What Is the Difference Between Housing and Shelter?


Credit Image: © Jose Luis Villegas/Sacramento Bee/TNS via ZUMA Wire

This is part three in our series regarding U.S. District Judge David Carter’s recent order requiring the City of Los Angeles to offer and provide shelter to all homeless people in Skid Row’s general population by October 21. To learn more, read part one and part two.

The federal order to provide either housing or shelter to people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles’ Skid Row has the city up in arms.

U.S. District David Carter ordered the city to cease the sale of certain municipal-or-county-owned properties to use them to house homeless people. Officials must also provide a transparent accounting of all the funds both received and spent to alleviate the problem.

Los Angeles County officials described the order as “beyond judicial activism,” saying it puts federal officials in charge of a local issue. That could include deciding how local dollars are spent on homeless shelters and supportive services.

To ease the order’s requirements, county attorneys have asked the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for an emergency stay.

Skip Miller of Miller Barondess, LLP, an outside counsel assisting county attorneys in the case, said the preliminary injunction is necessary for the county to continue working on the issue.

“The order not only violates the separation of constitutional powers, it will not solve homelessness in the region and lead to criminalizing it, undermining the trust and faith the county has worked long and hard to establish with people living in the streets,” Miller said.

While the lawyers seem content with arguments about the limits of state power, they are simultaneously overlooking the real issue with the order. It promotes a false duality between housing and shelter.

Housing and shelter provide drastically different experiences and treatment options for people experiencing homelessness. At a macro level, housing provides people with agency and dignity. They can come and go as they please, invite friends and family to visit, and keep pets. Housing also provides people going through treatment programs with some stability.

Some examples of housing programs that benefit unhoused people include:

  • Rapid re-housing
  • Transitional/Bridge housing
  • Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH)
  • Section 8 vouchers

Each program helps people experiencing homelessness differently. For example, Section 8 and VASH vouchers are rental assistance programs that primarily serve people living on fixed incomes that cannot afford rent.

Rapid re-housing and transitional or bridge housing programs are intervention programs designed to provide quick exits from homelessness. According to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, people who need to utilize these services can do so unconditionally. They are not asked about their criminal history, sobriety, or employment status.

Shelter systems, on the other hand, provide a “soft incarceration” for homeless people. Residents are under constant surveillance and prohibited from having particular possessions. Shelters often turn away people with pets and children. At the same time, people who need substance abuse, behavioral or mental health treatment often are not welcome at shelters.

Just as there are different housing programs, there is an equally diverse set of shelter options. Some of them include:

  • Emergency shelters
  • Adult shelters
  • Youth shelters
  • Faith-based shelters
  • Wet shelters (where intoxication is okay)

These shelter types also divide their services based on the needs of their residents. Emergency shelters often serve people who become immediately homeless, whether by eviction or some other economic shock. Meanwhile, other types of shelters will filter their residents based on specific criteria.

Understanding the difference between housing and shelter is not a game of semantics either. Misunderstanding the two approaches to ending homelessness can dramatically alter how local leaders respond to the issue.

Research by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHA) found that programs that address the root cause of homelessness are more cost-effective than programs that help people after they’ve become homeless.

“Rapid rehousing helps people move from emergency/transitional shelter or on the street into stable housing as fast as possible. It also connects people with supportive, community-based resources that help them maintain housing,” one study concludes.

A study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reaffirmed SAMHA’s findings as well. Over 90 percent of the people who entered HUD’s rapid or transitional housing programs climbed the ladder to stable housing.

To be clear, both housing and shelter are necessary to end homelessness. This is one reason why the Big City Mayors (BCM), a coalition of mayors from California’s 13 largest cities, is asking for a record-setting $4 billion annual war chest to address homelessness in the state. The plan calls for a five-year investment, making the total contribution $20 billion.

“Our bipartisan coalition of large-city mayors know too well the urgency of addressing the homelessness that afflicts 161,000 of our fellow Californians,” San José Mayor and BCM Chair Sam Liccardo said in a statement. “This year’s budget provides California with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to dramatically reduce homelessness – if we can muster the collective courage to stand up for our most vulnerable neighbors.”

Robert Davis

Robert Davis

Robert is a freelance journalist based in Colorado who covers housing, police, and local government.

Related Topics

Your support can create amazing change

Join the campaign to end homelessness by supporting the only newsroom focused solely on the topic of homelessness. Our original reporting — posted five to seven days a week — can also be found on Apple News and Google News. Through storytelling, education, news, and advocacy, we are changing the narrative on homelessness.

Invisible People is a nonprofit organization. We rely on the support of friends like you — people who understand that well-written, carefully researched stories can change minds about this issue. And that’s what leads to true transformation and policy change. Our writers have their fingers on the pulse of homeless communities. Many are formerly or currently homeless themselves. They are the real experts, passionate about ending homelessness. Your support helps us tell the true story of this crisis and solutions that will end it. Your donations help make history by telling the real story of homelessness to inspire tangible actions to end it.

Your donation, big or small, will help bring real change.


Get the Invisible People newsletter


Homeless Man on the Streets of NYC after His Wife Died


Young Homeless Woman Living in RV in Seattle


Homeless Woman Sleeps next to the Street to Avoid Arrest


homeless man in austin



contemplating suicide while living homeless

Is Death Better Than Living in Poverty and Isolation?

tiny home fire

Tiny Home Fire Ravages Village Designed to Shelter Homeless Veterans

why aren't there camping bans on black friday

Tis’ the Season to Selectively Enforce Camping Bans

housing as health care

Health Care Plan Prescribes Housing as a ‘Cure for Homelessness’

Get the Invisible People newsletter