Group shelters

One size doesn't fit all
The population currently without housing is diverse, and solutions need to reflect that diversity. The solution and support for an adult with severe and persistent mental illness or addictions will be different from the solution for an individual or family displaced through a sudden loss of income. A recent Op-Ed on Salt Lake City's homeless programs reaffirms the need for diverse approaches.

Roles and limitations of group shelters. For some, a congregate shelter is adequate to their needs at the moment. Funding and staffing for congregate shelters is limited; these facilities create a sense of structure and stability through shelter rules and restrictions designed to ensure the safety of residents and staff, and allow them to function within a finite operating budget. Most shelters are either day shelters where individuals and families can drop in for a meal, shower or access to other community services or night shelters where folks show up after a certain hour in hopes of securing a bed space, but must leave early in the morning.

Psychological impacts. This lack of continuity and stability can limit residents' ability to make long-term plans. Perhaps more importantly, residents lack self-determination, since meal time, lights out and departure times are set—by necessity—by someone else. Children are used to this structure in grade school, but most adults struggle with this loss of control or decision-making authority.

We need to be clear: Boise is lucky to have compassionate, caring and professional shelter operators who provide sanctuary and support for those in need. For the most part, they can accommodate the needs for large numbers of individuals and families. There are a few exceptions, like childless couples, that face challenges in most group shelters. Most people have a choice of whether or not to enter a shelter or seek other options.

According to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, feeling powerless or disconnected from simple decision-making can undermine higher-order needs like esteem and self-respect. While shelters fill a niche for safety and security, they may not be ideal for someone wanting to regain control of his or her life. Many couples—married or otherwise—find they are unable to stay together in a group shelter, further compounding a sense of alienation and loss when homeless.

For these and other reasons, not all individuals and couples are able to handle life in a typical group shelter. Individuals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for instance, may not function well in close quarters. This is a widespread issue for veterans or victims of physical or sexual violence. Another challenge exists for those able to locate employment, but find local rental housing option completely out of reach without a full-time living wage and job security.

Real-world example. L. is a middle-aged man with extensive work experience. He secured the night shift in a well-known national chain restaurant in Boise. This shift ended well after midnight, so he had to arrange for someone to let him into the shelter after hours. Falling asleep was difficult in a large room with several other men, some with severe physical or mental illness that caused them to scream, cough or yell throughout the night. At precisely 5:45am everyone—employed or not—was awakened by shelter staff and expected to clear out quickly, only allowed back in after 5, right when L's restaurant shift started.

Sleep deprivation contributes to the production of stress hormones and reduces productivity and our ability to make good decisions. It's tough to hold down a job and create stability under these conditions, much less live up to one's full potential.

Group shelters play a role in communities, along with other responses. But no single strategy can work for everyone, and the Continuum of Care model reflects an interest in shifting to prevention, safe havens, transitional housing and permanent supportive housing.

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