If Ravens coach John Harbaugh employed a defensive strategy that continually gave up 35 points a game, he would quickly abandon it or get fired, and forever realize that this approach is a failed one. Unfortunately, knowledge of the failure of social policy does not move as quickly. And so, Baltimore is opening a 275-bed, congregate-style, emergency shelter — a failed solution from the 1980s and 1990s and the type that most municipalities are looking to close.
On a basic level, a shelter seems to solve an immediate problem for a person living on the street, or for a social worker with nowhere to refer a client needing a bed. On the macro level, however, evidence has mounted from city after city that an emergency shelter is both a very expensive operation in the long run (often more expensive than permanent housing) and one that tends to foster homelessness and propagate an institutionalization of the very people that shelters are supposed to help. In other words, it makes the problem worse.
On the economic side, an emergency shelter is costly, since the configuration and services provided require significant annual operations costs. Congregate shelters where 50 to 100 people sleep in one large room demand a very high staff-to-client ratio to ensure safety and cleanliness. This shelter likely costs $10,000 per bed annually. Shelters also tend to infantilize clients due to the need to enforce copious rules dictating their every move, including when and where they can eat, when they can take a shower, and what time is lights out in the dorm. Dependence grows.
Most importantly, an emergency shelter does not change the homeless status of an individual. The person is still homeless, as defined by the federal government. To spend $8 million to build it, plus $2 million a year to operate it, just to keep people in a state of homelessness is tough to swallow. And to expect these individuals who were just cajoled to enter the facility to start looking for a new place, often immediately, is rather silly. When the central problem is housing instability, why provide a residential solution that is anything but permanent?
The most recent count on people living on the streets of Baltimore shows that approximately one-third of current unsheltered homeless adults have been homeless for one year or longer. An emergency shelter has been found to be the wrong answer for these "chronically homeless" individuals, as the federal government defines them. Most are dually diagnosed with mental illness and substance abuse and, often, also significant physical disability. What they need is "permanent supportive housing." For the cost of this proposed shelter, the city of Baltimore could house 200 to 300 of the most chronic and vulnerable people in subsidized apartments and free up current space at shelters.
Baltimore actually has affordable housing, believe it or not, compared to other large cities. This factor alone should be putting the city at the forefront of these new, more effective strategies to deal with people experiencing homelessness. And these individuals would no longer be homeless.
Another problem with an emergency shelter is that it draws people who choose to live free at a shelter rather than put up with family or friends in their living room, otherwise known as "doubling up." Doubling up is the natural support system for people with housing instability and should be viewed as a solution rather than a problem. Doubling up is an economic issue. Homelessness, by contrast, is a problem of family dissolution too often caused by anti-family housing policies.
Many key questions about this shelter remain. Will clients be charged program fees? Will stay limitations be enforced? What type of households will be excluded, if any? Will there be random drug testing? Is the shelter a "damp" facility, or will it maintain zero tolerance of drugs/alcohol? Facility policies are important. I hope the city chooses to at least charge a modest fee to clients. And no, it is not cruel to ask people who are homeless to pay something. In fact, it works and gives these people a sense of pride that they are not just getting something for free.
I have worked in homelessness in different cities and watched as advocates and planners have evolved from soup kitchens and emergency shelters to permanent supportive and rapid re-housing. Opening up a new emergency shelter is like turning the clock back to 1989 and hoping the facility will finally "get people off the streets" and into housing. It will help some individuals, but the full impact will be to exacerbate the problem of homelessness in Baltimore.
Michael D. Ullman, PhD, is a homeless services consultant in Towson. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.