The Evolving Role of Emergency Shelter & Crisis Housing

Jacqueline Janosko, July 2017

Shelters are the community’s immediate response to a housing crisis.  People will always need a safe and decent place to go that is immediately available.  Shelters play a huge role in Coordinated Entry.  So what is the goal of shelter?  Permanent Housing!

We know that the majority of people who come into shelter have short stays and rarely come back.  Most times, shelter system decisions and not family characteristics are responsible for long homeless stays.  A significant portion of people experiencing homelessness self-resolve and most people can exit homelessness with a light touch of services and assistance.  Only a minority of people need more intensive support services like permanent supportive housing.

What is the role of shelter?  The first role of a shelter is to try and divert those who can safely maintain their current housing.  When that is not possible, shelters provide immediate, low barrier access through coordinated entry.  The front door of shelter should be connected to permanent housing solutions.  Exit planning starts at entry.  Shelter is a part of a process to get housing and should never be viewed as the destination for someone experiencing homelessness.

Shelter goals should be aligned with the homeless system goals.  Shelters affect system performance after all!  Shelters should be aware of their average length of stay, the number and percent of people exiting to permanent housing, the number and percent of people who return to homelessness, and shelter utilization.  When evaluating shelter performance, the goals are to reduce the time in shelter and increase the exits to permanent housing.  Both of those metrics should be evaluated together in order to determine if a shelter is doing the best they can to exit people quickly to housing.

Shelters should also have several focus areas.  These include operating a housing first approach to ending someone’s homelessness.  Also, shelters should be safe and appropriate for those being served.  They should also be immediately available and low barrier.  In systems where wait lists for shelter exist, there may be a need to evaluate shelter entry prioritization to ensure those most in need get the resource.  Shelters should also provide housing focused rapid exit services.  Finally, shelters should review their data to evaluate their performance and make adjustments when indicated.