Making the Shift Happen in Virginia

Written by guest blogger, Kendall Cloeter, MSW, Housing Program Administrator for the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development

Since the beginning of the Virginia Emergency Shelter Learning Community (ELSC) in April, I’ve had a few thoughts on our catch-phrase “Making Shift Happen.”

At first I found it inspirational, then regarded it with cynicism. Now, I can actually see how much has shifted!

The “shift” refers to Virginia’s emergency shelters’ progress toward adopting a low-barrier and housing-focused model.

The Virginia ESLC was established in partnership with the National Alliance to End Homelessness. It worked with continua of care and shelter providers to learn about effective emergency shelter practices and re-tool crisis response systems across the state. It was developed form a core understanding of emergency shelter’s vital role in the state’s efforts to end homelessness.

Three takeaways from the Virginia ESLC:

The Marvin Rule Has to Go

During our first ESLC session, Alliance staff asked participants to review their shelter’s guest handbook. Are there any rules that are there for a very important reason, but you can’t remember why? These are Marvin Rules and they’ve got to go. While the original intent of a Marvin Rule was likely good, it overshadows important policies.

The intent is that only guidelines essential to guest and staff safety are included in the handbook. Shelters went from having a guest handbook of 10 or more pages to a 1-page list of guest expectations. Rules that weren’t focused on safety were scrapped. Shelter staff report that this focused them more on housing, instead of penalizing guests for incorrect behaviors.

Staff Buy-in is Critical

When top-down changes are made without an opportunity for staff input and training, resistance is likely. Providing training opportunities and sharing outcomes helped demonstrate the value of adopting a low-barrier, housing-focused shelter model, and garnered support from staff and other key groups.

The Only Way to End Homelessness is to Get People Housed

For some reason, we decided many years ago that people experiencing homelessness needed to first learn life skills before they could successfully exit to housing. This has led to long shelter stays and individuals being kicked-out of shelter for lack of progress.

When asked, “is your shelter ending homelessness?” many providers took a more discerning look at their programs and services. This was responsible for the most philosophical shifts to programs and operations. As a result, many participants now have more housing-focused conversations with shelter guests, maintain a “housing board” in the shelter common areas, and began hosting housing-focused peer support groups.

During the Virginia ESLC, we experienced moments when a complete shift seemed simple and exciting. Then there were moments of frustration and doubt. But toward the end, the philosophy started to click for more and more providers. And as they implemented the new model, they recognized and shared its positive impact.

Today, the shift is continuing as more providers across the state take steps toward becoming a low-barrier, housing-focused emergency shelter. We can now say, without a drop of sarcasm, “look at how much has actually shifted!”

Kendall Cloeter, MSW, is Housing Program Administrator for the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development