What Is the Difference Between Housing and Shelter?

BY Robert Davis

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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:

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:

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

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