New Truths About Ending Homelessness
Thirty years ago, when large-scale homelessness morphed, advocates mostly had a desire to respond and space to offer but little formal know how. The ironic tragedy and blessing is that those providing services to Minnesotans without permanent housing have gained a wealth of experience and research to help guide today's best practices.
Minnesota's most recent example of this combined work is Higher Ground, a new facility in downtown Minneapolis operated by Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Higher Ground replaces the former Secure Waiting shelter that Catholic Charities had been operating since 1996.
The new building offers improved shelter space, increased services, and even 85 apartments for people transitioning from the shelter into permanent housing. For the 220 men accessing the nightly shelter programs, Higher Ground’s facility offers much more privacy, comfort, and amenities than Secure Waiting was able to. Mats on a crowded floor have been replaced by bunk beds with linens, storage space, privacy surrounds, and even electric outlets. Clients can access showers, meals, and a medical clinic.
Most of the first shelters and services were opened by churches and other community organizations with little expertise in ending homelessness. We have come a long way since the early 1980s, and most service providers have modernized their programs to reflect some of the truths we’ve discovered about ending homelessness:
The longer someone is homeless, the longer they will stay homeless. Homelessness can be a self-perpetuating downward spiral because it can be so damaging to one’s physical and mental health, rental and criminal records, and ability to maintain employment. Getting people out of shelters quickly reduces the odds that they’ll need supportive services in the long term.
Housing is one step towards wellness, not the end goal. Providers used to require people to meet certain benchmarks before accessing housing: sobriety, employment, stable health, etc. Many people have a tough time accomplishing these while homeless because they’re focused on day-to-day survival. Under the now-popular Housing First model, we first work on finding someone long-term housing, which then gives them the stability they need to tackle other issues in their life.
People need wrap-around services. Most shelters are no longer just places to sleep, because just offering a bed doesn’t end someone’s homelessness. Providers now often offer meals, showers and laundry, employment services, medical clinics, and social workers on-site. This eliminates transportation and access issues and makes it easier for clients to meet their needs.
One size does not fit all. Unsurprisingly, people experiencing homelessness are a diverse group. Over time local programs have developed divergent service models, each best suited for different populations. This is a good thing; it offers people better chances of success.
Homelessness can be ended. In the past 30 years we’ve found many programs and best practices for different populations experiencing homelessness. While progress is challenging, it’s completely possible (and cheaper for taxpayers). We’ve gotten our homeless neighbors off of mats on the floor… now can we get them out of shelters completely?