Why Shelters are Not a Long-Term Housing Solution
Written by GKCCEH
Published November 9, 2021

People who have never experienced homelessness likely have a much different idea about what a “homeless shelter” or “emergency shelter” is, than a person who has stayed in one. You may have volunteered with a shelter, helped serve a meal to people staying in a shelter, or donated to shelters in some capacity. But, do you know what the true focus of an emergency shelter should be and if the shelters you’re familiar with are following best practices?  

While emergency shelters and similar temporary housing can provide much-needed protection for a person who would otherwise be sleeping outside, this type of housing is not meant to be a long-term solution.

The key to successful emergency shelters is in their ability to be housing-focused and help people who enter their doors, successfully exit to permanent housing as quickly as possible. 

Benefits of an emergency shelter

An emergency shelter can be beneficial in the short-term for people who experience a crisis and need an immediate safe place to sleep. Under the right conditions, shelters can help people get out of the elements, give beds to people escaping a dangerous situation, and be a starting point toward a permanent housing solution. They can connect people to valuable resources and allow them a reprieve when they need it most. 

When emergency shelters work best, they are fair, equitable, and act as a bridge to help a person experiencing homelessness find a successful path to housing. 

In short, these temporary housing havens should be exactly that: extremely temporary. 

Potential problems with emergency shelters

The problems with emergency shelters show themselves when those shelters fail to connect people who enter their doors with proper resources and actually contribute to the houseless cycle. 

Many shelters have long lists of rules that inhibit people from the very tasks and resources they need to overcome their homelessness and find permanent housing. 

Common Barriers at an Emergency Shelter

  • Curfews and “First Come, First Served” policies: Strict hours or the expectation that a person needs to stand in line by a certain time to receive a bed is one of the fastest ways to limit employment opportunities for someone facing homelessness. If a person has to choose between working the hours a job requires of them or a place to sleep at night, that’s perpetuating their problem.
  • High-barrier access: Shelters should be focused on immediate and low-barrier access based on a person’s need. Long lists of rules about who can stay often result in discriminatory practices that keep people of certain ages, gender identities, or physical abilities from receiving services. These high-barrier rules can also separate companions or parents from children, resulting in even further trauma and more difficulty.
  • Arbitrary Rules and Expectations: Similar to the housing-first model, shelters should not expect the people who need its services to “fix their problems” before entering. This means providing help for people who are exhibiting mental health challenges, may be intoxicated or unable to pass a drug test, or do not have an immediate plan for re-housing.

    This does not mean the shelter should have ZERO expectations. A shelter should be able to keep its population safe by prohibiting weapons, substance abuse on the premises, and finding alternative solutions for people displaying violent behavior.
  • Revolving doors: Shelters should aspire to help people stay for as few nights as possible. The conversation about permanent housing should happen upon entry. And, the shelter’s primary goal should be limiting return visits. 

Not all shelters created equally

There are good players and bad players in the emergency shelter world. Some are doing great things to bridge the gap between crisis and permanent housing. But others may have different motives.

Emergency shelters across the country are some of the most visible “solutions” to housing and homelessness. Historically, this means that emergency shelters often receive more funding than solutions that lead to permanent housing. 

In the worst case scenarios, shelters can actually be motivated to keep people returning to them because the more people they serve, the more money they receive. That’s the wrong way to look at the data. 

Measuring the success of an emergency shelter

Instead of reporting the number of beds that are full every night and receiving per-capita funding, it’s time emergency shelters are held to a different reporting standard. 

Data that reflects a healthy emergency shelter includes: 

  • Percentage of applicants allowed into the shelter (displaying low barrier to entry)
  • Increases in exits to permanent housing
  • Decreases in repeat stays
  • Increases in unsheltered homeless using your facilities (displaying trust from your community)
  • Increases in staff positions for people experiencing homelessness

If you’re interested in learning more about the effectiveness of temporary housing and emergency shelters, The National Alliance to End Homelessness has an entire Emergency Shelter Learning Series that is worth exploring. If you have any questions about housing options in Kansas City, please contact us and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.