I’d like to introduce some of the research I have been doing regarding emergency shelter models. There have not been sufficient opportunities at the committee level to share this information.

Given the likelihood of extensive new analysis from the city (on new models, locations, demographics, costs, etc.) that the Portland Health and Human Services Committee will receive at our next meeting Nov. 13, this column will be the best avenue to share my findings.

I was lucky enough recently to participate in a phone conversation with Erin Drinkwater, assistant deputy commissioner for intergovernmental and legislative affairs in the New York City Department of Social Services.

Drinkwater is the voice for the Department of Homeless Services. The information I received through her comes from professionals who are among the best in their fields and an administration that oversees a city with the lowest per capita homeless population in the country. New York City has a population of roughly 8.5 million; among those are around 60,000 individuals receiving care in shelters, with only about 3,000 to 4,000 on the streets.

It was a very open dialogue. I spoke about the issues facing Portland regarding homelessness, the status quo and the proposed shelter on the Barron Center campus. Health care research and years of trial and error (on the part of many cities, including New York) point to what we know works and what does not work. Large one-stop shops, to put it plainly, are simply not the ideal model to solve homelessness, and New York has moved away from these.

In New York, someone seeking shelter initially goes to a central intake facility. The facility learns as much as they can about the person and their history, which helps determine the shelter that is best suited to their needs. Some may not even require a shelter if it’s a fix that can be accomplished with the immediate help of social work (e.g., homelessness resulting from family issues, financial instability, etc.).

They also emphasized that not all shelters need to be service rich. If you provide everything on site, you aren’t promoting the independence that those who can live on their own will need once they leave the shelter system. An example presented to me was: Instead of offering GED tests within the shelter, it is more effective to work with a local education program, set up a preferential spot in class for the person and assist them with transportation if necessary.

This does not mean that all services on site are not effective. It just means that promoting independence when it’s workable is crucial in the long term. When looking at other locations, it may not be necessary to have a facility completely outfitted with services if there are already significant services in the surrounding area (in Portland, that would be our downtown).

I heard over and over again that while one large facility may be cheaper, in fact it’s less effective and costs more in the long run. From a comprehensive standpoint, it can be costly to serve the homeless population. Consider the costs of the criminal justice system – which, for many in this position, can be a vicious cycle. The emergency room system, as well as long- and short-stay hospital health care for the uninsured, is incredibly expensive. Not perpetuating the cycle saves money, and the most effective shelter models save money.

The most profound observation I took away from this conversation was the feedback that New York’s Department of Homeless Services received from professionals working in their shelters – e.g., doctors, psychiatrists, case managers and social workers – most of whom were demanding to work in facilities with no more than 80 to 100 beds. I was told that this was because they hold themselves to high standards, want and expect effective results, and simply do not garner the same effective outcomes working in a large, warehouse-style model.

I believe we hold ourselves to the same standards. We all want effective results and to help those most in need as effectively as possible. Let us be cognizant of cities with failing models like Missoula, Montana. We must take a page from the cities that are garnering the most effective results, so we too can most effectively work toward solving homelessness.

 


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