I just started watching a film called The Saint of Fort Washington (1993), about a person with schizophrenia who finds himself out on the street when a slumlord tears down his apartment building. I’m only ten minutes into it; a part where the main character (played by Matt Dillon) walks into a homeless shelter that seems to be a converted auditorium. The accomadations, like most homeless shelters, is dorm-style; everyone packed into one room. This particular shelter had hundreds of beds filling a floor that looked larger than a professional hockey rink.
I’ve worked in a big shelter, with maybe 75 in one room. Like I said, this is what homeless shelters are like.
And that saddens and frustrates me.
In every city there are more people who avoid homeless shelters than use them (except maybe in extreme weather). And I don’t blame them. I’ve never slept in a shelter. I’ve slept in some sketchy places that were likely much more dangerous than a shelter, but I’ve always avoided doing anything but working or eating in these facilities.
If homelessness was something that was really temporary for people, like a night or two, then this style of accomadation would be acceptable. But the reality is, some people are homeless for months or years. For that length of time this kind of accomadation in inhumane.
Now I realize the financial challenge that churches and non-profits have running these places, and I know they do it our of the goodness of their hearts (most of them anyway), and so I run the risk here of coming off as rude and inconsiderate.
I aim my criticism not at the kind people who take on the burdon of providing these services and working on the frontline, but at the government, and at society in general. Let it be known that the shelter system is a ridiculous, horrible invention. We could be doing better, and not only that, to do better would actually go a long way towards getting people off the street and save society a lot of money in the long run.
If shelters were places that people didn’t put their lives in danger (or sometimes even go to jail) to avoid, then they could more easily connect with available services. If people didn’t have to line up every night and clear out at 7am, if they had a place to store their belongings while they looked for work, went to appointments, etc, they would actually be able to look for work, etc.
Aside from the benefits to society, there would be the added safety and dignity.
All I am asking for is that shelters have ROOMS, with DOORS and BEDS. A mat on a gym floor with dozens or hundreds of other people is unsafe, undignified and I would bet the vast majority of people who fund and advocate the idea of this kind of shelter would never sleep in such a place themselves.
Even a tent city is preferable. At least with a tent you have some privacy, and at a well-run tent city you can leave your stuff in your tent while you look for work.The reality is that homeless shelters have an element of punative justice to them; this idea that if you make shelters too comfortable, people will quit their minimum wage jobs and become homeless, or lose the motivation to get off the street. This idea is asinine. Everyone deserves a home, and I mean everyone.
The ‘shelter’ system needs a range of different styles of shelter. The mats on the floor dorm-style can continue to exist for the one or two night crisis. Small rooms (maybe as small as 6 by 6) would replace most dorm style shelters. Larger rooms for longer-term housing. (take a look at what they have going on at a place in Toronto called Street City).
There’s no good reason for homeless shelters as we know them to exist. They are incredibly expensive and actually are a detriment to getting off the street for some people. Like all sorts of social services, edcuation, etc that we need, it will be cheaper for society in the long run to invest in these things now. Real housing is cheaper than homeless shelters. Stop punishing the poor and using us to scare people into avoiding poverty, because it doesn’t work. Respect human dignity because it is the right thing to do, no matter what it costs.
Everyone deserves a home and that bears repeating. Withholding dignified housing as way to motivate people towards employment is a human rights violation. It’s time to stop allowing twisted ‘morality’ about enabling laziness and ‘free rides’ to stop us from doing what we need to be doing.
Ok, now I’ll go back to watching my movie. You can watch it with me.