Homelessness & Poverty
Homeless Not Helpless
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?
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.
Whatever type of homeless shelter you decide to host, you will need several basics:
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.
There are several shelter models:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Anitra L. Freeman