So, You Think You're a Low Barrier Shelter...Let's Check

Hey all - sorry I have been stingy on the blog lately. I am back and will be here regularly for your reading pleasure.

The conversation goes something like this:

   Them: "We operate a low-barrier shelter."
   Me: "What makes it low-barrier?"
   Them: "We believe in Housing First."
   Me: "But what does that look like in practice?"

And then they share with me. And I end up mortified. So here is a list of 10 things that really have no place in low-barrier shelters, though I have encountered them quite a bit lately in our shelter transformation work.

1. Criminal Background Checks - start doing criminal background checks or making people go to the police department for clearance prior to coming to the shelter and you are not low barrier. In some limited circumstances depending on the shelter location and/or all of the populations served within the shelter it may be prudent to know if people who are sex offenders are staying there, but that doesn't require criminal background checks or police station visits first.

2 Credit Checks - true story, a shelter that claimed to be low barrier did a check on the credit score of each household looking to enter the shelter and if too low were turned away from shelter. Then a week later I encountered another shelter that did the same thing. Let's be clear, high credit score does not equal low barrier. 

3. Limiting Shelter to Those with Income - included in this category are shelters that charge program fees that claim to be low-barrier. As soon as you start charging people to be able to stay at your shelter they need income. As soon as you start requiring people to have income (which sometimes means jobs) you are not low barrier. 

4. Making People Pledge their Motivation to Change - "I hereby solemnly swear that I am ready to change and will take any and all necessary actions to prove to staff and the community that my desire to change is real. I hereby further acknowledge that if I do not put my motivation into action I will be asked to leave the shelter." True story. Verbatim. Twice in the same community even though they were different, unaffiliated shelters. I think pledging that you will change is a barrier.

5. Ensuring People Show up at a Designated Location and Then are Bussed to the Facility - I want to get this straight...you are low barrier but you expect people to be organized enough to get to the one place in the community that you are going to send a bus that will pick people up and whisk them away to your secret shelter location and that any walk-ups will not be accepted or considered under any circumstance. Uh-huh.

6. Sobriety Checks - if you haul out the dipstick or the breathalyzer and call yourself low barrier I think you really are confused as to what low barrier means. 

7. Having People Produce IDNEWSFLASH People that are homeless frequently lose their identification. If you require people to produce an identification in order to be considered for shelter you have created a huge barrier.

8. Residency Requirements - anecdotally this one seems to be growing: we will only shelter our own (or our preference is for those that can prove residency here first). All people have the freedom of mobility across the country. Oh wait, unless you are homeless in some instances.

9. Mandatory (Life Skills/Budgeting,etc) Classes - you are not a low barrier shelter if you mandate that all shelter residents participate in predetermined classes, especially those that last weeks at a time. Offer some voluntary classes if you want. Maybe even make them housing-focused. But having mandatory classes is not low barrier. 

10. Forced Labor Participation - when you require people have a job or require them to participate in your profit-generating industries as a condition of stay, you are not low barrier. 

I fear that the term "low barrier" is/will be thrown around so much that it will lose meaning or require constant clarification. Kind of reminds me of the term "housing first" and how that has been bastardized over the years. So, let us stand up to programs that are not low barrier and call them out when they are not so we can have some fidelity to what low barrier actually means.

About Iain De Jong

Leader. Edutainer. Coach. Consultant. Professor. Researcher. Blogger. Do-gooder. Potty mouth. Positive disruptor. Relentless advocate for social justice. Comedian. Dad. Minimalist. Recovering musician. Canadian citizen. International jetsetter. Living life in jeans and a t-shirt. Trying really hard to end homelessness in developed countries around the world, expand harm reduction practices, make housing happen, and reform the justice system. Driven by change, fuelled by passion. Winner of a shit ton of prestigious awards, none of which matter unless change happens in how we think about vulnerability, marginality, and inclusion.


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