According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, over half a million individuals from every region, family status, gender, and racial/ethnic group in the U.S. experienced homelessness last year. Tragically, this number has been growing in recent years, even before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Solutions to this crisis include rapid rehousing, crisis response systems, and various programs and services. New research reveals that a “culture of care” may be the element distinguishing successful from unsuccessful shelter programs, paving a new road to ending homelessness.
Organizational culture has been a topic of study in psychology for over 50 years. Known as an organization’s “corporate personality,” organizational culture includes the organization’s values, beliefs, and norms. Organizational cultures can be team-oriented or task-oriented, innovative or conventional—all of which have different implications for member well-being and success. However, scant research has examined the culture of shelters serving people experiencing homelessness.
What little we do know about shelter cultures is unsettling. They have been described as dehumanizing and overly-controlling, like “prisons” (DeWard & Moe, 2010), as well as chaotic and difficult to navigate (Davis-Berman, 2011). Shelter participants also describe being stereotyped and talked down to by shelter staff (Reppond & Bullock, 2020). Under these conditions, it is not surprising that many individuals avoid shelters entirely.
A culture of care
However, not all shelters ignore the dignity of residents. In fact, at one shelter for women and children experiencing homelessness, program graduates are thriving. Lotus House , in Miami, Florida, is one of the largest women’s shelters in the U.S., sheltering over 490 women, youth, and children nightly. Lotus House employs evidence-based, trauma-informed practices and innovative and holistic approaches, and over 80 percent of graduates successfully exit Lotus House.
In recent years, Lotus House has partnered with researchers at Florida International University to conduct community-based, service-driven research to better understand and address the needs of women experiencing homelessness. Recent community‐based participatory research on guest experiences at Lotus House revealed that its culture is different from that of other shelters. Specifically, analyses with 50 diverse women graduates in eight focus groups revealed a “culture of care” from within the organization ( Eaton et al., 2021 ). This “culture of care” was comprised of six elements:
This aspect was defined as shelter leadership and staff having authentic and transparent interpersonal motives that were non-transactional.
2. Space to rest and recover
This was defined as the institution providing sufficient space and time for program participants to heal.
3. Expectations for independence and accountability
This was defined as leadership and staff holding program participants to high but achievable standards. article continues after advertisement
4. Being treated with dignity and respect
This meant that leadership and staff treated program participants with respect and humanity.
5. Individualized attention and care
This was defined as staff providing one-on-one support to program participants.
6. Community orientation
This was defined as program participants feeling included and part of a community.
These six elements resulted in participants describing the shelter as a “sisterhood,” a “sanctuary,” and a “home.” Importantly, this culture supported program participants in healing from trauma and returning to lives of independence and civic participation. The results from this study are being used by Lotus House staff to continue to deliver identified service strengths. Advocates for individuals experiencing homelessness can use this open access research to draw attention to the dual need for enhanced services at shelters across the nation, alongside the creation and maintenance of supportive cultures.
Creating a “culture of care” in homeless shelters appears to be a viable and transferable means to increase program participants’ success and well-being. Service organizations of varying kinds may benefit from applying these principles in their communications, policies, programming, and environment. While this may require additional efforts to select and train employees, the potential benefits of a “culture of care” likely outweigh the costs. In the case of the homelessness epidemic, we owe our fellow community members nothing less.
Original Article: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/power-women-relationships/202105/changing-how-we-treat-homelessness-culture-care