Would Adding More Emergency Shelter Help Reduce Unsheltered Homelessness? It’s Complicated…

This post is part of Unsheltered, an Alliance blog series to exploring the crisis of unsheltered homelessness in the United States. You can catch up on the whole series here.

It’s easy to wonder why we don’t just build more shelter to tackle unsheltered homelessness. With people living outside — on the streets and in tunnels, cars, and encampments — expanding shelter capacity can seem like the simplest solution.

Emergency shelters play a critical, often life-saving role in providing a safe place for people experiencing a housing crisis. But providing a shelter bed alone is often a temporary, inadequate fix to homelessness. As Alliance Vice President Steve Berg said in a recent Unsheltered post:

“If the only response is more shelter, each new shelter will quickly fill up, and unsheltered homelessness will continue to grow… A community must consider how each person will exit to housing from that shelter.”

Recognizing the inadequacy of a “shelter bed only” approach, what should communities consider when deciding whether to add more shelter beds?

Are You Using the Shelter Beds You Have?

If any of your community’s shelters have a utilization rate lower than 95% and people still live outside, it’s possible that restrictive rules or unfit shelter conditions are preventing people from using shelter. Communities can survey people living on the street and those using shelter to determine what is affecting their decisions about accessing shelter and services.

Can You Improve Utilization of Shelter by Making It More Accommodating?

Shelters can better serve people living on the street by being easier to enter and by allowing people to come as they are. By lowering barriers to entry, shelters are able to serve more people and those with higher needs. Read more about making the transition from high- to low-barrier shelter.

Here are some barriers shelters could remove:

  • Household configuration requirements, such as restricting family shelters to women and children only. This requirement can force fathers to live outside with their children and, in some cases, may violate the federal Equal Access Rule. (Learn more about how to apply the Equal Access Rule to your shelter.)
  • Sobriety rules.
  • Minimum income requirements or program fees.
  • Criminal background checks.
  • Single-sex shelter rules (also a potential Equal Access Rule violation) that don’t provide equal access or accommodations for LGBTQ people.
  • Prohibitions against couples staying together in shelter.
  • Restrictions against people with pets.
  • Limited hours of operation that force residents to arrive during restricted evening hours and leave early in the morning.
  • Isolated, inaccessible locations.
  • Unclean and unsafe conditions that make shelter an unappealing alternative.
  • Overcrowded conditions that feel threatening, especially to people with mental illness.
  • Lots of rules in the shelter.

Can You Increase the Number of Available Beds by Increasing Flow-Through?

Shelters are not a long-term housing strategy.  High shelter utilization rates can be a good sign – but they can also be an indication that too many people are getting stuck — entering, but not exiting shelter.  Many people just need a temporary place to stay while they find a new place to live, and light-touch services can help with that. Others will need more help to exit, and shelters should be laser-focused on helping them find housing through rapid re-housing, permanent supportive housing, and other housing resources.

To determine whether shelters are helping people move out of homelessness, communities can look at the following shelter data:

  • Average length of stay in shelter.
  • Percent of shelter residents who exit to permanent housing.
  • Percent that returns to homelessness after being housed.

Shelter providers should collect the data needed to track these outcomes and change program design to improve them. Here are some detailed metrics (.doc) providers can use to determine their effectiveness.

Can You Reduce the Demand for Shelter through Diversion?

Nationwide, communities are using diversion strategies to assist people who are imminently at risk of losing their housing to maintain their current housing or find alternate housing solutions without having to enter shelter. This reduces new entries into shelter and preserves the precious shelter resources for people who have no alternatives. Implementing diversion services at coordinated entry system access points can help improve system flow.

Still Need to Increase Beds?

After evaluating the current system for utilization, accessibility, and outcomes, it may still make sense to add additional shelter beds. All new and existing shelter facilities should implement the Five Keys to Effective Shelter.

For more information about implementing low-barrier housing-focused shelter, check out these resources: