Service Restrictions and Barring in Shelters

In congregate settings, like shelters and drop-in centers, there has to be some expectation of behaviour. One could argue that the larger the building or operation, the more important it is to have staff consistently apply expectations of behaviour. The good news is that most guests will be in compliance with the guidelines most of the time. The part that becomes difficult is what to do when people do not consistently meet the expectations of behaviour? This is where service restrictions and barring come into play.

While we talk plenty about trying to neutralize the power dynamics that exist between staff and guests, when it comes to meting out consequence of not meeting an expectation of behaviour, staff hold the power. Occasionally there are power hungry staff that abuse this power. Thankfully this too is rare. On the other hand, there are some staff who never want to hand out a service restriction. This too is rare.

In our work with transforming shelters to become more housing focused, one of the areas that needs to be tackled is service restrictions and barring. It is hard to house vulnerable people if you kick them out of services. Being lower barrier, which is a key to success for being housing-focused, requires a sober look at your existing expectations or rules and a revamping as necessary to help ensure staff are safe and guests are safe.

The starting point, therefore, in ensuring you have fair service restriction and barring policies is to review what the actual expectations and rules are, how they are communicated, and whose job it is (and how) to determine if a guest is not meeting those expectations. Here is an example of some guidelines developed by a large shelter we have been working with:

All guests of the shelter, both community and those accessing sleep programs are asked to adhere to a list of building guidelines.

  1. All individuals are responsible for their personal belongings. The shelter is not responsible for any personal belongings.
  2. To not have any unlabeled or mixed medication or medication belonging to someone else while a guest at the shelter. 
  3. To not buy/sell anything or collect debt while on the premises
  4. To not participate in inappropriate intimacy on the premises
  5. To not take any photo, video or audio recording while on the premises without administrative approval.  This is to protect the privacy of everyone at the shelter
  6. To not bring any weapons (real or replica) onto the property 
  7. To not vandalize any of the shelter property
  8. For the safety of all guests the shelter requires all bags entering the building to be searched. Individuals may have bag searched by staff or they may opt to conduct a self-search.

It is far easier to explain 8 expectations at time of intake and have people understand what you are requesting of them than having 8 pages of rules that are quickly forgotten, ignored, or unequally applied.

Barring someone should always be a last choice when confronted with a complex behaviour situation. When an expectation is not being met, the first step should always be dialogue. The expectation that is not being met should be explained again. Once that (re)explanation is provided, an expectation should be set regarding what happens if the expectation is not met again in the future. Nonetheless, there will still be instances where a service restriction is necessary for the safety of the individual, others within the building, or the facility itself. 

When it gets to the point where a bar is going to be issued, it is important that these are clear and transparent to all guests, and applied consistently by all staff. Therefore, organizing types of service restrictions can be helpful, and keeping the number of categories small makes interpretation easier. Here is how one shelter transformed their barring infrastructure into four simple categories:




Category 4

  • Violence requiring more than first aid medical attention
  • Sexual Assault
  • Arson 

3 months

Category 3

  • Property damage over $1000
  • On-going drug trafficking
  • On-going predatory behaviour
  • Violence requiring first aid

14 Days

Category 2

Repeated breach of Category 1

24 – 48 Hours

Category 1

Breaches to the guidelines of the Emergency Shelter

10 minutes to 2-hour break from building

Notice above that there is no such thing as an automatic lifetime ban. However, at the end of each bar period there can be a meeting between the guest and the shelter staff to assess where the person is at in wanting to meet the expectations moving forward. While in most instances the end of the bar duration is the end of the service restriction, there can be instances where there is no intention to meet the expectation and the bar is extended.

A shelter must also decide which staff under which circumstances can issue a service restriction. For example, Category 1 can be issued by any shelter employee, but a Category 4 restriction requires a Director level sign-off.  For shelters that have multiple staff on per shift, there may even be a process by which peer review goes into issuances of the likes of Category 2 or 3 issuances.

In the end, the service restriction process should not be punitive. It should be rehabilitative. It should support and help people meet an expectation over time.

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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