The Nuance in the Numbers

Winnipeg & Farm 2009 077Who gets stuck in shelter?  How many are chronically homeless?  Are all the same people using all the same shelter beds?  Is shelter becoming housing?  These are just some of the questions that come up in discussions of refinishing our homelessness and shelter services.  The current goal in London is to move emergency shelters back to being just emergency shelters, not a replacement for affordable housing.  However, to manage this, we need to know something about those who are using these shelters.

This article by Aubry, Farrell, Hwang and Calhoun starts to unpack those numbers, particularly in finding three clusters of shelter use: 1) Temporary (few, short stays); 2) Episodic (many, short stays); 3) Long-stay (few, long stays).  At first blush, the numbers demonstrate what we have long known, that homelessness for most is a temporary situation – with those in the temporary shelter stay cluster accounting for 88-94%.  However, this is a representation of total shelter users over time.  A snapshot of a shelter at a moment in time shows that between 25-40% of current residents are in the Long-stay cluster.

So, although the temporary group represents that most individuals who will have any shelter use, the episodic and long-stay groups will occupy far more of the beds on any given night.  This leads us to consider how best to free up shelter beds?

I would predict that those in the long-stay group are the same individuals identified as needing more support in our work on medical respite: those with the most complex health and social challenges, namely concurrent addictions and mental health challenges.  These individuals require the most supports to be successfully housed, and therefore are more likely to be ‘stuck’ in shelters.  Putting the pressure solely on shelters to move these people out negates that wrap-around supports that are required.

Fitch the Homeless Shelter

Most are aware of the furor around Abercrombie & Fitch these days, with social media serving to expose the long held exclusionary (and possibly racist) perspectives of the corporation.  Greg Karber has started a “Fitch the Homeless” campaign to fight back:

I like the concept of undermining a brand in such a novel way, and I am always for finding ways to assist those experiencing homelessness with accessing the basic necessities of live, but I’m not sold on the delivery here.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I donate a lot of clothes to local agencies serving people experiencing homelessness.  And I always encourage those who ask to do the same, donating directly to the agencies versus for-profit chains like Value Village.  But have a look at the reactions of the people he interacts with; this lady is scared:

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This lady is confused:

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And this guy just wants to be left alone:

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People who are experiencing homelessness aren’t just sitting around hoping strangers will give them some clothing.  There’s a certain pretentiousness to using homeless people like props to make a point against a brand.  My fear is that others will do the same and unwittingly harass people experiencing homelessness.  Instead, look closely at Greg’s suggestions for how to help.  I agree, we should “Fitch the Homeless Shelter”, not people experiencing homelessness directly unless you already have a relationship of respect with them.

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