Ending homelessness starts by deleting the term “service resistant”

By Robert Bowery, Director of Clinical Services, Compass Housing Alliance

There is a phrase that often comes up in conversations about homelessness: individuals who are “service resistant.” When I hear this, I shudder. Not only is this completely unfair, it reveals a lack of understanding of the real needs of homeless individuals. So as we aim to tackle this crisis, which has an ever expanding footprint in our region, we need to rethink how we do it.

We need to ask the question: Are we ending homelessness, or are we perpetuating it?

This is a tough question. So let’s start with some simple truths, like acknowledging that someone who is homeless is someone like us. This is someone who has relationships—a girlfriend, boyfriend, partner, wife, or husband. They may have a pet, or two, their four-legged friend and companion that they love. And they too have “stuff,” the dear possessions they are attached to and want to hold on to. And these are all barriers, effectively shutting the door to a homeless person who is seeking shelter.

Now, let’s take the next step, where our paths diverge, and in ways few of us can genuinely appreciate. For a homeless person, each morning brings a daunting struggle to survive. It’s a daily pursuit to simply meeting basic needs: a warm meal, a safe place to stay the night, health care, a shower and toilet. It’s also important to remember that one in three homeless individuals is dealing with mental illness in King County. More still are grappling with substance abuse and chronic health issues or PTSD. And sadly, more than one in 10 is a veteran. They experience harassment, violence, discrimination and alienation. This endless cycle of insecurity, abuse, and being re-traumatized make stability, housing, and employment increasingly challenging goals.

This is the context we need to remember when we hear the term “service resistant.” In no way does it reflect the reality of a homeless person. In many cases, the services we currently offer don’t come close to meeting existing needs. So, collectively, as a network of service providers to the homeless population, we need to rethink our approach and current partnerships if we want to truly address homelessness.

Removing Barriers to Shelter

Here’s the good news. A workable, successful model exists: the 24/7, enhanced shelter model. It gives individuals the opportunity to stay in one place while searching for a permanent solution, rather than returning to the streets each day and hoping for a bed somewhere that night.  Compass Housing Alliance will be adding 100 beds this summer at Seattle First Presbyterian Church. We will accept partners, pets and possessions. Our innovative, person-centric approach to Seattle’s homeless population combines safe shelter, complete wrap-around services and intensive case management. By removing barriers, connecting people to services and helping them navigate the gaps, providing trauma-inform care and moving toward a harm-reduction approach, we can revolutionize the shelter model, which clearly isn’t working. We can truly serve needs of the homeless population and we can—finally—eliminate “service resistant” from the homelessness conversation.