You don’t go to the airport looking for community and belonging: you go to the airport to leave the airport.
The same is true for emergency shelter: people enter with the intention of leaving it. But given the lack of affordable and permanent supportive housing across the United States, leaving the shelter system is not so simple.
Willpower alone cannot make the plane take off. Nor can it resolve a person’s housing crisis.
Because of this, people who stay in shelters are confronted with the strange prospect of putting roots down in their time of crisis. It’s as if the intercom on the plane activates and you hear: This is your pilot speaking. The plane will remain on the tarmac until further notice. You can expect to be out sometime next year. Please remain seated. If you’re like me, you would call being stuck on a plane for a year many things, but not “community.”
At Bethesda Project’s Church Shelter Program (CSP) for chronically homeless men in Philadelphia — where I work as a case manager — many guests stay with us for a year before obtaining affordable or supportive housing.
When people live together for that long, community happens — whether they want it to or not, whether they call it community or not. People connect. They bicker, laugh, and cry. At a certain point, someone decides the toilets need to be cleaned and it simply cannot wait any longer. Someone comes in hungry; someone else shares dinner with him. Whether it’s a summer camp, a college dorm, a shelter, or even a group of people stuck on their plane, community is organic. It happens.
But who attends to the community’s business? In other words: Who has the power?
Shifting the power paradigmWho has the power?’ is the question that makes or breaks community. The traditional view of shelter management is that staff members, such as myself, have all the power, while the shelter guests have none.
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When I began working in homeless services, this power dynamic was presented as a matter of fact — with the same ease as saying, “the pilot flies the plane.” To a certain extent, this is true: The pilot does fly the plane, and the shelter staff do have final authority over the shelter. But just as the pilot is not necessarily the best or only person to arrange the bathroom queue, determine how dinners will be served, choose the in-flight movies, or respond to passenger complaints, shelter staff are not necessarily the best or only people capable of attending to shelter community business.
Starting in 2016, the CSP committed to proactively including shelter guests in the management of the shelter program. We started with weekly community meetings to promote greater communication between guests and staff.
In 2017, this practice became the basis for our practice of community decision-making, in which shelter guests make autonomous decisions about the shelter’s rules, resource management, and housekeeping routines.
In 2018, we used the community decision-making process to revise the shelter’s entire code of conduct according to the guests’ needs.
This year, we modified the shelter’s disciplinary process to allow guests more of a voice in that process and influence over how incidents of wrongdoing are resolved.
Collectively, these practices contribute to what may be called democratic shelter management. This form of management aligns with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that all people have a right to participate in how they are governed. This right is described in Article 21 (Right to Participate in Government and in Free Elections), Article 28 (Right to a Social Order that Articulates this Document), and Article 30 (Freedom from State or Personal Interference in the Above Rights) of the declaration.
In the CSP, we believe this right to participate in governance also applies to the way emergency shelters govern their guests.
Govern or manage?
You may notice that I used the word “govern” instead of “manage.” Emergency shelters function as political communities in the sense that in any given shelter, you can identify those who govern (shelter managers) and those who are governed (shelter guests). How we manage a shelter involves “human services,” “social work,” and “behavioral health”— but it’s also about power, which is another way of saying it’s about politics.
If politics is the exercise of power, then you could say that political theory is the justification for it. In emergency shelter, for example, politics answers the question: “Who decides how many sleeping mats each guest can take?” Political theory answers the question: “Why?” Regardless of the answers, we’re talking about power: who has it and who doesn’t.
What many people don’t realize is that “good management” is also “good politics.”
According to the philosopher Malcolm Bull, all governments must address what is known as the “first political question.” It is the question of how to secure order, protection, safety, trust, and cooperation in any given community. It is considered “first” because any government must have an answer to this question in order to be perceived as legitimate, and until this question is answered no other social or political questions can be effectively addressed.
As it happens, emergency shelter managers must address the same question: How do we create a space where there is social order, where people feel safe, protected, trusting, and capable of cooperating with each other and with staff? Until shelter guests feel safe, secure, and trusting, we cannot reasonably expect them to contribute to — or respect — social order, resolve their housing crises, or effectively address medical or behavioral health conditions. As I said, good management is good politics.
In the CSP, we’ve discovered that democratic shelter management is a skillful way of answering the “first political question.” Through community-based decision-making, guests cooperate with each other and with staff to govern the shelter. The cooperative process, along with staff enforcement of the community’s decisions, nurtures trust between guests as well as between guests and staff.
By including shelter guests in management decisions, staff-members can create rules and routines that are relevant to the guests’ lives, responsive to their needs, and perceived as legitimate by them. This, in turn, means guests are more likely to respect and enforce the shelter’s rules, which in turn facilitates social order and stability.
Examples of how this works in practice
During one shelter meeting, a guest suggested extending the evening curfew from 10:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Super Bowl Sunday. Within a system of traditional shelter management, staff would not have even considered this suggestion; the staff-member supervising the shelter would have responded with words to the effect of: “If I say the curfew is 10:30pm, that means the curfew is 10:30pm.”
But within a system of democratic shelter management, the staff-member said to the group: “Let’s consider this; what do you guys think? What makes sense for this community?” Those present seemed in agreement about extending the curfew.
The staff-member then asked, “Does anyone have any hesitations about doing this? What do other people think?” One guest spoke up and shared strong concerns about latecomers disrupting his sleep. He did not like the idea of extending the curfew at all. In a system of majority-rule voting, his concern would be instantly overruled. But through a practice of deliberative democracy, his concern pushed the conversation deeper.
The staff-member asked: “Most of you want to extend the curfew, but one person doesn’t. This person is also part of the community. So how can we find a way to move forward together?” With this prompting, the guests arrived at a win-win solution on their own. They chose to extend the curfew to 1 a.m., but turn off all the lights at 10:30 p.m. and maintain the same expectations of quiet hours after that time.
The community decision-making process also allows each shelter community to make the decision that best reflects its needs, resources, and norms.
The same topic brought to two separate shelters can result in two very different decisions. For example, last year two of Bethesda Project’s winter shelters discussed personal hygiene in their community meetings. The guests at one shelter discussed the subject for six consecutive weeks and agreed that they wanted staff to proactively monitor hygiene practices, provide sanitation supplies, and have one-on-one counseling with guests who practiced poor hygiene around the kitchen.
However, the guests at the second shelter discussed hygiene once and agreed that they wanted to handle the matter among themselves, with no staff involvement.
These meetings allowed staff to individually adapt their management practices at each site to respect the community’s norms and expectations.
How it works in the disciplinary process
In the CSP, the spirit of democratic shelter management also applies to our disciplinary process. Staff-members make the final decision about consequences for wrongdoing, but also give shelter guests a voice in determining what outcomes seem reasonable and fair.
By including shelter guests in this process, they perceive it as legitimate, transparent, and therefore fair, which means they are less likely to retaliate when receiving consequences for their actions. Guests also feel secure because they do not fear arbitrary punishment by staff.
For example, one evening a shelter guest who I’ll call “Curtis” took out a knife, held it in his hand, and began pacing back and forth. After the staff-member made several requests, Curtis put the knife away. Curtis was then asked to leave for the night and speak with the shelter director the following day.
Within a traditional disciplinary power structure, the director would have said: “Curtis, I am discharging you from the shelter effective immediately for brandishing a weapon. You can pick up your belongings here tomorrow. Please shut the office door when you leave.”
The encounter would have been brief, one-sided, and unceremonious. Curtis likely would have felt belittled, resented the decision, and reacted or retaliated against it.
However, within a democratic management system, the disciplinary conversation was very different. The director asked Curtis what happened from his perspective; how he was feeling about what happened; how he thought other people felt about what had happened; and what he thought would be a fair outcome, all things considered.
At the end of the conversation, Curtis himself said; “You know, I only took the knife out because I didn’t want to look weak, but I realize I really scared people. I think it would be fair for me to stay at another shelter for some time.” Curtis and the staff-member decided together what a fair consequence would be, rather than the staff-member imposing it on Curtis like a sentence. As a result, Curtis respected the decision and abided by it.
In another incident, two guests who I’ll call “Rafael” and “James” engaged in a verbal altercation. Rafael had been volunteering to prepare breakfast for the guests for several weeks, and had just set out bagels and coffee.
“Bagels again?” James said. “Why can’t you make us something else? We’ve had bagels for the past two weeks!”
“If you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it!” Rafael responded.
“How about I come in that kitchen and beat you up?” James said then.
After a few more exchanges, the altercation ended and the guests ate breakfast.
Within a traditional disciplinary process, the shelter staff would have been justified in discharging James immediately for using threatening language. Instead, we approached the situation democratically. That day, we spoke one-on-one with Rafael, James, and the other guests who had witnessed the altercation to get their perspective on the matter and possible outcomes.
We learned that none of the guests felt concerned about the threats; they considered James’ language a release of emotional energy and stress more than an actual claim to commit violence. We also learned that no one thought discharging James would be fair. However, all guests expressed longstanding frustration with the kitchen routine.
As a result, we decided together that Rafael would “retire” from kitchen duty, and James — because he felt so passionate about the kitchen — would replace him. The tension surrounding the kitchen subsequently dissolved and the community affirmed in their next four meetings that the new dynamic functioned better.
In each of these scenarios, and others, CSP staff made specific choices to use power democratically.
And that’s the bottom line: shelter managers can choose to govern their shelters through democratic practices that align with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights — or they can choose not to.
This choice matters. According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, “the true test of ‘good’ governance is the degree to which it delivers on the promise of human rights.” In that sense, if emergency shelters do not proactively include shelter guests in management decision-making, they are undermining community, practicing poor governance, and violating human rights.-30-
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