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|The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the United States and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (October 2012)|
Homeless shelters are temporary residences of desperation for homeless people which seek to protect vulnerable populations from the often devastating effects of homelessness while simultaneously reducing the environmental impact on the community. They are similar to but distinguishable from various types of emergency shelters, which are typically operated for specific circumstances and populations - fleeing natural disasters or abusive social circumstances. Extreme variants of "normal" weather create problems similar to disaster management scenarios, and are handled with warming centers, which typically operate for short duration during adverse weather.
Homeless shelters tend to be a "one-size-fits-all" model, but there is frequently a separate shelter system for families and for youth. Both "generic" and the specialized shelters typically expect clients to exit in the morning and occupy themselves elsewhere during the day, returning for an evening meal and to sleep. Curfews vary widely but tend to be at an earlier hour than adults typically might return to a home.
There are also daytime-only homeless shelters, where the homeless can go when they cannot stay inside at their nighttime sleeping shelter during the day. Such an early model of a daytime homeless shelter providing multi-faceted services is Saint Francis House in Boston, Massachusetts which was officially founded in 1984. It was based on the settlement house, clubhouse and community center support and social service models.
Homeless shelters are provided for those that fall on hard times and need refuge. Typically, these shelters are non-profit organizations normally associated with either churches or federal or state governments. They are designed specifically to be temporary homes providing for those that have fallen on hard times an opportunity to get back into the workforce. Circumstances for entering a homeless shelter include but are not limited to: health complications, unpaid bills, or a missed paycheck. Shelters typically have been understood by the public. They are created not to just provide shelter, but also offer a variety of services including job training, rehab for drug addicts, and soup kitchens. Throughout the world, the number of homeless shelters is increasing with each new year. In the United States the Department of Housing and Urban Development has shown in recent studies that about 5 million Americans qualify to take advantage of homeless shelters. As poverty levels continue to climb, it is estimated that the number of homeless shelters, in particular in the United States, will continue to rise.
In Australia, due to government funding requirements, most homelessness services fill the role of both daytime and nighttime shelters. Shelters develop empowerment based "wrap around" services in which clients are case managed and supported in their efforts to become self reliant. An example of such a service provider in this area in Australia is Najidah.
A study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimates that 2.3 to 3.5 million Americans suffer from homelessness annually. Alaska, California, Nevada, Oregon, Colorado, and Hawaii are the states with the highest concentration of homeless people. Around 1.5 million children or one of out every 50 children in America are homeless. Many Americans suffer from the state of “chronic homelessness,” which is where an individual has a disabling condition who has been continuously homeless for over a year or has been homeless on at least four different instances within four years. About 23% of the homeless population has been tagged as “chronic homeless.” Veterans also represent close to 40% of homeless men within the United States. Demographics of the Homeless Population of the United States can be represented as:
Homelessness appears to be largely concentrated within urban areas. Central cities hold 71% of the homeless population while the suburbs have 21% of the homeless population. Only 9% of the homeless class can be located within rural areas.
Homeless individuals constantly are in fight for life against death. Millions die each year from diseases, untreated medical conditions, lack of nutrition, starvation, and freezing to death. In a mild-wintered San Francisco in 1998, the death rate for homeless people was 58% than that of the general population. In Washington, D.C. statistics indicate that 63% of homeless people suffer from a lack of access to regular bathing. Another 58% within just the nation's capital are unable to obtain sufficient levels of sleep. Homeless individuals also have great trouble finding storage locations for their belongings. Another hardship endured by the homeless population of the United States is the issue of boredom. Without having a shelter, thousands of Americans are left on the streets with nothing to do for hours each day. A simple task such as going to the grocery store is an event that a homeless person will take all day to complete so that they simply just have something to do.
Homeless shelters are usually operated by a non-profit agency or a municipal agency, or are associated with a church. They almost always have Section 501(c)3 corporate organization with a Board of Directors pulled from various sectors of the community. Often, such Boards include clergy, elected officials,and even shelter clientele and people from the surrounding community.
Homeless shelters often provide other services to the community at large. The classic example is the soup kitchen for persons who are not staying at the shelter. Others include support groups, and/or substance abuse treatment. If they do not offer any of these services, they can usually refer their clients to agencies that do. Supportive housing integrates services in a more assertive fashion. The typical pathway through the interlocking system is that a person may start in a shelter and move through transitional housing into supportive housing and finally independent housing.
Centers in the United States are also often coordinated with outside programs both for their mission-specific operations and for ancillary services. For communication of their availability, most coordinate with the Federally mandated 2-1-1 or the 3-1-1 phone information system which allow needy persons to find out where shelters are located. For transportation to shelters, some offer free transportation, particularly in cases of persons being released from jail. Some jails have specific staff assigned to placement of persons being released.
Homelessness has developed into one of the largest problems that America currently faces. The homeless shelters across the country act merely as emergency shelter systems that can only hold a fraction of the rapidly increasing homeless population. The Housing First practice provides an alternative to the current network of homeless shelters. The program targets the large problem within the United States which is a lack of affordable housing. This methodology attempts to place homeless families back into independent living situations as quickly as possible. The Housing First practice has achieved success from the fact that homeless families are more responsive to social services support once when they are in their own housing. It provides crisis intervention, affordable rental housing, and gives each family a grace period of six months to a year of social service to allow the family to get back on their feet. The effectiveness of this concept is that it assists homeless families in identifying their needs and recognizing the choices they must make. From this point families can create better options for them and plan strategies for living on their own.
Some shelters propose "empowerment models", where instead of serving "clients", they empower "participants". The goal is to become agents in their own futures and destinies.
Such models tend to focus on assisting participants to access their rights and to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens. Sometimes this includes contributing financially towards the provision of the shelters they are residing in. In Australia, legislation requires those residing in Government funded shelters to contribute a figure similar to 25% of their own income, in return for support and accommodation. Consequently, many shelters in Australia rely on participant contributions for as much as 20% of their budgets.
Another interesting model is Dorothy's Place in Salinas, CA. It is actually a day center which coordinates with multiple church and synagogue congregations to link up to night time shelter opportunities. Dorothy's Place is closely affiliated with various faith based community service groups. Among these is the Franciscan Worker and Companions of the Way Interfaith Dharma community. They propose that they are in search of "possibilitarians", a theme resonating with the prominent ministry of "possibility thinking" promoted by Reformed Church of America minister Reverend Robert Schuller.
Across the United States there are several national organizations that assist in the founding and the upkeep of homeless shelters. The main national organizations are: The National Alliance to End Homelessness, the Salvation Army, the National Coalition for the Homeless, the Emergency Food and Shelter Program (United Way), the Department of Veterans Affairs, Feeding America Organization, Housing Assistance Council, and Help USA.
The Salvation Army is a social support service organization that functions also as a religious group. The organization was founded by William Booth over 130 years ago. The programs of the Salvation Army are designed to assist women, children, elderly men, families, and those who are battling drug addictions. Feeding America acts currently as one the largest domestic hunger relief charities in the country. It provides food assistance to more than 25 million, low-income Americans. This figure includes over 9 million children and nearly 3 million seniors. There are also Gospel Rescue Missions. These groups assist those in need who often are homeless individuals. They like all other homeless shelter providers do not discriminate against race, age, religion, color, origin, or any other determination. The Department of Veterans Affairs are solely aimed at helping homeless veterans. Although this organization assists a specific concentration of individuals, it currently constitutes the largest network of homeless treatment within the United States.
Homeless individuals within the United States are assisted through various Federal programs. Examples include the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSD) and the Social Security Supplemental Income (SSI) programs. Such applicants may qualify through their medical records. The Social Security Disability Insurance Service extends benefits to families if they have obtained the insurance. The Social Security Supplemental Income Service offers financial assistance towards individuals in need and does not concern whether the applicant has a disability or not.
The NIMBY response is seldom more in evidence than with regard to homeless shelters. Yet, the community attitude towards homeless shelters varies widely. In communities such as Portland, Oregon, where the weather can be quite harsh, there is an extensive network of supporters. These operate an informal restaurant, the "Sisters of the Road" cafe, which supports both homeless shelter clientele and also some unsheltered persons. At the opposite end of the spectrum, jurisdictions such as Santa Barbara, California, feature ongoing disputes in an often highly adversarial mode. Disputes have even reached such schemes as re-arranging benches on city sidewalks to discourage panhandlers. In another 2011 incident, an eight unit supportive housing project which had been approved was called back onto city council agenda the following week in order to allow approximately 35 public comments pro and con, despite the fact that the measure had just been approved.
There have at times been concerns raised about the transmission of diseases in the homeless population housed in shelters, although public health professionals contend that such concerns are inflated. A question has been raised as to just how much money donated to the charities that run the shelters actually gets to the homeless person and the needed services. In many cases, there is a large overhead in administrative costs, which compromise the money for their homeless clients.
There is sometimes corruption and theft by the employees of a shelter as evidenced by a 2011 investigative report by FOX 25 TV in Boston wherein a number of Boston public shelter employees were found stealing large amounts of food over a period of time from the shelter's kitchen for their private use and catering. Several problems emerge when a homeless shelter is present. Homeless shelters have been argued to have a negative effect on businesses. Businesses for years have complained that they frequently witness pedestrians being stopped outside their stores by homeless people begging for money. Such events have led to the creation of local laws that prohibit “aggressive panhandling.” Another problem is that it is often difficult to decide on where a homeless shelter should be built. Neighborhoods as well as schools argue that homeless shelters bring in bad element to their surroundings. Also far too many shelters have become nothing but housing facilities. They fail to provide job training or education that would assist the homeless population with gaining their own housing. Housing through homeless shelters offer no lasting solutions just temporary ones. Drugs and alcohol also tend to surround homeless shelters. Many administrators advocate that shelters should be drug and alcohol free but this has failed to take place in most locations. Lastly, no classification system for shelters has been put into effect. There are no mechanisms to separate those who have mental illnesses from the rest of the homeless within shelters.