I remember when I first started two decades ago as the leader of a services and housing agency, almost every person I encountered would tell me, “You are doing God’s work.”
In fact, when this homeless agency began more than three decades ago, the founders opened a program that fed and sheltered people who were homeless. It was their compassionate response to a tragic human disaster on their streets.
Today, “homeless shelters” are like a four-letter word when discussing policy and solutions to homelessness. Ask almost every elected official in the country what the answer is to people living on our streets, and they will say, “Housing First” or permanent housing with supportive services. Very few officials will say, “more homeless shelters.”
The result of this housing policy is that more and more homeless shelters are shutting their facilities. This summer, we joined this growing trend when we closed one of our 25 statewide centers. It was our 65-bed shelter in Hollywood.
Although the community – both public and private – called our center a necessity, the program was never fully funded, a casualty to the redirection of scarce funds to “Housing First” programs. So we moved our shelter residents into other temporary or permanent solutions and closed the doors for good.
I guess some people would think this Hollywood shelter was no longer “God’s work.”
Critics of shelters call these facilities simply a “Band-Aid.” Shelters do not solve homelessness, they say, and a temporary bed is not a home. Besides, most homeless shelter operators instill difficult program rules on their residents that become barriers to reach the most chronically homeless persons on the streets.
Give a person a real home – a studio apartment would suffice – with regular supportive services, and you have ended homelessness, at least for that one person. Clearly, an apartment is way better than a shelter bed.
But the cost of building those apartments – think hundreds of thousands of dollars per unit – or, finding existing apartment landlords that will accept expensive housing vouchers, are the real barriers to ending this country’s homelessness.
With the scarcity of financial resources designated towards homelessness, the natural inclination years ago was to take the funds from short-term solutions, like shelters and transitional housing, and redirect them toward permanent solutions such as permanent housing.
For agencies like ours, our success rate increased dramatically after we concentrated on permanent solutions. Every week, we move 20-25 people into apartments. In the past few years, we have permanently housed more people who were homeless than during all of the decades we were providing shelter and transitional housing.
Housing First certainly works.
Street homelessness, however, has not ended. Redirecting funds toward permanent housing has successfully increased program outcomes for everyone.
But until there are enough resources to fund permanent housing for everyone, shelters have a crucial role for a person who is homeless today and looking for a bed tonight.
I say providing permanent housing for people who are homeless, as well as temporary shelter beds for someone in search of a safe and warm place tonight are both “God’s work.”