NCFY Reports

Low-threshold Shelters: A First Step Toward Improving Well-being

It’s 8:45 p.m. in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago, and two dozen youth have gathered for the nightly lottery to get a bed at The Crib, a shelter that serves homeless young people.

The Crib is a “low threshold” shelter, which means it doesn’t require referrals or identification to stay there, and it has few rules for its residents. Open from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. to people between 18 and 24 years old, the 20-bed shelter has operated at capacity since it opened last January, having to turn away youth every night.

Though they might not know it, the young people on queue are waiting for more than a clean place to sleep and get a hot meal. By making it easy for youth to enter and receive services, low-threshold shelters like The Crib offer more than the basics. Their supporters, including Jennifer Ho, deputy director at the federal government’s United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, say these shelters can help youth take a first step toward enhanced well-being, laying a foundation on which they can build.

“Low-threshold shelters offer things that youth can say ‘yes’ to,” Ho says. Things like a less-structured approach, positive interactions with caring adults, and links to other services as youth—who often have profound needs—are ready to accept them.

Starting with the Basics

A good night’s sleep can make a world of difference. Paul Hamann, president of The Night Ministry, which runs The Crib,hears from youth service providers at other Chicago organizations that the shelter helps young people follow through with their case plans. When a youth sits down with a case manager or a counselor, and he slept on the street the night before, he’s not going to be able to participate fully in that session.

But when youth are well-rested and well-fed (the shelter also provides bagged lunches that youth can take with them in the morning), they’re less anxious and better able to focus on their goals.

A Less Structured Approach

“Most homeless youth can’t go from the street to a highly structured setting with the flip of a switch,” says Hamann.

Some homeless youth simply reject the rules and requirements of traditional group shelter programs. Others are unable to access them because entry requirements—like being able to follow through with a case management plan—seem unfeasible, especially to those with overwhelming mental health or substance abuse issues.

The Crib focuses on moving young people off the streets. It provides access to knowledgeable and caring adults, a sense of stability and some degree of structure with regular schedules and chores. The idea is to help young people improve their well-being by preparing them to be helped first.

“We provide as much structure as possible while also realizing that too much can be a challenge for some youth,” Hamann says. The Crib provides these youth a place to sleep, shower, get a hot meal, do laundry and talk to someone who can help.

Young man studying.A Range of Opportunities

The low-threshold model provides a number of opportunities to help youth move toward well-being and more permanent housing, Hamann says.

Dinners are served family-style and youth often spend time, after dinner and before bed, sitting at the tables talking with each other and with staff about their day. Youth play board games, draw, journal and participate in group discussions or activities, like yoga. Some youth are in school, Hamann says, and the shelter gives them a quiet space to do homework.

“They have social connectedness here, with staff and other youth. And while it may not be permanent, youth begin to see that those permanent connections are possible,” says Hamann.

Staff also provide referrals to other services in the community, like health care and mental health and substance abuse counseling.

Their positive interactions with The Crib staff and the chance to see what’s possible help youth prepare to accept needed services, Hamann says.

“The Crib acts as a bridge for a lot of youth. They become aware of and gain access to a lot of services that they never knew existed for them,” he says. Services that help young people move one step closer toward health, happiness and a sense of well-being.

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