Unintended Consequences

Unintended Consequences

When a plan is not well thought out unintended consequences may result.   Examples of this are easily found in the homelessness industry.   Some consequences cannot be foreseen.  But, most can be with enough effort.

First, necessity speaks and that gives people a goal to shoot for.  A plan is developed to reach that goal, but focus is so heavily placed on achieving the goal that potential collateral damage is overlooked   People then react to the “next” problem in an endless cycle of problem solving.

Instead, people need to think more about preventing problems.   Being a “problem solver” may be a good skill to possess, but wouldn’t it be better to be a “problem preventer”?

To me, unintended consequences happen most often in the homelessness industry, perhaps because experts in homelessness industry don’t really exist. In an industry devoid of experts, the workers fumble about, making one mistake after another.  Sure, there exist so called “experts” in homelessness,  but only because they have more experience in the field than other people.  Yet experience alone does not make someone an expert.

As the saying goes, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”.

So many unintended consequences befall the homelessness industry that I could not possibly list all of them here.   So, lets talk about one of the worst issues – violence.

Not responding properly to violence is perhaps the biggest faux pas in the homelessness industry.  You can find a great variety of violent acts in the homeless environment, from attempted murder to simple bullying, but the vast majority of it is plain ol’ school yard type fist fights.  I don’t say this to scare anyone – the fear of violence is much more prevalent in the homeless environment than actual occurrences.   Still, if the homelessness industry responded properly to violence,  even the fear of it would be defused.

Nearly all incidents of violence could be prevented if facilities changed how they operated their facilities.  Yet it seems that the more shelters attempt to control the violence, the worse the violence becomes.

Control seems to be at the heart of the matter.  Homeless people don’t always, or perhaps don’t usually, behave the way that non-homeless people will.  Shelter administrators and others see this different behavior as a potential threat and they respond by attempting to exert control over the behavior – namely in the form of rules – so to motivate the homeless to behave in a more acceptable manner.

The number of rules that homeless people must follow in shelters is truly extraordinary.   When asked why they don’t like staying at a shelter, most homeless people will say it’s because the shelter is violent and that it has too many rules.  To an outsider this would seem silly, but outsiders are just not aware of how big of a problem the excessive list of rules has become.  From the safety of their living room easy chair they certainly cannot see the correlation of the two – rules and violence.  (Also, it happens that some shelter employees will just make rules as they go,  for their own convenience.  Getting in trouble for breaking a rule that people were not aware of is common in shelters. )

The attempt to control the behavior of homeless people, by way of layer upon layer of rules, usually exacerbates the behavior problem.  Living homeless is, in itself, a very stressful situation.  Add to that all the demands placed on the homeless by shelter administrators and security and the stress becomes too much.   The homeless react, often by lashing out at others.

Wherever shelter staff is properly trained on how to defuse potential violent situations, and when the homeless are not overly burdened with attempts to control their every move, facilities become a haven of peace, instead of a hostile environment.

I can’t tell you how many fights I’ve seen while standing in line, waiting for a meal or bed assignment.   If instead of adding more security guards to watch over those standing in line, the administration changed the way it delivered it services so that the homeless didn’t have to wait for hours in countless lines for the things they need, then there would be no violence in those lines.

In the shelter I am now staying in, there is an 8pm bed check.   At 8pm everyone is supposed to be on their bunks.  If someone does not return to their bunk at 8pm, then that bunk is assigned to someone else who is waiting to get in.  It is a simple process and does not take very long.   For the first several months that I lived in the shelter, the bed check never took longer than a half hour.   But recently, the staff has decided to preform more of their administrative duties while the homeless are sequestered on their racks.   These days it takes the staff an hour and a 1/2 to complete the bed check.   That is just too long for many of the homeless to be restricted to their bunks.   Once an hour has passed, the homeless become restless, agitated.  Arguments erupt.   And like last night, there was an fist fight and one homeless person was kicked out of the shelter for it.   If the shelter had not taken so long with the bed count there wouldn’t have been a fight and this guy would still be sheltered.  His chances of escaping homelessness are now much worse.  He has regular employment so he was on his way to being independent again.  Keeping that job is going to be much tougher now, sleeping on sidewalks.

If you work in a homeless shelter, you have to ask yourself, does the shelter help people overcome homelessness, or does it make matters worse.


About Kevin Barbieux

I have been diagnosed as being chronically homeless. I write about my experiences and opinions of being homeless
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