More Appropriate Housing: Another Fundamental Belief
Emergency shelter was never intended to become de facto housing for anyone. However, for far too long and for way too many people emergency shelter has, in fact, become home. Why is using emergency shelter as housing a bad thing? Well, for starters, not just research, but also common sense clearly demonstrates that people do better – medically, emotionally, you name it – when they are in a place of their own. Think about this for a moment. When you’re not feeling well, where do you want to be? Home. Although our mental health system is in a shambles, mental health reform has been predicated on a solid principle: serving people in their own communities, with their own families, and in their own homes is more effective than putting them in institutions. While emergency shelters come in many shapes, sizes, and with varying approaches to making people feel welcome, they are institutions by their very design, which makes them poor substitutes for home. To further understand what emergency shelters should be, let’s better define why they exist.
Emergency shelters should have a limited purpose. They should provide short-term (ideally less than 30 days) shelter for someone experiencing an immediate housing crisis. Emergency shelters should be easy to access and they should offer some level of stability in a person’s moment of experiencing homelessness. I would add that they should be welcoming and intentionally set the tone for helping a person move forward with their lives. The reason we call men “guests” when they come to the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte (MSC) is that we want them to feel welcome but we also want to immediately establish the understanding that their stay is temporary. Ultimately, MSC views the use of emergency shelter as a method to help men move forward – this is why our program is called Moving Forward, Moving Home.
Stating that shelter is more appropriate than the streets is quite easy to understand. You all get that picture in your mind. The second half of this foundational belief requires a little more explanation. What are the other forms of housing [that] are more appropriate than shelter? At MSC, we group these other types of housing into four categories: rental, reunification, permanent supportive, and other more appropriate places. For many men experiencing homelessness an apartment of their own will be the best outcome. Currently, that’s the outcome for about 35% of MSC’s guests when they move out of the shelter. Family reunification is another superb outcome; in fact, in terms of economic and emotional impact it may be the best solution. MSC reunites about 36% of the men we move out of shelter with family.
For some men, however, moving into their own apartment or rejoining family may not be the next best step in their journey out of homelessness. Some men will need financial and other support for a long time, maybe even for the rest of their lives. In these instances, permanent supportive housing is a great next step. Men move into an apartment, often owned and operated by an agency skilled at helping them manage their own lives. Their rent is typically set at no more than 30% of whatever income they have, including fully subsidizing rent when there is no income available. While these living situations can be permanent, many people eventually move on to unsubsidized or unsupervised living situations when they are ready.
For some, the next step involves needing more assistance for a longer period of time than a shelter can (or should) provide. This usually involves medical, mental health, or substance addiction recovery. MSC helps men needing additional assistance move into more appropriate placements such as assisted living, residential addiction recovery programs, and group homes for those with a mental health barrier.
MSC typically moves 25-30% of men from the shelter into permanent supportive housing or another more appropriate housing situation. In other words, over 70% of the men moving out of MSC return to a permanent living situation, while the other 25-30% continues their path out of homelessness with the help of a more appropriate living placement.
The end result is that MSC is fulfilling our mission to end homelessness for the men we serve by helping them move forward from the shelter into more appropriate housing. The outcomes are awesome for the men – stability and permanency while maintaining their dignity and being responsible for their own lives. MSC’s emergency shelters can then truly serve their intended purpose as defined above. And, the community benefits when people end their homeless experience and return to living in their communities. Between fiscal years 2012 -2014 the number of different men seeking emergency shelter at MSC was reduced by 48%. Not by discouraging the use of emergency shelter, but by focusing the shelter’s purpose as a tool for rapidly rehousing men, thus ending their homeless experience. MSC’s data clearly shows that Moving Forward, Moving Home is ending homelessness in our community.
One of the frequent challenges to helping someone end their homeless experience is their addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. Because emergency shelter must focus on short-term crisis interventions and rapid rehousing, MSC has a clearly defined approached to helping men who are also dealing with addiction so they don’t get stuck in the shelter or in a never ending cycle of homelessness. Next week I’ll explain MSC’s next fundamental belief: Substance addiction recovery is a life-long process and best supported through a harm-reduction approach.