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Shelter Rules Examined: Is the System Outdated?

Emergency shelters have served our homeless population for many years, but are these facilities’ rules outdated? Across the country, our community is examining many programs’ best practices and questioning whether or not shelters are thing from the past.

Emergency-style facilities began popping up in major cities, nationwide in 1983. Since then, we have seen many variations of this model; there are specific shelters designated to provide a safe haven from extreme cold and heat; scattered shelters that operate similarly to transitional housing units; and emergency shelters exclusively for single men, single women, and families.

In recent years, as we have adopted the Housing-First approach, a client’s typical length-of-stay in our shelters has decreased from 90 days to 30. Considering that our biggest priority is housing the homeless, shelters act as merely a stopping point in a client’s journey to stability. In many cases, clients will also receive treatment for additional services such as substance abuse counseling, tenant training, academic tutoring, and financial planning advisement.

Still, we wonder if emergency shelters with rules and regulations will soon be a thing of the past.

With this question in mind, I dug through the cyberspace, and found various models and arguments as to why, they can actually present barriers for housing to our homeless population across the country. Betty Reid Mandell, Co-Editor for New Politics, an independent socialist forum, argued in 2007 that, “shelter programs are shaped by prevailing views of the poor, who are considered to be generally inadequate and incompetent and in need of reform.” [1]

Staff from the Navigation Center in California recently provided data for a survey presented by the San Francisco Chronicle. The survey reported that many homeless individuals rejected “traditional” shelters because of their crowed accommodations and established curfew. [2]

Change is nothing new to emergency shelters. In fact, their rules have changed quite a bit over time. In the past, families with teenage children (aging 17 and 18) were sometimes separated because of the child’s age status as a “single adult”, and now this is no longer the case. Curfew rules have been relaxed if clients work unconventional hours, and some shelters (like HomeAgain) accept families of all compositions- even single fathers. It is also important to note that services focused on children, veterans, and people with disabilities are more readily available than ever.

Despite the progression of emergency facilities, some agencies have suggested that shelters do away with their curfew and start accepting pets.

Is this possible? Is it a good idea?

In San Francisco, where in a single night in 2015 there were 7,539 homeless people counted, this new shelter model is taking place.[3] The Navigation Center, located in the city’s Mission District, has been operating since March of 2015 and has already served 545 individuals. They offer permanent supportive housing solutions, as well as, a program called “Homeward Bound.” This initiative focuses on family reunification and the possibilities of clients to self-resolve. “Homeward Bound” offers free bus tickets for those experiencing a housing crisis in order to reconnect with friends or family members. In addition to the center’s housing interventions, this facility operates 24 hours a day with on-site case management and relaxed rules. The shelter allows clients to come and go as they pleas,  and they can bring pets. This model has become increasingly appealing to the homeless population.[4]

This shelter style could certainly be the new frontier for homeless services. However, when considering the cost of operation, we must wonder if this is truly a better way to operate. Each bed at the Navigation Center costs (on average) $69 a night per individual. This is a shocking expense in comparison to the cost, at a regular shelter, which according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), ranges from $14 to $36 a night, nationwide (per person).

However inconvenient, there is the argument that enforcing a curfew keeps residents safe. Here at HomeAgain, client safety is paramount and a relaxed curfew could, potentially, pose a higher risk especially for women and children. In addition to this, allowing pets would decrease the space available and perhaps aggravate clients’ allergies.

In the conversation of shelter operations and housing interventions, I have learned that the answer is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Shelters with fewer restrictions may be a good alternative, but the whole point of Housing First, is HOUSING.

The solution is a double-edged sword. Shelter with no barriers encourages those who are homeless to ask for help. However, more regulated shelters with  restricted independence motivate clients to work harder, complete our programs, and move into a new home. 

Changing a model that has existed for over 20 years will spark a conversation over resources, funding, and increasing a shelter’s capacity to become a less restrictive place. But the conversation must be focused on how to ensure that clients self-sustain and find housing. Shelters are meant to only be a stopping a point, a short stay… it is vital that these facilities’ (by design) encourage clients to move on and find/keep a new home.

Here at HomeAgain, together with our partners at Greater Richmond Continuum of Care, we work tirelessly to find the best and most sensitive approach for all our clients. Homelessness is complex, and as we work to find the solutions, we invite you to join in on the discussion.

This fall we will hold a series of Community Conversations to tackle this and many other issues surrounding homelessness. If you would like to know more, or you would like to become involved with our programs e-mail us at



[1] Mandell, Betty Reid. “Homeless Shelters: A Feeble Response to Homelessness.” New Politics. New Politics, July-Aug. 2007. Web. 21 Aug. 2016. <>.
[2] Knight, Heather. “Can the Shelter System Be Successful?” San Francisco Chronicle. San Francisco Chronicle, 26 June 2016. Web. 29 Aug. 2016. <>.
[3] 2015 San Francisco Homeless Count Report. Rep. City and County of San Francisco, Jan. 2016. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.
[4] Fagan, Kevin. “S.F. Takes New Direction on Homeless Camps with 1-stop Aid Center.” SFGate. SFGate, 24 Jan. 2015. Web. 26 Aug. 2016.