The reason your homeless program failed

A man stumbled up to me in the shelter.  He had had a few drinks.  Less than 10.  More than 1.

“Is the Governor coming for dinner?” he asked.

A little puzzled, I said, “No.  Why?”

“Because,” he continued, “that meal looks like something the governor would eat.”

He wasn’t wrong.

Dinner that night in the shelter was:

  • Suckling pig (it even had the apple in its mouth like in the movies!).
  • Filet Mignon.
  • Baby carrots in butter and brown sugar.
  • A fancy salad (the kind that looks like dandelion greens).

The man who wanted to dine with the Governor was first in line. He fit every stereotype of homelessness:

  • He struggled with alcoholism and severe mental health issues.
  • His beard was long and unkempt. 
  • His clothing smelled of stale urine and fresh body odor.

He was what the U.S. Government would call “Chronically Homeless.”

Not All Homelessness is the Same

There are three basic types of homelessness:

  • Short-Term – Individuals experiencing short-term homelessness aren’t homeless for very long.  At the shelter where I work, 50% of the people that come to our shelter are out again within 2 weeks.  They typically have no major issues (mental health, substance abuse, etc. ) Some sort of financial crisis bumped them out of housing, and they scramble quickly to get back.

  • Medium-Term – Individuals experiencing medium-term homelessness are homeless for up to one year.  This subgroup typically has one—but only one—major issue (e.g. mental illness, substance abuse, health problems, legal problems, etc.).  It takes about a year to work through a major life challenge.  This is about 40% of the residents at our shelter.

  • Chronic – Individuals experiencing chronic homelessness are homeless for more than one year (and oftentimes much more).  This subgroup has multiple major issues (e.g. mental illness AND substance abuse AND health problems AND legal problems, etc.).  It can take years (or forever) to work through multiple serious life challenges.  This is about 10% of the residents at our shelter in a given year.

There is No “One Size Fits All” Solution to Homelessness

If you serve individuals experiencing homelessness, you need to understand the different types of homelessness.  You serve each group differently:

  • Short-Term – This group doesn’t need much.  They need a few nights of shelter and a little rental assistance money to help them get back on their feet again.

  • Medium-Term – This group needs intensive services to help them get back on their feet again.  They need counseling and financial literacy classes and job-training.  With enough help, they can rebuild their lives and get back on their feet again.

  • Chronic – This group needs “permanent supportive housing” (a fully-paid apartment and a case manager who visits the apartment for the rest of their lives).  Many individuals in this group will never live independently again.  They need intensive (and expensive) services.

We get into trouble when we offer the right type of service to the wrong type of people.

For example:

  • A nonprofit tries to provide intensive job training to short-term homeless.  No one shows up, though, because they already have jobs.

  • A library offers an “Introduction to Coding” workshop for chronically homeless patrons.   The patrons spend the hour asking how to use Google, because they have too many other barriers to learn coding.

If you want to serve your homeless neighbors, you have to choose a sub-segment of the homeless population.  Focus on their needs.



P.S. To learn more about the three types of homelessness, scroll up to watch the short clip from our core training.

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