Homelessness & Poverty
Homeless Not Helpless

The Terminology of Homeless Services

Whether you are seeking services, volunteering services, or just trying to figure out what's going on, I hope this helps thread the maze:

Types of Shelter

Temporary shelter
A term often used to describe tents, cardboard shacks, and other jury-rigged shelters.
Emergency shelter, sometimes called overflow shelters
Bare-bones indoors shelter. Required: warm, clean, dry, with toilet facilities.
This may be of many types:
  • A clean, warm place to get out of the rain. There are no mats and sometimes no blankets. Toilets provided, but no food. No storage facilities.
  • A mat on the floor with two blankets. Warm, clean, dry, with toilet facilities. Snacks may be provided. Meals and/or storage facilities are seldom provided.
  • Beds, storage and meals.
Emergency shelters may be staffed, volunteer-run, self-managed, or mixed-model. Different types of shelter are appropriate for different people.
  • Staffed shelters are usually run by service agencies.
  • Volunteer-run shelters are often provided by churches.
  • In a self-managed shelter, a church, school or other agency provides space that is not being used at night that is warm, clean, dry and secure, with toilet facilities. The people using the shelter let themselves in and out, clean up after themselves, and govern themselves. Self-managed shelters have very strict criteria, including sobriety, cleanliness, the ability to get along with others, and participation in governance and chores.
  • A mixed-model shelter is ... a mixed model. It may be staffed by paid professionals assisted by volunteers, or residents of the shelter may take a large amount of responsibility while staff or volunteers or both are still in charge.
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.
Referral center
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.
Hygiene center
A service center providing free toilets, showers, and laundry facilities.
Day shelter, or day center
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.
Transitional shelter
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.
Permanent housing
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.
Low-income housing
"Low-income housing" 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.
Affordable housing
"Affordable 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.
Median income
The income level which half the people are above, and half below.
Public or subsidized housing
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 housing.
Mixed-income housing
An apartment building or housing development that has some units affordable to each income level.

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Last updated November 29, 2002