Volunteers of America and our city and service partners launched Sacramento’s groundbreaking low-barrier homeless shelter about one year ago.
We’ve learned a lot from the 650 guests, 148 dogs, 12 cats, five births and over 4,000 pounds of belongings that have been part of the Triage Shelter to date. A recent survey provided insights, including an idea that might surprise some people with a stake in reducing homelessness.
For many going about their day, the perspective on homelessness is likely limited to the visual of someone asking for money at a stoplight or camped out along the streets. It’s hard to ignore and, yet, frustratingly intractable.
Some will feel a moral responsibility to help those less fortunate. Others will fret about the financial drag on the city. Many will simply be overwhelmed by the aesthetics.
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The mantra on solving homelessness these days is “housing first.” There is an understandable instinct to house as many homeless people as fast as we can. But “housing first” may not be appropriate for everyone.
There is a dearth of affordable housing these days. More importantly, it doesn’t take into account a key trauma-informed care principle: collaboration and mutuality.
Our survey was designed to help us learn about the potentially transformational shelter experiences of Sacramento’s most chronically homeless. Most of our guests have been on the streets for more than four years, many much longer.
A key question was this: “Have you changed over the course of your stay in the shelter?”
Here are some of the answers:
“Having an emotional connection with everyone changed my life. I have come to believe life is about choices,” wrote C.L., who has been homeless one year.
“My self-esteem has been raised to the top. I have dignity now,” wrote K.B., homeless for 15 years.
“I am able to trust a little more. It allows me to make different decisions,” wrote R.J., homeless 18 years.
“I have goals. I challenge myself. I give myself a pat on the back.,” wrote S.A., homeless 12 years.
“I have grown in very important areas of myself such as being more sociable and comfortable around large crowds,” wrote C.K., homeless 22 years.
“My attitude and patience are better by being able to connect with staff and other guests. Without connections everything would stay the same,” wrote B.G., homeless 2 years.
That last response, especially, captures the core of our approach to changing the course of homelessness.
Seventy-five percent of the 63 guests interviewed cited the healing process that begins with connections.
Housing is essential to solving homelessness. That’s obvious. But a lasting solution starts with creating connections. Perhaps this isn’t so surprising when we understand that most homeless situations start a downward spiral precisely because of disconnections.
Connections flourish in our shelters because those who struggle mightily survive by developing an empathetic community. That sense of community is the first vital connection that begins the healing process. It must be nurtured and expanded upon in the shelters.
And it must be combined with other connections to reintegrate the untethered back into society. Those include connections to medical treatment, connections to mental health care, connections to alcohol and drug treatment, and, yes, connections to housing -- at a pace matching their readiness.
Our survey suggests the path to healing and reintegration into society should instead begin with the mantra “community first.”
David J. Silveira is the division director of shelter services for Volunteers of America in northern California and northern Nevada.