One of the most common preconceptions people have when someone says they're homeless or about to become homeless is that anyone can just show up at a shelter and be housed. Nothing could be further from the truth. From my experience, service providers will gladly tell you all about their programs and what they have to offer and how many people they've helped but there's a side to them they all too often do not mention. For one thing, how many of them will openly admit that they feed a revolving door system?
In order to get funding, many shelters must fill quotas and in order to fill those quotas, shelters may have too many people in them or strict stay times to keep the flow of people coming and going in order to have the numbers required by funding programs. Overcrowding leads to safety issues you may not be aware of but the homeless people who have gone to shelters certainly do! If you want to know what goes on at some shelters, click on this link to get an idea.
One of the reasons I personally didn't just show up at a shelter is because I knew I couldn't do that. There is a "process" that you have to go through and even if you go through that "process," there is no guarantee of immediate permanent housing due to the indefinitely long waiting lists. Many places expect you to keep calling them every day to let them "know" you still need help and they won't call back unless there's an opening and no one can tell you when that will be. Say you get through "processing" and by a stroke of luck, there's an opening. Guess what? You get to stay for maybe 90 days. Where do you go after that if you can't be moved into housing? So my line of reasoning is "If you can't guarantee me immediate permanent housing, why would I call you?" For one thing, I'm wasting cell phone minutes to call when I should be saving them in case a possible employer calls.
Another issue I have with some shelter providers is if they are faith-based shelters that require conversion from its patrons. I'm going to call out the Union Gospel Mission on this one because when I first called them I was told that attending services was mandatory! What if you're a Muslim, a Buddhist or Jewish? Even if they tell you that you don't have to be a Christian to get help, the expectation is very much one of conversion as I was told "I would still have to hear about Jesus". That's fine but how can you say you're helping ALL of the community when you obviously have an agenda? The idea that you won't help because someone does not choose to believe as you do is both ignorant and disrespectful to other cultures. If you don't believe me, talk to us natives about conversion.... and what's up with those homeless guys standing around downtown Seattle with signs screaming about God and for sinners to repent? Every one of the ones I talked to said they came from the Union Gospel Mission's shelter system. The only thing this kind of behavior tells me is that you're a creepy organization!
Also, some shelters discriminate against LGBT youth and adults. I find that to be rather sad due the fact that from everything I've read about Christ, he didn't discriminate against anyone much to the dissatisfaction of the clergy during his time. From what I've read, Jesus served the very people everyone else looked down on as an example of compassion. Seems to me some folks pick and choose from their belief systems to justify their attitude towards other people.
A big reason I find myself on the outside of some programs is because I don't fit their eligibility requirements. For one thing, I've never had a problem with addictions or the law. I'm also not a domestic abuse victim so I can't go to those shelters or programs. What if I were a single dad with kids? If you think it's bad for a single mother trying to get help from programs, you ought to talk to these dads about how little help they get! Not many family shelters exist and if they do, it's women with children only. Dad gets sent to a men's shelter if he can get into one.
I have a question to service providers to answer honestly if they can: How can you offer help to get into housing when you already know that Section 8 has been closed to application for years and state funding has been slashed? In the case of Seattle, what shelter are you going to send folks to considering the fact that many are closing due to lack of financial support? How safe and clean are your shelters? How much of your budget is spent on "administrative costs" versus providing more housing?
How many of you know that there are no standards on health and safety in shelters? If you and your family were to suddenly become homeless, would you go to a shelter that was dirty or dangerous to be in? How many of you have seen the news bits about some shelters having problems with bed bugs? If you as a service provider wouldn't stay at the shelter you run, why on earth would you expect others to do so?
Now it's not my style to just bring up issues without thinking of ways to make better solutions to an obvious problem. I've been pondering about whether or not shelters should figure out a way to get corporate sponsorship to help with funding issues because I've noticed that many programs to help the homeless tank when government funding does. I've also noticed that programs and shelters not dependent solely on government aid stay in operation when others are closing. Many companies that are able to, often look for ways to give back to the community and I can't think of a better way for them to do that than to provide support to responsible local shelters or food banks.
Standardized health and safety policies in shelters are badly needed. You cannot just cram a bunch of different needs into a room and think there won't be problems. A prime example of this is putting families in the same shelter as severely mentally disabled homeless adults who might be prone to violence or individuals who could be undocumented predators. Also, how do you separate individuals with contagious diseases from everyone else?
Here's another suggestion: how about treating patrons with dignity? I spoke to a man who showed up at Nickelsville one night looking for a safe place to sleep for the night. The man told me that a shelter ran in the bottom of a church had just kicked everyone out because someone did not hold up their end of an agreement to help with housekeeping therefore EVERYONE was punished for what one person failed to do. I understand the need for rules but seriously, how does punishing people not responsible for the actions of another, help? Homeless people are people and do not appreciate other people looking down on them anymore than you do.
I could sit around talking about homelessness all I want to but the only way anything is going to actually change is if individuals get involved in their local communities. Writing blogs can help bring awareness but awareness doesn't mean a thing if there's no active involvement behind it to make real changes to end and prevent homelessness. The biggest loss in the homeless population today is hope. How can hope exist if nothing changes? The government isn't going to make new opportunities for change, WE DO!
So here's my challenge to all of the non homeless people out there. Pretend you're a homeless person or about to become homeless. Look up services for homeless people in your area and call them. See, this way you'll own the experience of what it feels like when you call "resources" looking for help. If you're a services provider, the same challenge applies only call your own facility or org so you can see what a homeless person hears when they call. You may be in for an eye opener.....
At the bottom of this blog is a list of links with helpful information on it regarding shelters and how they operate. Get educated.... get involved!
Follow Carey Fuller on Twitter: www.twitter.com/careyfuller