacKinney fund and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Act.) State, county and city governments also fund homeless services. Social service agencies in your local area will be able to tell you who to apply to for what sources of funding, and what local regulations apply. Many areas have a Coalition for the Homeless, an association of service agencies; check your local listings, or check the National Coalition for the Homeless website, to find them.

Clear Rules & Expectations

Whichever model of shelter you decide to use, establish rules ahead of time that you expect the shelter to follow.

The standard minimum rules for SHARE shelters are: no alcohol, drugs or weapons on the premises; no one is admitted if drunk or high; no violence is tolerated. The purpose of severe weather shelters is to get people inside during life-threatening conditions, so they have relaxed standards on being drunk or high; this requires more staffing at such shelters. Most shelters have the same minimum rules.

SHARE also requires those who use the shelter to participate in governance and maintenance of the shelter, and to take some part in other SHARE community activities such as the all-shelter organizing meetings. Other shelters may have requirements such as participation in church services or case-management programs. Each shelter also has specific rules worked out with an individual host. Some SHARE hosts, for instance, want more personal involvement with the shelter: they have set up a schedule of regular potluck dinners where shelter and community members mingle, and community projects like neighborhood cleanups that both shelter and congregation participate in. One church has bathrooms down a hall which leads past a steep stairway, and requires that residents using the bathroom have a staff escort for both security and safety reasons. Some churches are uncomfortable hosting co-ed shelters, and if they host shelter for couples or families, require proof of marriage. These are the kinds of things that you should work out ahead of time with whoever will manage your shelter, even if it is members of your own congregation, so that everyone is clear on the expectations.


Set up contact persons for emergencies, problems or complaints. Ideally, set up a regular schedule of meetings to touch bases, see how the shelter is going, and make any changes that are needed as time passes. In the shelter space that Drury Hall uses, for instance, there are two couches. Since the staff members sleep in shifts, some began sleeping on the couches, since the agreed on rules didn't forbid it. This upset the church maintenance staff, so the rules needed to be changed.

Neighborhood Meetings

It is also a good idea to have neighborhood meetings ahead of time, and work out agreements with your neighbors, without compromising your right to provide the service you feel called to give. Assurances that shelter residents are not going to use parking space or smoke underneath neighborhood windows, for instance, and that extra garbage pickups will be done as necessary, will help acceptance of the new neighbors.

No matter how loud, fearful or angry your neighbors sound at first, I can tell you from experience that after they have lived side by side with real homeless people for a few months, a lot of them will be offering help to the shelter. You can speed this process the more you offer opportunities for involvement.

Once You've Started

New things will always come up, once the shelter is operating. That's life. Having worked out the plan this far, though, you'll be prepared to handle them.

Write On!
Anitra L. Freeman


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