For those who do not know (and that is probably anyone reading this), Maine has a Statewide Homeless Council. While in the 1990’s there was a Maine Homeless Coalition, the Council had its genesis in Governor King’s Sub Cabinet on Homelessness. As a result of some interdepartmental efforts and political support, a pre-existing collaborative titled the Inter Agency Task Force on Homelessness and Housing Opportunities eventually morphed into the Statewide Homeless Council under the Baldacci administration.
If you’ve hung in there with this up til now, let me get to the point of this piece. At a recent meeting of the Council, a conversation developed about shelters being generally at or beyond capacity. Then the topic moved to a serious and honest discussion about length of stay policies. Keep in mind that Maine’s 40-50 homeless shelters are not like residential group homes and are only thinly directed or prescribed in terms of specific procedures and protocols—each has been established through local efforts, and when you run a shelter you do not have a standard, regulatory guide to follow. Life safety measures are pretty standard, and shelter leadership works with funders and a wide range of state agencies and private not for profits with a resulting, ongoing set of general best practices developed. But shelter administration varies widely in many ways.
And so the discussion about length of stay. How long should a client (we refer to folks as guests) stay in a shelter? This is a deceptively simple question. Imagine the range of people who need shelter: single moms with minor children; an adult male w/ chronic addiction being released from jail without a home or a job; a survivor of domestic abuse or sexual assault; a 14 year old boy, running from an abusive stepfather; a middle aged woman from the Midwest, lacking insight into her mental illness, and fleeing dangers graphically threatening to her. Then consider the geographic location of the shelter—are there rental properties available nearby, and are the rents affordable? For people who meet qualifications, are there housing subsidies available? Can that single mom afford a place for her and her children that is safe while she begins her job search? What about employment possibilities, transportation? And for a very large percentage of single homeless adults, are there supportive services available and appropriate? Is there a reasonable way to establish clinical support for someone with schizophrenia who needs treatment but lacks insight?
The Council membership includes a man who experienced homelessness, and he articulated how it was for him and his nearly year-long stay in shelter. Persuasively, he shared how if he did not secure decent housing, outside of an area that had a concentration of addicts and crime, he was afraid his depression would deepen. He voiced genuine concern that if the only employment he could find was that of part-time, late night pizza cooker, he wouldn’t be able to afford and continue to stay in reasonably decent housing. He said that those choices would have resulted in his becoming homeless again. He’s obviously an intelligent man, and he has been in stable housing now for several years.
A large part of who I am is “old school.” I absolutely hate to admit it, but there is a small voice in my head that once in a while wants to join the chorus of “Why don’t they pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?!” (What the heck is a bootstrap? Are they the leather loops you grip to pull your boots on?) The more accurate statement is that we who work at this Shelter try to hold people accountable in as reasonable a way as we can. And everything is case by case. “Fair” is not always “equal.” Someone who is 64 and dealing with congestive heart failure won’t get the same treatment as a 22-year-old apparently healthy young man. And there are many reasons for trying to work in ways that reinforces guests’ responsibilities, including the two facts that staying in a shelter for a long time generally results in more depression, and that for every person who has a bed in shelter there are others needing to get in.
Here in this shelter, guests can eventually be given notice that since they haven’t followed through on the plan(s) they developed, they will be asked to leave the shelter. It’s never a surprise. Multiple second chances are given. It’s hard on staff, emotionally. But it happens.
So, “Who’s right?” The real question is, “Why do things have to be this way?” The fact is, if we all shared in systems of health care and training/employment (like the systems existing in many European countries) that were logical and covered the whole continuum of our needs with progressive links informed by professionalism, outcomes and common sense, shelter staff and guests wouldn’t have to experience these choices in the same ways.
The very existence of emergency homeless shelters is like the historic use of canaries in coal mines—the arguments should not be so much about differences in practices including length of stay policies, but about how we let things get to this point and what are we willing to do to change…