By James Breckenridge To Be, or not to Be, or what to Be, … that is the question; the primary question [or questions] you must ask if you are located outside of a shelter rich environment such as Vancouver or Toronto.
In an environment with multiple shelters, individual shelters can be tasked to serve the needs of a single class of clients [i.e. a class composed of those waiting for a spot in a treatment center – such as Kinghaven – to become available]. Using a single shelter to meet the needs of a single class of clients avoids the problems that arise from the conflicts between the differing needs that different classes [groupings] of homeless have.
In a shelter rich environment, meeting the needs of the different classes within the homeless population requires determining the size of each class of homeless and assigning a shelter [or shelters] to meet the needs of each different class [classification] of homeless.
Outside of major population centers such as Vancouver, in locations where there is only a single shelter (Mission, Maple Ridge, Chilliwack, Abbotsford etc.) serving the conflicting needs of the different classes among the homeless is a challenge.
Indeed, it is highly probable the conflicts between the needs of the different classes of clients among the homeless will make it impossible to serve all the conflicting needs equally.
This reality makes it vital to consider the purpose, the raison d’etre, for the shelter and to set the priorities of the shelter in accordance with the raison d’etre of the shelter.
Having decided upon the purpose [or purposes] and priorities of the shelter one uses the purpose [purposes] and priorities to set the operating policies and procedures for the shelter, and to resolve the conflicts that arise from the differing needs of the various classes of homeless.
Setting shelter policy first will set the the purpose and priorities of the shelter without regard to whether the purpose and priorities thus set are good, bad, ugly, desired, helpful or suitable.
As an illustration of why it is vital to give careful consideration to the purpose and priorities of the shelter in order to set the policies and priorities and avoid unwanted negative consequences, consider the following example:
Suppose you decide the shelter beds must be full every night; thereby setting the primary purpose of the shelter as maximizing the number of homeless warehoused by the shelter.
Having set the shelter’s purpose as maximizing the number of homeless warehoused you are faced with two basic policy approaches to maximizing the probability that the shelter will be fully occupied every night.
The simplest approach – theoretically – is first come first served; where you open the shelter doors at a designated opening time and, starting with those at the head of the line, admit the number of homeless required to fill the beds.
For purposes of our example let’s set 6 PM as the time the shelter opens; have the shelter provide an evening meal for those in the shelter, but only for those in the shelter; have the shelter have beds that will accommodate 15 men and 5 woman [20 beds in total].
This approach maximizes the probability the shelter will be fully occupied every night, and that the number of people in line at opening will increase over time.
The two major consequences associated with this approach:
1) no provision for continuity for people to be in the shelter every night; if you were in the shelter the prior night but are not among the first 15 men or 5 women in line – you are SOL.
2) The need to be among the first 15 men or 5 women in line will tend, over time, to have the line for a shelter bed that evening form at a time earlier and earlier before the shelter opens; the need to be among the first 15 men or 5 woman combined with the line for a shelter bed forming at an ever earlier time increases the probability of conflicts over position in the line and line etiquette; leading to an increasing probability of violence and the need to police the line;
The other principal approach is to open the shelter doors, admit those who were in the shelter the prior night first and then fill the empty beds, if there are any empty beds.
Of course this approach means that as long as a person shows up at the time the shelter opens every night you are housing them. It also reduces accessibility to the shelter as a bed (beds) only become available when someone in the shelter fails to be there at opening. Over time the beds in the shelter will become filled with those who are capable of, and good at, arriving at opening time. This will result in access to a shelter bed for anyone not already in the shelter becoming a more and more infrequent occurrence.
You can address the issue of access to shelter beds through turnover in the shelter by setting the number of nights someone can access a shelter bed and requiring that anyone who reaches the allowed number of nights must be absent from the shelter for 30 days before they can again access the shelter.
To ensure the shelter has no night where any bed is empty, you will want to set a high number of nights someone can access the shelter before they are required to wait 30 days before they can again access a bed in the shelter.
For purposes of our example let’s set a month, 30 days, as the number of nights a person gets before they are required to wait 30 days before being eligible to access a shelter bed.
What are the consequences of setting 30 nights as the number of nights before someone is required to wait 30 days to return?
Once the homeless are aware of and adjust to having 30 nights (as opposed to a lower number for nights such as……..5) there are likely to be no nights, or almost no nights, where all the shelter beds are not in use; no nights, or almost no nights, where there is a bed available in the shelter.
In fact, once the 30 days availability is widely known the probability is that the shelter beds will be full and it will be necessary to turn away people upon opening the shelter.
You will have succeeded in minimizing [or eliminating] empty shelter beds.
Succeeded……if you evaluate the results and consequences solely on the basis of the purpose of the shelter being to maximizing the number of homeless warehoused by the shelter.
What are the consequences of having filling all the beds as your primary focus?
The operating policies that reduce the number of empty beds to (or close to) zero also result in a significant reduction in turnover and therefore the opportunity for someone not already in the shelter to access a bed. Should everyone from the night before return, a circumstance that becomes more frequent under policies of 100% occupancy, nobody not already in the shelter will get a bed.
The operating policies of 100% occupancy will also result in there being few, if any, nights were any shelter beds are available after the 6 PM shelter opening time.
What major consequences flow from setting the purpose of the shelter as being to have 100% of the beds occupied and the operating policies to achieve this purpose?
If you are going to have an emergency that would result in you needing a shelter bed you have to make sure it happens sufficiently before 6 PM for you to get to the shelter before opening time. Additionally you need to ensure your emergency occurs on a night were there will be some turnover among those staying at the shelter and that either you are the only new to the shelter client or there are a sufficient number of beds available for all newcomers to get a bed.
The police will also need to ensure that all incidents that currently lead to their calling the shelter to see if it has a bed available (i.e. a domestic dispute where the APD feels that having one of the parties spend the night at the is the best recourse) occur before 6 PM and on a day when a bed will be available so the APD’s quest can find accommodation at the shelter.
The Hospital will also need to be sure that anyone at the hospital who needs a bed at the shelter is treated in time to be at the shelter by 6 PM and that this occurs on a day when there will be sufficient turnover in people staying at the shelter so that sufficient beds are available for newcomers to the shelter to be accommodated. .
The shelter line and after hours emergency services will simply need to live with the fact that there are no beds available after 6 PM or, alternatively, also ensure those needing a bed are at the shelter by 6 PM and on a day there will be a bed available.
Those considering getting into treatment will need to be sure to time their thinking about/considering treatment on a timeline that ensures their arrival at the shelter by 6 PM on a night when a bed will be available. Statistically they will need to be prepared to return night after night at 6 PM until a bed becomes available to accommodate them. No longer will they be able to find a bed if it is not until after 6 PM that they are moved to come to the shelter and talk to (be encouraged by) shelter staff about signing up to talk to Outreach who will help them get find a treatment program.
And those who are headed to treatment when a bed becomes available for them, but need a safe place to stay and staff who will support/encourage them to hang in there (stay sober) until a treatment spot opens up for them? They had better be lucky enough in their timing to be able to access a bed.
Those in recovery houses who suffer a slip and need refuge for the 3 – 5 days they are required to be sober before being allowed to return to the recovery house – pretty much SOL and trying to stay sober and survive on the streets.
Need shelter and help to find a new home? Do you need some other form of assistance? If you are not one of the lucky few for whom a bed is available – too bad.
A newbie? Good luck; you are going to need lots of luck going for you to get a bed in the shelter and gain access to shelter staff to talk with and explore options and services available before falling through the crack into long term homelessness.
Have mental health issues that make functioning difficult? Under these circumstances the best option to find help is to find the person responsible for setting the purpose of the shelter as being 100% full and kick their ass, repeatedly while screaming aspersions as to said person’s nature, ancestors and abilities. This will ensure the police take you to the hospital where you will have priority for a bed and help, circumventing the shelter’s sorry, SOL state.
Hopefully this limited examination of the consequences of setting the policy (and thus the purpose) of the shelter as being 100% occupied is sufficient to make clear why it is vital to set the purpose and priorities for a shelter before setting the policies and procedures.
Achieving 100% occupancy of the shelter is not progress, or necessarily progress- depending upon whether you view a cannibal using a fork as progress.
To be (or not to be) a shelter for those suffering a true emergency (i.e. fire), or to be a shelter for those seeking to retake and rebuild their lives by undertaking the hard work to find housing or treatment for substance use or to begin the journey in search of mental health; or to be a flophouse to warehouse those who have no interest at this point in time in changing?
It is vital that you decide what it is you want to accomplish with the shelter, setting out what the shelter is to be or not to be and setting the operational policies and procedures based on the purpose of the shelter being defined in terms of what it is you want to accomplish with the shelter, what needs do you want the shelter to address and meet.
Given purpose, priorities and needs I see the shelter having to meet, I would argue that having policies and priorities that result in an empty bed every night will serve those varying needs whereas a focus on ensuring all the beds are full will in fact defeat or deny the ability of the shelter to meet the purpose, priorities and needs of the city and its people.
Understand that I am not saying one should not seek to maximize the utilization of shelter beds, but that that operating policies should first seek to ensure the needs of the community are met and then make adjustments to your operating policies to maximize shelter bed usage only to the point where continuing to focus on bed usage will have negative consequences on the shelters ability to meet the communities needs.
Serving the purpose and priorities the community needs served is more important than having 100% bed usage and failing badly in meeting the community needs.
This is particularly true when the focus on 100% bed usage has the shelter performing more in the nature of a flophouse/semi-crack shack than as a shelter seeking to address the varied needs of the community to the best of its ability.
Postscript: The example used in examining why it is vital to set shelter operating policies in line with and to support the purpose(s) and priorities of the shelter does not mean that one cannot seek to increase the rate of occupancy of shelter beds. What the example reveals is that if you want to maintain the ability of the shelter to meet the needs of the community it is necessary to be cognizant of the reality that maintaining the shelter’s ability to serve the community’s needs will require acceptance of less than 100% bed usage and that any actions taken to increase bed usage require thoughtfulness, care and patience to ensure the shelter continues to serve the purposes, priorities and needs of the community.
The number of nights was adjusted from 10 to 5 to accommodate the introduction of Case Management and the reality that in the beginning Case Management had often required the use of more than 50% of the shelter beds. In order to ensure the shelter’s ability to meet the needs of the community the number of nights one received before needing to wait 30 days to return to the shelter was reduced from 10 to 5 to provide for adequate availability.
Over time the ‘rush’ on the new Case Management services had peaked and steadied at a lower level of demand for Case Management services. This lower level of demand resulted in a decrease in bed utilization.
In light of the history of, and experience with, the shelter the first step in increasing bed usage in the shelter should have been to raise the number of nights someone could stay at the shelter without working with Case Management from 5 to back to 10 nights to see the effect this change had upon bed utilization and the ability of the shelter to serve the needs of the community.
Should it prove necessary careful adjustment of the nights up (or down) from 10 could/would be made in the future to maximize bed usage and to continue to serve the needs of the community.
James Breckenridge is a former chartered accountant and advocate for the homeless from Abbotsford BC. He has written extensively on the topic of homelessness in BC’s Bible Belt most recently in a feature called – Abbotsford’s Obsessive Compulsive Treatment Of The Homeless.
He can be reached at email@example.com