We help the homeless where they are – sober or struggling

Lola Johnson, right, of Urban Ministries records the names of people who are lined up to be assigned a bed at its shelter in Durham in this file photo.
Lola Johnson, right, of Urban Ministries records the names of people who are lined up to be assigned a bed at its shelter in Durham in this file photo. hlynch@newsobserver.com

The homeless confront countless obstacles every day. Some are institutional. Others, like alcohol or drug abuse, are personal. But should someone who is struggling with sobriety be denied emergency shelter or permanent housing? At Urban Ministries of Durham (UMD), we don’t think so.

UMD is the primary emergency shelter for homeless adults in Durham and the backup shelter for families. In addition, we operate a community café for the hungry, as well as a clothing closet and food pantry. Last fiscal year, we served almost 5,800 neighbors, including 792 men, women and children who stayed in our shelter; of those, 243 exited into permanent housing. To remove road blocks for those in need, UMD employs widely accepted best practices, such as low-barrier admission and Housing First.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, one of the keys to effective emergency shelter is immediate, low-barrier access. This means that homeless individuals are not required to be sober or to participate in specific programs to enter or remain in shelter, or to obtain housing and income opportunities. While UMD prohibits dangerous and illegal activity, and is not able to serve registered sex offenders because we shelter children, we do not enforce rules punitively. We prefer to work with individuals and “meet them where they are.”

Our clinical social workers provide case management to all shelter clients to engage and stabilize them, help them identify income sources, and collaborate on a housing plan and exit strategy. Many who stay with us also benefit from our workforce development program, which aids job preparedness and enhances life skills. We feel this holistic approach is more equitable and effective than creating additional barriers for the homeless by casting them out for comparatively minor infractions.

It’s important to note that UMD offers emergency shelter, not permanent refuge. If a client is not interested in making strides to secure housing, that person is given an exit date. He or she can ask for an extension, but once granted must demonstrate a willingness to be accountable and work with staff.

Housing First, endorsed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), asserts that homelessness is above all else a “housing crisis,” and that everyone is ready to be housed. As HUD explains, “Housing First is an approach to quickly and successfully connect individuals and families experiencing homelessness to permanent housing without preconditions and barriers to entry, such as sobriety, treatment or service participation requirements.”

Many who experience homelessness report gains in physical and mental health, employment and other areas as a result of obtaining housing. Some individuals need minimal support for a brief period of time to achieve stability and are well-suited for rapid rehousing, while others require more intensive, long-term assistance and are better served by permanent supportive housing.

Currently, average length of stay at our shelter is longer than we would like—53 days for single adults and 92 days for families. This is due, in part, to the fact that 31% of our residents are chronically homeless and are more difficult to place with landlords. Even clients who are strong candidates for rapid rehousing are experiencing longer stays due to the lack of affordable housing and Section 8 housing vouchers.

It’s on all of us to help solve homelessness, so the question is: What is your role? Do you donate or volunteer? Are you willing to hire someone who is eager to work but has a mental health condition, disability or past criminal record? Are you prepared to advocate for affordable housing for all who need it? Are you able to offer a formerly homeless neighbor a place to live at lower-than-market rates so that he or she can afford to live independently?

However you choose to contribute, thank you for making a difference.

Sheldon Mitchell is the executive director of Urban Ministries of Durham, which has served the Durham community since 1983.