Passive to Active: The Role of Day Services

Historically, day services of all kinds (known by names like drop-in centres, day centres, day shelters, resource lounges, open spaces, gathering spots, and so on) played the very important function of giving people that are homeless refuge during the day. This has been especially important in neighbourhoods or communities where shelters are open over night, but lack resources to stay open and serve people during the day. The day services have met a huge array of needs. Often they provide a meal or snack. In the winter they give escape from inclement weather and in the summer a respite from the heat. Bathrooms are almost always available. Many have showers or laundry facilities. It is not uncommon for there to be socio-recreational activities, and/or opportunities for people to mingle and engage. Some bring in external resources like health care, legal services, or even help filing taxes or applying for benefits.

In response to need (real or perceived) many day services have become specialized for population groups over the years, especially in larger urban centres. For example, you might find a day service specifically for unaccompanied youth, another one just for women, one for mental health consumers, another for older adults, one for people that identify as LGBTQ, and another for people that are Aboriginal. Each of these embraces a mandate relative to the population served and designs programming and staffing models accordingly.

Too often it is a passive space, even with staff and programming.

Too often it addresses symptoms of homelessness and being underused rather than solving why any person or family would need a day service in the first place.

Too often they are facilities where a person that is homeless needs to make their needs known to staff rather than staff assessing and meeting needs.

What if we re-thought day services within a continuum of support services focused on ending homelessness? What if we re-designed programming and expectations of day services to be places of active engagement focused on the quality of service and termination of the person’s houselessness, and less about the quantity of people that pass through the doors of the facility? What if we made every single one as low-barrier as possible to increase the likelihood of people using the service to have their needs met? What then?

In the northeast there is a group of advocates lobbying a mayor to have a neutral day centre space for people to have passive respite. In Texas there is a group of business people wanting a day centre to get people off the streets and in front of their stores, and into a place where they are served and not seen. In the midwest there is a judge wanting to see a day centre put into place to divert people out of his courtroom. On the west coast there is strain and desire on various political officials and faith-groups to expand and provide more funding to day services to meet the hygiene and food needs of people staying in tent cities.

All of this is meaningless and will not do a darn thing to end homelessness.

Meanwhile there are thousands of other day services in the world that see the same clientele every single day, more or less. They have the same patrons, volunteers and staff; the same menu; the same issues with their built form; the same neighbourhood issues. They will tell anecdotes of increased demands on services and the increased complexity of their client base (which is usually related to whatever street drug is making rounds in that town or whichever mental health facility is restricting access or whichever hospital is discharging people to the streets or whichever foot patrol by the cops is pushing people into their facility).

All of this is meaningless and will not do a darn thing to end homelessness.

Consider this:

  • As published in the American Journal of Consumer Community Psychology, Volume 32, Numbers 3-4, 305-317, in an article titled Preference Programs for Individuals Who Are Homeless and Have Psychiatric Disabilities: A Drop-In Center and a Supported Housing Program by Shinn et al, the drop in center without barriers was more successful than control programs in reducing homelessness, but after 2 years only 38% of participants had moved into housing. Meanwhile, the Housing First program had 79% in housing. Conclusion? A low barrier shelter is insufficient to increase housing access or reduce homelessness. It must be low barrier AND actively focused on housing.
  • In the five day service re-designs with housing focus we have been involved in the last three years, the least successful has seen more than 40% increase in housing access and retention out of the day service within six months. Achieved how? All staffing and activities are singularly focused on housing, the service is used exclusively for people that are homeless, all of the ancillary activities that used to occur within the facility are now delivered in vivo, and the work is integrated with other sheltering and outreach services.
  • We know of three communities (one Canadian and two American) that have greatly reduced or closed all of their day services that were passive, and in none of those communities has there been an increase in homelessness or deaths.

If we are serious about ending homelessness in every community then we need to make sure each part of the service delivery system is aligned to this aim. It is not just the job of street outreach or shelters. It is not just the job of coordinated entry. You cannot just have specialized housing workers that move around and try to house everyone out of homelessness. You must ensure every place where a person that is homeless is “touched” is locked onto ending homelessness. If we are passive then we become complicit in the increase of homelessness, the management of homelessness, and even the deaths of people that are experiencing homelessness.



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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