Shelter isn’t Home
I am involved with a non-profit organization called CATCH. CATCH is a housing-first organization with the goal of ending homelessness, particularly in families. I am grateful for what CATCH has taught me about home. CATCH assists families experiencing homelessness overcome financial barriers to get back into housing. Then it supports them with financial assistance and case management while they build a sustainable future. Provide a home, train and support people to maintain it, and we find a hopeful future. Its radically successful. Perfect? No. But by every metric it successfully and efficiently positions people to maintain a job, bank money, and support themselves and their dependents.
This lead me to reflect on the difference between shelter and home. I used to think ending homelessness meant building shelters. Shelters are well-supported by many well-meaning people. And even now I don’t disagree with doing that, life with a roof over your head is better than not. However, we have to know what we are supporting and what is our goal. To be clear, shelters aren’t going to solve the problem. Shelter is a bandage for the wound. It stops the bleeding, but it doesn’t grant dignity. It isn’t personalized. And nothing belongs.
Home is the goal. And knowing that changes the moves you take to get there. It changes the problems and solutions when the goal is home, not a roof. This is the value of housing first. We don’t try to fix a person and then, and only then, decide they are worthy of home. We help find a home and support them growing into it. We try to remove the many barriers keeping people in a state of homelessness. And in a home, with that sense of belonging and responsibility, we can walk alongside each other addressing the causes and challenges that will allow them to maintain that home. But without ownership of the goal there is no motivation, dignity, or pride. Ownership and belonging are necessary to work towards solutions and not just talk about them.
I heard a great anecdote about justice and advocacy. You are standing by a river near a waterfall and people are struggling to swim and about to go over it. You throw them a rope, grab arms, do whatever you can to get them out. The people keep coming. You keep pulling. And that is good and important work. But sooner or later someone also needs to walk upstream and find out why people keep falling in.
If we want to create true communities, places of common care and good. We need respite. We want shelters, hospitals, and emergency aid. But we also need to fix the systems that cause people to fall down and keep them there. We need to learn and teach practices of healthy living, and create an environment that offers solid ground rather than lives of crisis management. And along that way we receive dignity, place, belonging, and ownership: we find a home.