Reality Check: Examining the Myths about Low-Barrier Shelter

Olympia Power & Light
Editorial, October 30, 2013
By Meta Hogan

      As the grey weather sets in, we all yearn for a little sunshine. The type of sunshine we can do without, however, is the kind being blown up our skirts by some city council candidates and so-called community groups.
      A few of those candidates and groups are trying to make hay out of the voters’ ignorance about what a low-barrier homeless shelter is, how it operates, and what impact it will have on the community. Their basic premise is that a low-barrier shelter, such as the People’s House recently proposed by Interfaith Works, will somehow create a new dangerous situation for the city and/or their neighborhood.
That premise is false.
      Utterly, painfully, shamefully false. But it sounds convincing because it rests on a series of inaccurate but widely disseminated and believed myths.
Myth: A Low-Barrier Shelter will draw homeless from the four corners of the globe.
Fact: The so-called “magnet theory” has been refuted. Look it up. Homeless people are no more likely than housed people to relocate, and usually for the same reasons: jobs and family. According to the latest Thurston County homeless census, 80% of Thurston’s homeless are from here, and another 14% from other places within Washington State. A mere 6% of the homeless are from out-of-state, lower than the US Census’ 7.3% of Thurston County residents who are from outside the US. The homeless are no more transient nor easily wooed by services than the overall population.

Myth: Anyone who’s homeless can access shelter if they’re willing to follow the rules.
Fact: During the winter months in a good year*, Thurston County has 255 emergency shelter beds each night. The January 2013 homeless census counted 180 individuals staying in those beds, as well as 237 unsheltered.
        That means even if each unsheltered person were willing and able to follow rules, be punctual, stay sober, pray right, ignore mold allergies and dietary restrictions, put up with sexual harassment, have an income, make all their appointments, and generally overcome barriers, there would still be at least 162 individuals unsheltered each night (as a point of reference, the city of Boston, MA, counted over 6,000 homeless in their 2012 census, of which 181 were unsheltered – barely more than Thurston County, and a dramatically lower percentage). And that’s assuming the shelters don’t decide to operate at less than full capacity for other reasons.
        Make no mistake, there are shelters that are frequently operating under capacity – knowing whether that’s due to their “barriers” would require some investigation. 
        (*The county is still negotiating a contract with the Salvation Army to provide the usual 29 “cold weather” beds for this winter (25 for men, 4 for women). If the Salvation Army decides not to participate this year, the county’s winter shelter capacity will decrease by more than 11%.)

Myth: A Low-Barrier Shelter will enable addicts by legitimizing drug use.
Fact: According to the Centers for Disease Control, addiction is a chronic brain disease that is just as treatable as asthma. Statistics on harm reduction programs show again and again that meeting people’s basic needs for shelter, food and safety, and giving them access to chemical dependency treatment, is the best way to combat chronic addiction. Most low-barrier shelters have rules against using drugs or alcohol in the shelter itself, to protect the safety of all those who stay there. But denying someone access to services because they have alcohol on their breath is about as effective in the long run  as denying someone medical treatment because they are having an asthma attack.

Myth: A Low-Barrier Shelter will “coddle” violent offenders.
Fact: Violent offenders live among us, and most of them are housed. Of those who are homeless, some stay in existing shelters, some are couch-surfing, and many are unsheltered (camping out). For their own safety, these folks are better off in a supervised, safe shelter environment than camping in the woods or sleeping on the sidewalk. We and our children are safer, too. DOC already monitors sex offenders and violent criminals who are at risk of re-offending.  But when you take an offender out of the woods or off the streets and put them in shelter, their risk of re-offending decreases measurably. Sheltering violent criminals actually makes our whole community safer. The idea that denying people shelter will make them disappear or will somehow rehabilitate them is sheer nonsense.

Myth: A no-ID requirement will attract unscrupulous marauders who want to hide their real identity.
Fact: The average American will have spent nine years of their life watching television, a statistic that helps us understand where this particular myth comes from. Get real, people. This ain’t Criminal Minds or CSI:Miami. This policy benefits homeless people who have been victims of theft, domestic violence or other household disruption, or who are too mentally ill, emotionally disturbed, or traumatized to keep track of their belongings.
        Once lost, documentation of identity is actually very difficult to retrieve. This is a relief for anyone worried about identity theft, but for those legitimately trying to identify themselves, it’s a nightmare. Consider these numbers: requesting a birth certificate can take six weeks and require notaries and fees, a replacement ID can cost $45, and required documentation can include proof of address (which, categorically, homeless folks cannot usually produce).
        In the meantime, are these folks expected to live unsheltered, most likely in situations where they are at risk of being further victimized, on the off-chance that one of them might be a serial killer? That doesn’t make much sense.
Myth: Rapid Rehousing is a legitimate alternative to a Low-Barrier Shelter
Fact: The people who benefit from Low-Barrier Shelter are not candidates for Rapid Rehousing. They have barriers to mainstream housing (including but not limited to: bad credit or rental or criminal history, severe mental illness, no income, and chronic addiction struggles). Rapid Rehousing is not an appropriate avenue for people who are chronically homeless or severely mentally ill, struggle with addiction, or have serious disabilities.
        These are people who, for the most part, are destined for Permanent Supportive Housing. Currently Thurston County has a ballpark deficit of 50-100 units of PSH. Shelter is not a long-term solution, but it does get these folks safely off the streets until more PSH units can be created, which could take years at current funding levels.
        Rapid Rehousing is, however, a legitimate and cost-effective alternative to – and competes directly for funding with – high-barrier shelters.
Myth: Olympia would be way out in left field with this Low-Barrier Shelter thing – we should probably check out what other cities are doing and see if we can find something better.
Fact: This is what other cities are doing. Low-Barrier Shelter is a widely accepted best practice – along with Rapid Rehousing, Permanent Supportive Housing, and youth transition programs – that is being implemented across the country. As has been our habit with homeless services here in Thurston County, we would not be charging ahead and taking risks, but struggling to keep up with current research- and evidence-based practices.

Myth: A Low-Barrier Shelter would put unnecessary strain on law enforcement.
[We’ll let OPD Chief Ronnie Roberts answer this one:]
        “The People’s House [Interfaith Works’ low-barrier shelter proposal] aims to provide low-barrier night and day use drop in services … It is my belief that a strong, well-run program will benefit all components of our community.
        Current research indicates that a community resource such as [the People’s House] will lessen the number of law enforcement responses involving persons experiencing homelessness, reduce the number of misdemeanor citations and decrease the overuse of hospital room ER visits.
        The People’s House will provide a much needed safety net for the downtown community. Creating this community resource will enhance the well being of Olympia’s citizenry as well as serve as a strong first step in developing a safer downtown for all.” 

For more info on low-barrier shelter and Thurston County’s homeless, see the 2013 Homeless Census.
...and the Homeless Coordinator’s website:
Shelters critical part of network to move homeless to permanent housing

Read more here:

I applaud The Olympian’s concern about homelessness in our community expressed in an Aug. 15 editorial, but I disagree with its conclusions about the county’s Home Consortium recent funding decisions. We had to choose among $5 million dollars in proposed projects when we had just over $2 million in available funds. We spread that $2 million over several projects that represent a balance between capital projects and ongoing services for people who are homeless or have very low incomes. We are working, as we have for several years, to create a coherent system of housing and related services to solve the problem of homelessness.I applaud The Olympian’s concern about homelessness in our community expressed in an Aug. 15 editorial, but I disagree with its conclusions about the county’s Home Consortium recent funding decisions. We had to choose among $5 million dollars in proposed projects when we had just over $2 million in available funds. We spread that $2 million over several projects that represent a balance between capital projects and ongoing services for people who are homeless or have very low incomes. We are working, as we have for several years, to create a coherent system of housing and related services to solve the problem of homelessness.

Editorial by Karen Valenzuela, Thurston County Commissioner 

August 20, 2013

I applaud The Olympian’s concern about homelessness in our community expressed in an Aug. 15 editorial, but I disagree with its conclusions about the county’s Home Consortium recent funding decisions. We had to choose among $5 million dollars in proposed projects when we had just over $2 million in available funds. We spread that $2 million over several projects that represent a balance between capital projects and ongoing services for people who are homeless or have very low incomes. We are working, as we have for several years, to create a coherent system of housing and related services to solve the problem of homelessness.

Interfaith Works’ proposals for both The People’s House shelter and Sidewalk’s rapid rehousing program are essential elements of an effective system for ending homelessness. Residents of The People’s House will be connected with rapid rehousing providers to move them from shelter to permanent housing as quickly as possible. Both Sidewalk, which serves primarily single adults, and the Family Support Center, which serves primarily families with children, have shown promising results in moving people from shelter or the streets to housing, and the Home Consortium has continued to support these programs at rising levels.
While we had insufficient funds to fully support them in this round of funding, we’ll look hard at supplementing what we’ve recommended for them with funds from the Consolidated Homeless Grant.
A shelter such as The People’s House is a critical part of the network of services it takes to move people from homelessness to permanent housing. The Home Consortium was grateful to see Interfaith Works step forward with a compassionate proposal to serve people who are otherwise sleeping in doorways downtown or out in the woods.
Over time, as more and more of the homeless are served by competent rapid rehousing providers, the need for shelters will diminish – but only if as a community, we are also successful at increasing the stock of affordable housing and permanent supportive housing for those whose disabilities mean they will always need some help to avoid falling back into homelessness.
Judging the Home Consortium’s progress by a single round of funding decisions doesn’t tell the whole story. We are making progress in our struggle to create an effective, coherent system of services that ends homelessness. We’re glad The Olympian — and a growing corps of citizens and volunteers — shares our sense of urgency about confronting this challenge.
County Commissioner Karen Valenzuela represents Thurston County on the County’s Home Consortium Board.

Read more here:
Homeless Advocates Seek 'Low Barrier' Options -  The Olympian April 14, 2013
The Salvation Army’s men’s shelter in Olympia had a 33 percent occupancy rate in January, while the women’s program was at 26 percent. Meanwhile, a count of homeless people found 237 homeless people without shelter in Thurston County.
The low occupancy of those shelters, combined with a new city ordinance that bans camping on public property, has concerned religious, social service and political leaders, who have been looking to start a so-called low-barrier shelter that won’t require the rules that sometimes keep people out of the Salvation Army facility.
Theresa Slusher, Thurston County’s homeless coordinator, said a task force has identified a downtown Olympia site for such a shelter, which she declined to name. The group is developing a budget to make a presentation to the county for funding and said that a year lease could be signed for a shelter in July. The county has more than $1 million in recording-fee dollars that could be spent on the homeless.
The shelter could admit people that some others won’t: sex offenders, drunks and people without identification. It would also serve as a day center and have a public restroom available all day.
“Low-barrier shelter just means that there are no requirements to get into the shelter,” she said. They’re not going to be asking for ID.
“They’re not going to be asking that people are sober.”
Interfaith Works, a group of local faith communities, could run the shelter. It has been working with a group that provides homeless street outreach known as the Emma Goldman Youth & Homeless Outreach Project to find a location for the shelter, which has the working title The People’s House. Members of the group would also run the shelter.
“So we’ve got kind of this nice group that kind of all gets the urgency, understands the population and also some who have some expertise providing shelter and low-barrier services,” said Slusher, who has been part of the group that meets every Monday.
Jefferson Doyle, a community organizer and outreach worker for the Emma Goldman project, said the only barrier to entry would be someone who is violent and is a danger to themselves or others.
But there are obstacles: finding a location that sits well with neighbors, gains city land use approval, and finds funding and staff.
It’s all about “location, location location,” Slusher said. “It’s all about finding a spot where this can be located.”

The community group has been looking for alternate shelter locations since the Salvation Army declined the group’s request to provide more low-barrier shelter at its Fifth Avenue location this year.
The Salvation Army has space for 42 single men and 16 single women in its year-round shelter program at 824 Fifth Ave.
The Salvation Army’s regular shelter program rebounded to 58 percent occupancy for men in March, but just 27 percent for women.
Doyle, a worker for the outreach project, said he hears daily about people who have been turned away from the Salvation Army for not meeting its criteria. He is one of a group of volunteers on bikes who pull carts full of emergency supplies such as medicine, food and blankets directly to people on the street at night.
“I’m frustrated having to hear so many people on the streets at night saying I got turned away from (the Salvation Army) because I was a half an hour late for check-in,” he said. “Or people saying like I didn’t have ... proper identification.”
Other people have said that staff members at the Salvation Army have a bad attitude, or aren’t welcoming to transgendered individuals, Doyle said. Other homeless people dislike the religious emphasis of the group, Doyle said.
Shane Dillingham, 19, said he was told to leave because he hadn’t found a job in two weeks, and that he wasn’t allowed back in for two months. He said Olympia needs a shelter “where people are safe and they have beds to sleep in, but they don’t have to have a job.”
Salvation Army officials maintain that providing a program with fewer rules would be detrimental to the organization’s year-round program, and that the rules are integral to its success.
Salvation Army Maj. Bill Lum said that 70 percent of people who follow the program get placed in permanent housing.
“It’s for the person that’s ready and wants to make some real changes,” he said in a January interview.
Lum, who leads the Salvation Army’s local chapter, said the rules at the shelter aren’t for everybody. All guests must have a picture ID or take steps to get one within the first three days in the program. Each guest must make an action plan to self-sufficiency, to seek a regular job or regular income and permanent housing. Participants must take steps in that direction in the first week. People must hand over about 85 percent of their earnings so the Salvation Army can start a savings account for them. The idea is to bank money, such as welfare checks, until there is enough to find housing. Sex offenders aren’t allowed.
There is a curfew for men and women. For example, it’s 9 p.m. for women, lights must be out at 10 p.m. and wake-up time is 6 a.m.
“It’s a significant commitment on their part,” Lum said.
Lum said the Salvation Army considered lowering the barrier, such as allowing sex offenders. But the group decided against it. Lum said it lacks the resources to police such a situation.
Doyle and dozens of other homeless people and activists have come before the Olympia City Council, pleading for more shelter space. Some, from the Olympia Movement for Justice and Peace, opened an unauthorized homeless shelter last month in a large tent at the city’s artesian well on Fourth Avenue. City Manager Steve Hall ordered them to leave, and they went to state Fish and Wildlife property on Washington Street, where state troopers arrested seven and their tent was seized.
Local faith leaders and Mayor Stephen Buxbaum agree that Olympia needs more “low-barrier” shelters.
The Olympia City Council earmarked $35,000 in January to the effort to find space.
Olympia has “clearly a lot of people that are on the street that the type of shelter that the Salvation Army is offering isn’t working for,” Buxbaum said.
He said he hopes for a solution within a month. Thurston County should help pay for the shelter, Buxbaum said, because it is charged under state law with solving homelessness and receives about $1.5 million in recording fees each year for that purpose. He said the county also has more than $1 million in recording fee reserves that could be used to fund shelter immediately.
“I’m very firm in my belief that we need a regional approach to homelessness,” he said. “It shouldn’t be Olympia-centric.”

If downtown Olympia gains another homeless shelter, it would join a network of programs in Olympia, most centered in downtown. They focus on three groups — single men and women, families, and youth. Combined with other social services, such as three free meals per day at the Salvation Army, they draw homeless people onto the streets of downtown.
Rosie’s Place houses youth and young adults at Community Youth Services on State Avenue. SafePlace houses victims of domestic violence at an undisclosed location.
Interfaith Works churches rotate a women’s shelter during the cold-weather months, and St. Michael Catholic Church in Olympia and Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lacey take turns hosting a men’s shelter. The Family Support Center runs a year-round family shelter at First Christian Church. Bread and Roses hosts a women’s shelter at its guest house and Out of the Woods provides a family shelter on property from the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation.
But the task of housing single men largely falls to the Salvation Army. If men don’t want to follow the rules, and the Army’s cold-weather shelter is closed, their options are limited.
Buxbaum said there are alternatives to the Salvation Army’s approach to shelter, that “it can be enough to provide a bed and get somebody off the street” without requiring them to save money.
“I also think it should be a priority to get people off the street, even if they are inebriated,” he said.
Some inebriated people are turned away at the Salvation Army. Others are admitted. Shelter director Mike Oravitz, who has been with the local Army since 1983, said the shelter has a breathalyzer it can use. If someone is inebriated, he will ask them to take a two-hour walk. If they come back and blow a higher level of alcohol, they aren’t allowed in.
People who are allowed in get a bed, three meals a day, laundry service, a case worker, clothing and shoes, Lum said. People can stay up to 90 days.
If someone doesn’t follow the rules, such as missing a curfew, they can return, but they have to meet with a case worker.
“So there’s a real high sense of accountability for that program,” Lum said.
He puts it bluntly: if people are not ready to leave homelessness, this is not the program for them.
Salvation Army officials also say that another program it offers, a county-funded cold-weather shelter for 25 men and four women, is detracting from its regular program. That’s because the cold-weather shelter, which runs when the temperature hits 38 or below, is low-barrier, without the other rules that Salvation Army officials say are important to the program’s success. The shelter is funded with $42,000 in county dollars.
The Salvation Army’s argument is, when the cold-weather shelter, with fewer rules, is open, the numbers in the stricter year-round program go down.
For example, the cold-weather shelter was 72 percent occupied for men in January when the stricter, year-round shelter was 33 percent occupied. Lum said the Salvation Army is about 50 percent occupied year-round. The expectation is that the program will be about 75 percent to 80 percent occupied, he said.
“Not all the people that are homeless want to be inside,” said Charley Barron, a board member of the local Salvation Army.
The cold-weather shelter is in a room separated from the shelter’s year-round dorms, with bare walls and plastic material laid out over the floor to guard against the elements. Floor mats are stacked high waiting to be used as beds.

The trouble with cold-weather shelters is that they operate irregularly, so they aren’t predictable, Slusher said.
Take the cold-weather shelters that Interfaith Works churches rotate from November to March. They were occupied 49 percent in December and 63 percent in January.
“In my work as homeless coordinator, what I would advocate for is a year-round … shelter model, rather than just a cold-weather shelter model,” she said.
Slusher has been working under contract with the county since March 2012, charged with finding gaps in services to the homeless and collecting shelter statistics.
Slusher said cold-weather shelters are difficult to set up.
In contrast, the People’s House would operate year-round and fill other community needs that aren’t being provided, such as a public restroom, showers, and a day center. Most homeless shelters make their residents leave during the day.
Doyle is optimistic about the new People’s House. “There’s lots of potential right now and I’m really excited about the potential to provide” services that “marginalized groups in this downtown need so badly,” he said.