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Creating a Prosocial Emergency Shelter Culture

Photo by Taufiq Klinkenborg for Pexels.com December 13, 2022 Category: ColumnFeatureFeaturedMethod

Prosocial behavior is the intent to benefit others, such as helping, sharing, donating, co-operating, and volunteering. Since 2016, Bethesda Project’s Church Shelter Program (CSP) for chronically homeless men has committed to proactively including shelter guests in program management in order to encourage a prosocial culture.

As peer leaders, guests help staff create the agendas for the shelter’s community meetings, assist with leading those meetings, make enforceable decisions about shelter rules and resources (i.e. Curfews, dinner leftovers, shower times, etc.), track the shelter’s cleaning supplies, manage the shelter kitchen, orient new guests to the space, assist staff with de-escalating incidents, and provide recommendations for disciplinary action when guests violate rules. Implementing these projects has required us to confront genuine concerns about the nature of power dynamics in groups.

Our guiding question has been: How can we empower our shelter guests while also preventing them from abusing that power against each other, particularly in regard to disciplinary action? Is it even possible?

Yes, actually, it is possible. Social science research backs us up. But more than that, it’s important. These kinds of initiatives help us create a prosocial emergency shelter culture where guests see each other as peers, not adversaries.

Multiple researchers over the last twenty years have from Diamond (2012)Henrich et al. (2005), and Callaghan et al. (2011) described how giving social support is a universal aspect of human cultures, increases the chances of survival in those cultures, and also supports group cohesiveness. Wherever people are gathered, there will be exchanges of social support in one form or another, though what varies is how openly, encouraged, and sanctioned these exchanges are.

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Another universal aspect of human cultures is the pursuit of social status. Again, research confirms that the traits that most consistently predict high status within groups are all prosocial: competence, a strong commitment to the group, and strong social or leadership abilities. In groups whose standards of behavior are prosocial, members will seek status through actions that benefit their peers. The prosocial behavior of one individual helps them achieve status within the group, while at the same time supporting the cohesiveness of that group and triggering the adoption of prosocial behaviors in others through social learning.

Prosocial behavior is not the norm in a shelter setting

Several things must happen for prosocial identity development to occur in someone who has been behaving according to antisocial or violent norms.

  • First, there must be a cognitive opening—in basic terms, the person must perceive the option of behaving pro-socially.
  • Second, there must be the possibility of increased self-regard or social status as a result of this behavioral shift.
  • Third, the desire for behavior change must be activated and stay activated.
  • Fourth, the person must also know how to proceed with such change.
  • Lastly, this change must be affirmed and encouraged by others. In the shelter environment, staff are key players in highlighting the possibility of prosocial behavior in shelter, creating opportunities for these exchanges, and encouraging them.

Social science research also explains how giving shelter guests direct responsibility for certain aspects of shelter management can contribute to a prosocial culture. Shelter guests’ shared experience of homelessness provides the groundwork for empathetic, prosocial behavior. Studies have shown that one animal’s cries of distress provoke strong emotional arousal in another animal when they had both previously experienced pain. That emotional response lessens when they experience pain separately, and lessens further when the animal hearing the cries has not experienced pain. Because men residing in our shelter have the shared traumatic experience of homelessness, they have the capacity to be empathically connected to one another, and perhaps more so than housed staff can be.

For example, when the Church Shelter Program conducted guest focus groups to review prior incidents and gauge their recommendations for how similar incidents should be handled in the future, guests did not recommend discharge to the street in any of the scenarios in which staff actually had administered this consequence.

Through community decision-making, collective responsibility for shared resources, and other power-sharing efforts, shelter staff encourage guests to see their peers as an “in-group.” ”In-group” members induce people to respond empathetically towards them, even if they do not know each other. If others are perceived, or portrayed, as “out-group” members, people will respond to them with a marked lack of empathy. Giving shelter guests direct influence over the shelter’s disciplinary process and outcomes lessens the risk of moral disengagement in response to wrongdoing. A 1975 study found that when people are given direct responsibility for administering punishment, they are less punitive than when responsibility for punishment is outsourced. In addition, when people are confronted with evidence of harm that they have inflicted, they become less inclined to continue inflicting harm.

Harm, aggression, and violence cannot be attributed to personal characteristics alone.

As the preceding research confirms, they result in part from environmental conditions that influence a person’s behavior. By implementing the changes that we embrace at the shelter to promote a prosocial culture, you too can build a safer environment for you and the individuals you serve. A prosocial culture that is humane, empathetic, and nonviolent.

 

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