of the most frequent questions I get when I speak at schools is, "Where do
homeless people sleep?" Another frequent question from both children and adults
is, "Why aren't abandoned buildings used for homeless shelters?" And many
people get confused by terms that those of us working with homelessness every
day are used to: emergency shelter, transitional shelter, permanent housing,
affordable housing, low-income housing, public housing, substandard housing,
subsidized, SRO ...
article is intended to clarify some of the terminology and the basic outlines
of homelessness and housing.
What is a home?
is easier to understand "homelessness" by taking a minute to define "home."
of us associate "home" with these essential things:
We have a space of our own that is considered to belong to us. We may not
have a whole house or a whole apartment or even a whole room, but we have
our own space.
It is secure: we know where we are going to sleep tonight; we know that
"home" is going to be there when we get there.
It is safe. Although no safety is perfect, we have a way to lock our home,
to control who comes in when we are there and when we aren't. We can leave
our belongings at home and have a reasonable expectation of finding them
safe when we get back.
We are sheltered from rain and cold. We have means to warm ourselves.
We have a bed.
We have a way to store and prepare food.
We have hot and cold running water, a toilet, and a shower or bathtub to
We can come and go at our own choice.
What is homelessness?
is "homeless" when they do not have a place to live that is like what we just
described as "home."
obvious "homeless people" are those who are sleeping on the street, in doorways
and alleys, on park benches or behind bushes.
out by choice is not "homelessness" because you have a place to live, you
just choose not to use it -- temporarily or long term.
staying in a homeless shelter, a tent, an abandoned building, or a friend's
unfinished basement is still homeless. This is called "substandard housing."
"couch surfing," or staying with a series of friends or family, may qualify
as homelessness if you have no choice, no privacy, no place that is "yours",
or you're uncertain how long each couch is available.
Types of Shelter
A term often used
to describe tents, cardboard shacks, and other jury-rigged shelters.
sometimes called overflow shelters
shelter. Required: warm, clean, dry, with toilet facilities.
This may be of many
may be staffed, volunteer-run, self-managed, or mixed-model. Different types
of shelter are appropriate for different people.
Most emergency shelters
are open during the night only. The doors open anywhere from 5:30 PM to
10 PM. Everyone must leave in the morning, usually somewhere between 6 AM
to 8 AM. Shelters vary in whether or not they require everyone to come and
go at the same time, whether they allow in-an-out privileges, whether they
allow late arrivals in certain cases such as work or classes. Most shelters
accept referrals only, not people who come and knock at the door. There
are more shelters for single adults, then for youth, fewer for families
(including single mothers with children), and almost none for single fathers
with children or for couples without children. Couples often stay in co-ed
shelters where they sleep separately.
Winter response shelter
A shelter that is
open during the winter months, and accepts anyone -- drunk or sober, referred
or knocking at the door.
Severe weather shelter
A shelter open only
on nights when the weather is dangerous to the survival of people sleeping
outdoors. Also accepts anyone.
Beds for people who
need bed rest but are not sick or injured enough to be in the hospital.
Some are only day respite shelters; at night, the individual goes back to
a regular night-time shelter. Some are 24-hour shelters. Most have a time
limit, because there is more need than there is shelter. While perhaps a
third of the people in Seattle's 2400+ shelters may be ill, for instance
(700 people) there are about 70 respite beds.
A central location
that keeps track of available shelter beds, where people in need can go
for a referral rather than canvassing the city. Some referral centers offer
food and showers while waiting.
A service center
providing free toilets, showers, and laundry facilities.
Day shelter, or day
A warm, clean, dry
place with toilet facilities, that is open during the day when night shelters
are closed. There are usually limited sleeping or respite facilities. Phones,
food, showers and laundry are often provided. (Coffee and bagels are almost
always provided.) At some centers, nurses or other services are available,
and there are optional activities like games or study groups, AA meetings
and other support groups. Some centers have temporary storage.
Shelter with more
amenities, designed as a "transition" between emergency shelter and housing.
Amenities usually include a room of your own, a common kitchen and laundry
facilities. Transitional shelters usually have a set time limit for residency
and program steps that must be completed, intended to prepare a resident
for housing and self-sufficiency.
This does not mean
that you have been given a house for life. It just means normal housing:
a home of your own. It is usually a rented apartment.
is housing that anyone who has 20% or less of the median income can pay
for at no more than 30% of their monthly salary. It is the type of "permanent
housing" that most people move into out of homelessness.
"Single Resident Occupancy"
-- a one-room apartment (bathroom separate), usually small. This is the
usual low-income housing.
is housing that costs no more than 30% of an individual's income. It is
usually used to refer to housing affordable to anyone at 150% to 50% of
the median income. In Seattle, the median income is $65,000 a year.
The income level which half the people are above, and half below.
Public or subsidized
Housing where a government
or private agency pays a portion of the rent to bring the monthly cost to
a level within the income of those intended to occupy the housing.
Full price, unsubsidized
An apartment building
or housing development that has some units affordable to each income level.
Isn't there really enough
housing for everyone?
is no place in the United States where anyone earning minimum wage can afford
a market-rate apartment. Low-income housing is defined as housing that is
affordable by people earning 20% or less of the median income: in other words,
20% of the population. The number of low-income housing units in existence
is far below the number of people who need them. The number of low-income
and affordable housing units has actually been dropping ever since 1979.
a booming economy, housing becomes more expensive for everyone, but income
doesn't increase for 60% of the people. Many working people and professionals,
people who considered themselves secure and even middle-class a few years
ago, are feeling squeezed.
Why don't we use all those
abandoned buildings for homeless shelter?
this is possible, and it is done. The SHARE Bunkhouse was originally a refurbished
abandoned building. But it isn't always possible.
an abandoned building isn't free. The process is as long and complex as opening
any other kind of indoors shelter. Obtaining clear legal use of the building
usually means paying somebody something, if only paying back taxes. To be
a legal shelter, the building would have to be made structurally sound, cleaned,
provided with heat and running water and enough toilets for the number of
people staying there. It also has to be insured.
apparently empty and unused aren't always abandoned. They usually have an
owner who intends eventual development or sale, and is not always willing
to let homeless people use the property in the meantime.
are the major factor in whether or not a building can be used. An abandoned
building in Pioneer Square was used for awhile by a group operating self-managed
emergency shelter (SHARE).
When SHARE attempted to move back to the space a couple of years later, they
were blocked by the Pioneer Square Council. On the other hand, the neighbors
were supportive when the no-longer-operating Aloha Inn was purchased and made
over into a transitional shelter.
How Do Churches Host Homeless
If you know any organization
with room to host a homeless shelter, please find out more about the process