I continue to be amazed at how little I really understand homeless. Every once in a while, I come across metaphorical descriptions that open my eyes.
Of course, I have read about the need for shelters and rapid rehousing. But Robert Davis, writing for Invisible People, captured an insight in two metaphors – “Bridge” and “soft incarceration.”
The insight brought home to me the choice some people have and the choice people don’t have. It brought home to me the choices communities face and the choice homeless people have no say in making and may not be best for them or the community at a given point in time.
The metaphors speak to descriptions of drastically different experiences and treatment options for people experiencing homelessness.
Rapid re-housing and transitional or bridge housing programs are intervention programs designed to provide quick exits from homelessness. According to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, people who need to utilize these services can do so unconditionally. They are not asked about their criminal history, sobriety, or employment status.
Shelter systems, on the other hand, provide a “soft incarceration” for homeless people. Residents are under constant surveillance and prohibited from having particular possessions. Shelters often turn away people with pets and children. At the same time, people who need substance abuse, behavioral or mental health treatment often are not welcome at shelters.
Understanding the difference between housing and shelter is not a game of words for policy makers. Misunderstanding the two approaches to ending homelessness can dramatically alter how local leaders respond to the issue.
To be clear, both housing and shelter are necessary to end homelessness.
Transitional housing provides people with agency and dignity. They can come and go as they please, invite friends and family to visit, and keep pets. Housing also provides people going through treatment programs with some stability.
Shelter types also divide their services based on the needs of their residents. Emergency shelters often serve people who become immediately homeless, whether by eviction or some other economic shock. Meanwhile, other types of shelters will filter their residents based on specific criteria.
Research by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHA) found that programs that address the root cause of homelessness are more cost-effective than programs that help people after they’ve become homeless.
At the same time, immediate or “first aid” attempt to put bandages on until underlying cause can be addressed.
The “serenity prayer” comes to mind.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
Especially, the wisdom to know the difference not only between what this person needs but which approach is possible in this moment of time – a bridge or “soft incarceration.”