Webinar: The Critical Role of Emergency Shelters in a Crisis Response System

This is part 2 in a series of posts with information, articles and webinars regarding
Emergency Homeless Shelters



By: Tim Houchen
October 5, 2018 —

For the past 50 years or so, the U.S. Government has spent vast amounts of energy in researching homelessness and studying the causes and the best ways to address the problems associated with homelessness.  Since the 1970’s our government has spent millions of dollars trying to end homelessness.

In the past, finding solutions was a hit or miss strategy. Some techniques or practices were better than others, so it was often decided to just “go with what works.” The same still holds true today and the techniques that work are known as “best practices.” If something works in one place, it’s likely to work somewhere else. For a long time these best practices were shared from one area to the next as a way to address homelessness regionally.

Technology and innovation have played a huge role in recent years in the gathering and sharing of data to help us understand homeless populations. Homeless populations are diverse and difficult to count in sheer numbers because many homeless people are often “off of the grid.”

Improvements in the way that data, or information, is gathered and shared has improved the overall response to homelessness by more accurately identifying who needs what and how much is needed, where and when? Knowing the answers to these questions is important to determining resources that are needed and more effectively securing them and allocating them in the right places.

The Federal Government has made homelessness scientific by standardizing certain practices like gathering data for instance, to ensure that the data can be relatively compared from one region to another across the country. The government encourages and provides the platform for sharing the data among all entities involved with providing services to homeless populations.

Improvements in technology and information can be found in nearly every aspect of addressing homelessness, for example the last Point-in-Time Survey (P.I.T.S) that I participated in, the survey could be filled out with pen and paper or, after downloading an app, on your smart phone. The next PITS will take place and only electronic applications will be used. In the past, a staff would spend a couple of months extracting the data from written questionnaires, and now just one click on a computer and all of the data is available in seconds. Imagine how much time and effort, not to mention money, is saved by this innovation.

 The PIT survey is like a homeless census, but the information is gathered mainly to observe things about a homeless population. Information regarding the homeless experiences of individuals historically is contained in a database called HMIS which stands for Homeless Management Information System. Another advance in  technology is the Coordinated Entry System (CES) standardizes access to housing and indexes vulnerability so that elderly, infirm and disabled persons are housed with priority based on vulnerability in order to house the most at-risk of dying first.

Technology has also shaped the role of homeless shelters. In the past, shelters were little more than a place to sleep when it was cold outside. The better programs would have a counselor to help refer clients to other organizations offering the services or resources needed by the client. The counselor might give you a printout of places where you could seek what you needed. If you were lucky, he might give you a bus pass and you might ride on the bus all day from place to place only to find that you were not eligible for the program, the service was no longer available, or the budget for a particular resource had run dry until the following year.

Since there was no connection between the shelter and housing services, there was no path to transition into housing. That could mean staying at the shelter longer unless there was a waiting list for others to get in the shelter. In that case a person might stay only a designated amount of time at the shelter before exiting back to the streets so that someone else could have your bed for a limited time. That is how the cycle of homelessness is perpetuated.

With HMIS and CES, a counselor can determine eligibility and whether or not the service or resource is available and in some cases can even set an appointment for the client to meet with someone for intake into a program. Given the ability to connect and communicate with one another, homeless service providers that once worked independently were now able to work collaboratively as a “system of care” within a community. Efficient systems of care that use the Housing First model and are connected with housing and other services have reduced stays in homeless shelters to 30 days or less.

The roles of shelters also changed as a result of the HEARTH Act and the advance of the “Housing First” approach for ending homelessness. The objectives of HEARTH and Housing First are to get persons experiencing homelessness into stable housing as quickly as possible so as to end their episode of homelessness and provide them with the necessary support so that they can address the issues that caused them to become homeless. The idea was that people could become employed, be treated for physical or mental health issues or address issues of substance abuse more efficiently if they were stably housed first.

Under the Housing First model, a stay at a homeless shelter would typically last 30 days. During that time the client would undergo an assessment that would evaluate his immediate needs and long-term ability to become self-sustaining. A plan would be made and goals would be established to find work, undergo treatment or apply for public benefits if unable to work. After 30 days it may be that the client transitions to his own apartment or perhaps a treatment program.

A homeless shelter is often a community’s immediate response to a housing crisis and the front-line to a community’s response to homelessness. The transition of old ways to new cause community’s to shift focus from ways that only managed homelessness in the past into a Crisis Response System that actually prevents and resolves homelessness. Even after a community successfully ends homelessness, there will still be a need for homeless shelters, but perhaps not as many. As long as there are people that suffer housing crisis, they will always need a safe and decent place to go that is immediately available.

Please view this short video titled:
Advice on Lowering Shelter Barriers — From Those Who Have Done It

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), defines the role of a homeless shelter in an effective Crisis Response System with four distinctive characteristics:

  • Identifies all people experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness across the community
  • Prevents homelessness whenever possible
  • Provides immediate access through coordinated entry to shelter and crisis services without barriers to entry, as stable housing and supports are being secured
  • Quickly connects people who experience homelessness to housing assistance and/or services tailored to the unique strengths and needs of households

In a nutshell we want our homeless shelters to be effective crisis response systems that provide immediate and low-barrier access to safe and decent shelter to anyone that needs it and aims to house people as quickly as possible.

So, I have prepped you with information about the transforming roles of homeless shelters in the past to present, but I didn’t cover much about the barriers that can exist and either disqualify people from using the shelter for various reasons or simply discourage them from using the shelters for even more reasons. But, the webinar that is next, will cover those barriers and there will be even more discussion about barriers in upcoming articles.

Don’t forget that these are a series of articles sharing research and other information that I was provided with at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness in Washington D.C. this past July. Since there are probably going to be several new shelters built here in Orange County, I just wanted to share the information to make sure that things get done right. You know as well as I do that the folks that are in charge of doing things right around here, don’t give a damn when it comes to helping homeless people. They don’t even care that because of our work (you and I), their lives will benefit from our work too.

Please view the recorded webinar below titled:
The Critical Role of Emergency Shelters in a Crisis Response System

See other articles from a series on Homeless Shelters below

Part 1: Homeless Advocates Need To Make Sure That Shelters Connect To Housing, Here’s Why



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About the Author

Tim Houchen
Tim Houchen was homeless and living at the Santa Ana Civic Center between 2011 and 2015. He began advocating for the homeless community there while he was still homeless as a founding member of the infamous Civic Center Roundtable. The “grass roots” organization was composed of homeless individuals living at the civic center and Houchen was elected to serve as the groups first official spokesman in 2014. Tim is now in permanent supportive housing and lives in the City of Anaheim where he serves as a Commissioner of Housing and Community Development. Tim is also a member of the Orange County Continuum of Care and serves as Co-Chairman of the Homeless Providers Forum. He founded the nonprofit, Hope 4 Restoration, in 2017 and serves as Executive Director of the organization. Houchen created this site as a vehicle to share his knowledge, information and most of all, his experience which allows him to view the current homeless crisis in Orange County from a different and very unique perspective, a “Homeless Perspective.”

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