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Creating Higher Standards For Design and Care For Homeless Shelters and Permanent Supportive Housing Facilities

A report found that, among other things, a lack of shelter beds, particularly in shelters that provide a range of services like Seattle's Navigation Center, has hampered the success of its Navigation Team in getting people off the street. The Navigation Center is an innovative homeless shelter that allows couples to stay together, guests to have pets, store their belongings and have access to 24-hour services. The shelter is also low-barrier, meaning that residents are not required to maintain sobriety.

By: Tim Houchen
March 1, 2021 —

In the past two years, many new homeless shelters have opened in jurisdictions across California. Many more are on their way.

The proliferation of new homeless shelters has come after lawsuits were filed in Orange County on behalf of persons experiencing homelessness in 2018. The lawsuits came at a time when the county was trying to clear a homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River Trail that had grown to nearly 1,000 residents and possibly several hundred more according to some homeless advocates who worked there.

In addition to lawsuits filed against the County of Orange and several cities on behalf of persons experiencing homelessness at the Santa Ana River Trail homeless encampments, the Grand Jury also investigated the homeless crisis in Orange County and released its recommendations for ending the crisis. This video captures the magnitude of the crisis at its peak in July 2018. Please enjoy this video with the musical background of the song “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones.

Federal Judge David O. Carter halted the county’s Santa Ana riverbed homeless evictions when he ordered the County of Orange and Anaheim, Orange and Costa Mesa to stop enforcing anti-camping and trespass laws along the riverbed. The County of Orange issued nearly 700 motel vouchers to residents of the encampment in order to clear the area and restore the authority to enforce anti-camping laws there.

As a federal judge, Carter can ban cities from enforcing anti-camping and loitering laws until adequate shelter is available for homeless people. That’s because a ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, known as the Jones decision, found it’s unconstitutional to criminalize involuntary acts resulting from homelessness when there’s a shortage of adequate shelter.

Out of the stock of homeless shelters that have come online since Judge Carter’s injunction, some are better than others, but they all clearly lack a standard for design and care that would be appropriate and suitable for most prospective shelter clients. In some cases, the conditions at the facilities were simply deplorable and seemed hardly fit for human habitation.

Actually, there are a myriad of problems that exist within these newest of all homeless shelters and facilities and it’s prompting some prospective shelter clients to “shop’ around for a shelter that best suits their individual needs while others resist the idea of seeking accommodations at any shelter at all.


20 of the top reasons why persons experiencing homelessness prefer living on the streets and refuse to stay in shelters include the following:

  1. Do not want to live in an open warehouse type setting with little or no privacy day after day;
  2. Living in a facility that offers little room for movement;
  3. Lack of confidence that another shelter stay will be different from previous stay(s);
  4. Will not be able to follow all the early check-in and early wake-up rules because of a disability, illness, work, and appointments;
  5. Concern for personal safety once inside the shelter;
  6. Feel too vulnerable to potential verbal and physical abuse from others;
  7. Fear of potential violence by others to self and others;
  8. Do not want to be separated from a partner, friend, or pet;
  9. Very limited space with locks to store personal belongings;
  10. Having to leave the shelter and possessions behind during the day;
  11. Concern that personal possessions will be stolen;
  12. Fear of having personal possessions thrown away;
  13. Lack of privacy while using restroom and shower;
  14. Unsanitary conditions;
  15. Fear of other people’s infectious diseases;
  16. Feelings of shame, blame, guilt, and stigma;
  17. Inadequate staffing especially overnight;
  18. Living in a shelter may be filled with one confrontational experience after another with staff;
  19. Insufficient supportive services to obtain permanent affordable housing; and
  20. Shortage of permanent affordable housing.

Adhering to a Trauma-Informed Design and Care Approach Should be Included in California Legislation Concerning Homelessness

A HOMELESS PERSPECTIVE article written by Joe Colletti from the Hub For Urban Initiatives and published on February 22, 2021 states that, “Adhering to a Trauma-Informed Design and Care approach should be a legislative requirement for receiving State of California funding to implement solutions to prevent and end homelessness just like a Housing First approach is required..”

So, if there ever was any question as to where to look for guidance and best practices to follow in creating standards for the environmental design and the standards of care that should be employed while establishing continuity between homeless shelters across California, you should be aware that it already exists and that the information comes from an extremely reliable source.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, also known as SAMHSA, is neatly nestled under the wing of its parent, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. SAMHSA boasts an annual budget totalling $3.6 billion which includes providing extremely large amounts of block funding grants to all 50 states and smaller grants to programs that support specific innovations.

California jurisdictions are very familiar with the large sums of money that SAMHSA doles out to help jurisdictions to address homelessness, perhaps it’s time that California jurisdictions become familiar with SAMHSA’s recommendations for how to spend their money.

SAMHSA defines trauma in this manner:
Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” 

Trauma-informed care has evolved from a greater realization and understanding that trauma in the lives of persons experiencing homelessness may have resulted from incidents experienced in childhood or throughout the lifespan, events leading up to homelessness, and experiences while homeless. Also, there is greater recognition that homelessness in itself is a traumatic experience and that persons experiencing homelessness are living in a constant state of survival.

Staff who provide assistance in shelter systems of care have become increasingly aware of the past and present trauma that is affecting the ability of persons experiencing homelessness to achieve a permanent housing outcome and well-being. However, they may not have all the training and expertise in order to offer the level of trauma-informed care to help homeless persons achieve a permanent housing outcome and well-being.

Although shelters may have trauma-informed trained staff, often the shelter environment and physical surroundings are not trauma-informed. 

Trauma-informed shelters incorporate trauma-informed design into the physical environment of the shelter to support the tenets of trauma-informed care and evidence-based practices, which also integrate well with the trauma-informed approach of Housing FirstHarm Reduction, and Progressive Engagement.

Yesterdays conventional homeless shelters from decades past were built with the intentions of providing a temporary bed for mostly middle-aged and older men. Stays in the shelter were made short so that someone else could occupy that bed at some point. After a brief stay at a shelter clients were rotated back to the streets. During those times the focus was never aimed at goals of transitioning persons experiencing homelessness into permanent housing.

Shelters are indicative of how a community responds to crisis. Homelessness is a crisis situation that requires a safe and appropriate response from our communities. A safe and appropriate response by a community would include immediate access to low-barrier shelter in a facility that promotes overall health and well-being. The treatment and care of clients in crisis should be centered on the understanding that they are likely to have experienced trauma leading up to and after becoming homeless.

Since homelessness ends only when a person becomes housed, persons living in homeless shelters are still considered homeless. With this in mind, a stay at a shelter should include access to housing-focused services delivered with the housing first approach. Every shelter entrance should result in an exit into permanent housing.

An appropriate community response to homelessness must be committed to one common goal – making homelessness a rare, brief and nonrecurring episode.

SAMHSA has provided the guidelines for Trauma-Informed Design and Care that can be integrated with the housing first approach to ensure the probability of better and more positive outcomes when homelessness ends.

Housing first is the law in California. It’s time that the design and care of our homeless shelters be standardized with the trauma-informed guidelines provided for our communities by SAMHSA. In order for this to happen, it will require legislation from the state. It’s time to make SAMHSA’s guidelines for trauma-informed design and care a state law that will standardize the way shelters are built and the manner and level of care that persons experiencing homelessness can expect to benefit from.

Talk to your state legislators and tell them how important trauma-informed design and care are and how they would help to make shelters more effective tools to ending homelessness in our communities.


SAMHSA Report: The Increasing Need for Trauma-informed Care Homeless Shelters. See This Article!

Adhering to a Trauma-Informed Design and Care Approach Should be Included in California Legislation Concerning Homelessness. See This Article!

Believe It, or Not: “Housing First” is the Law in California. See This Article!

SAMHSA Report:

“SAMHSA’s Concept of Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach”
See The Report!

UC Irvine Law Review

Titled, “The De-Criminalization of Homelessness,” published in October 2019 contains an accurate and historical account of the criminalization of homelessness in Orange County and includes an elaborate explanation of the “housing first” model taken from an article written by Tim Houchen in 2019 that can be referenced on page 24 of this review.
See The Review!

More articles for you —

SAMHSA Report: The Increasing Need for Trauma-informed Care Homeless Shelters

Believe It, or Not: “Housing First” is the Law in California

California Schools Report Fewer Homeless Students, Alarming Advocates


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