Local community engagement: implications for youth shelter and support services.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Community development (Research)
Homeless shelters (Research)
Authors: Walsh, Christine A.
Shier, Micheal L.
Graham, John R.
Pub Date: 12/22/2010
Publication: Name: Canadian Journal of Urban Research Publisher: Institute of Urban Studies Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Institute of Urban Studies ISSN: 1188-3774
Issue: Date: Winter, 2010 Source Volume: 19 Source Issue: 2
Topic: Event Code: 310 Science & research
Product: SIC Code: 8361 Residential care
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Canada; United Kingdom; United States Geographic Code: 1CANA Canada; 4EUUK United Kingdom; 1USA United States
Accession Number: 254482911
Full Text: Abstract

This article identifies factors that contribute to the success of youth shelter and support programs. In 2006 seventeen exemplary youth shelters were visited in Canada (n=9), United Kingdom (n=2), and United States (n=6). Data was collected through one-to-one interviews with shelter administrators. The findings demonstrate that community relationships are integral to the success of youth shelter services. Being responsive to the surrounding environment is essential to useful shelter and support services.

Keywords: youth, shelter services, homeless, community, built environment, social work


Cet article identifie les facteurs qui contribuent au succes des refuges pour les jeunes (youth shelter) et des services pour cette population cible. Notre etude est basee sur l'evaluation de donnees recueillies au sein de dix-sept refuges de jeunesse, soit neuf refuges au Canada, deux en Grande-Bretagne, et six refuges aux Etats-Unis au cours de l'annee 2006. Les donnes ont ete recueillies a partir d'interviews individuelles avec les administrateurs des services des refuges de jeunesse. Les resultats demontrent que l'integration communautaire est une donnee importante pour le succes des services du refuge de jeunesse.

Mots cles: centre de refuge pour les jeunes, sans-abris, jeune itinerant, travailleur social


There are myriad external factors (those factors beyond the individual) that impact successful shelter service delivery or the experiences of people accessing those services. Most research identifies programming (see for example: Delany & Fletcher 1994; Ferguson & Islam 2008; Wong, Park, & Nemon 2006), the structural risk factors that result in homelessness (both political and economic) (see for example: Blau 1992; Ji 2006; Karabanow 2004a), or specific characteristics of the homeless population (see for example: Karabanow 2004b; Lehmann, Kass, Drake, & Nichols 2007). Shelter management practices, methods of interaction between shelter staff and shelter guests, or risk factors leading to homelessness (like domestic violence, mental illness, and poverty) become the primary areas of consideration when conceptualizing effective shelter service delivery. Shelter operators tend to focus primarily on these issues (see for example: Kidd, Miner, Walker, & Davidson 2007) and, as a result, the external environment becomes narrowly defined as those conditions of the political-economic structure (e.g. social policy) or the individualized lived experiences (i.e. personal issues) of people that result in them becoming homeless.

This is similarly the case for literature and research on shelter services for youth homelessness. For example, literature on successful youth homelessness service delivery also tends to focus on the best ways to offer service (Milburn, Rosenthal, & Rotheram-Borus 2005; Slesnick, Meyers, Meade, & Segelken 2000), how to measure outcomes of service delivery (Thompson, Pollio, Constantine, Reid, & Nebitt 2002), individually based factors that lend to these outcomes (Thompson, Safyer, & Pollio 2001), and effective methods of service delivery that result in positive outcomes (Fors & Jarvis 1995; Pollio, Thompson, Tobias, Reid, & Spitznagel 2006; Teare, et al., 1994). Within these discussions, the impact of the external environment on successful service delivery is minimally explored, and is primarily only referred to as a contributing factor resulting in youth homelessness (amongst other individually defined factors). Alternatively, we utilized a distinct interdisciplinary approach, combining social work and environmental design scholars following 'People and Place' theories and methods (Graham, Walsh, & Shier 2009). People and Place perspectives within social work theory allows for a consideration of factors within the physical environment that can impact a person's social situation (Schriver 2004). The research is based on the following questions: what factors in the external environment have the greatest impact on youth service delivery success; how do these factors relate to each other; and, what are the implications for youth shelter and support programs? Through our data we are able to gain some answers to these questions and develop a model describing the implications of community relationships on successful shelter services for youth.

Literature Review

Literature on successful programming for youth experiencing homelessness has shown that aspects of service delivery can influence successful outcomes. For example, faith intersects with service delivery (Ferguson, Dortbach, Dyrness, Dabir, & Spruijt-Metz 2008) and clinical intervention is necessary to address some of the individually focused causes of homelessness (see for example: Prestopnik 2005; Thompson, Zittel-Palamara, & Maccio 2004). Furthermore, research on homeless youth has sought to better understand sexual behaviors of homeless adolescents (Greenblatt & Robertson 1993), patterns of drug use and needle sharing among street involved youth (Kipke, Unger, Palmer, & Edgington 1996), and mental health issues experienced by homeless youth generally (Kennedy 1991) to gain an understanding of the potential needs and risks of youth experiencing homelessness. While important, this scholarship focuses primarily on treatment and outcomes along with the individual issues or patterns that shelters should be addressing with programming. It provides little insight into factors beyond service delivery within the shelter that, as is argued here, also impact outcomes and homeless youth experiences.

This then leads to the need to identify variables that intersect with service delivery for youth experiencing homelessness beyond structural risk factors. In relation to human service organizations, generally, community collaboration has been found to affect service delivery (Jones, Crook, & Webb 2008). Furthermore, local/community based responses help to define shelter services; the characteristics and needs of homeless youth, for example, in one community varies from that in another (Thompson, Maquin, & Pollio 2003). Youth experiencing homelessness prefer to see a community as inviting, attractive, and safe; shelters in such communities stand a better chance of successful service delivery (Karabanow 2003). Insight, though, into what specific aspects of community collaboration have the greatest impact on service delivery is limited (Waegemakers-Schiff 2004), and in particular how community collaboration relates to successful shelter and support service for youth experiencing homelessness.

The relationship between a service organization and its physical environment has also been identified as important (Harmett & Harding 2005). Youth shelter service providers note that both size and geographic location of the shelter structure have an impact on pathways out of homelessness (Brooks, Milburn, Rotheram-Borus, & Witkin 2004). Physical environments influence perceptions of people and places--including how those experiencing homelessness are perceived (Cresswell 1997; Harmett & Harding 2005; Sibley 1995).

The present research analysed these three factors--i.e, community, physical environment, and service delivery--and their relationship to shelters that are considered successful examples of physical design (see: Graham, Walsh, & Sandalack 2008; Shier, Walsh, & Graham 2007). We were particularly interested in how the three factors intersect, and thus contribute to a youth shelter's mandate, and what aspects within the community and physical environments influence service delivery. Using key informants and non-purposive snowball sampling, we identified 17 youth shelters in Canada, United Kingdom, and United States that are exemplary in their physical design (Graham, Walsh, & Shier 2009, Walsh, Graham, & Shier 2009). We examined each shelter's physical environment and interviewed shelter operators.


The following data analysis is based on a cohort of youth shelters from a larger study that sought to identify the characteristics of successful and unsuccessful precedents of homeless shelter service delivery (Walsh, Graham, & Shier 2009). A total of 60 shelter service providers were interviewed for this research project, with 17 of those being operators of youth shelters. A shelter is understood to be any social service program with a primary mandate to provide direct lodging support in response to a person being homeless. The data collected from these youth shelter operators was utilized in dissemination of the larger study but provide useful insight specifically about successful youth shelter service delivery; as their needs and delivery methods differ from other populations. In particular, the relationship between the shelter and the surrounding community was highlighted more within this segment. This offers a clearer conceptual framework for understanding the implications of community relationships of shelter success. The data being presented here was collected only from those participants who were in a senior management position within a youth shelter. These participants were selected as it was assumed they would be the most aware of those issues within the surrounding community that had the greatest impact on the social service programs and outcomes.

The 17 youth shelters in which data was collected represented shelters in Canada (n=9), United Kingdom (n=2), and United States (n=6). The sites of the shelters were, to some degree, residential (nine were in wholly residential areas and eight were in mixed residential and service/commercial areas). The style of the shelters varied. Seven of the shelters were houses, six others represented a treatment facility or group home model (5 of these were single room occupancy, and one was double room occupancy). One of the shelters was apartment style (a large 100+ occupant building that acted as transitional and supportive housing for youth requiring longer stays), and three were dormitory style shelters (2 permanent and one for emergency relief).

The population sizes for services offered at a specific time was, for the majority (n=9), under ten occupants. Four of the shelters offered service to between 10 and 20 occupants at one time, two between 20 and 30, one between 30 and 40, and one provided shelter to 100+ occupants. Also, there was diversity based on the focus of youth within the shelters reviewed for this study. For example, one shelter was for children under 12 years of age, the remaining defined youth somewhere between the ages of 16 and 24. Also two provided services specifically to gay and lesbian youth and another specifically to transgendered youth. Like these shelters, services were targeted to meet the needs of specific populations of youth. Other shelters provided services specifically to youth needing addictions or mental health support and those requiring support with pregnancy and parenting.

Data collection utilized standard ethnographic techniques (Holstein & Gubrium 1995), employing a dialogical interview process (Stewart 1998). A member of the research team conducted interviews in person (n= 14) or over the telephone (n=3), and notes were taken throughout the interview process. Following a semistructured open-ended interview guide respondents were asked questions that sought to identify perceptions of safety, shelter fit within community, and the characteristics and conditions that support their perception of an 'ideal' agency. For example, respondents were asked: "what are your thoughts on how this agency fits well within the community and what features do not"; "what aspects of this shelter contribute to peoples' sense of safety"; "what is the ideal social agency"; and "what needs to be done to make the present agency ideal"? Within each of these questions respondents were probed to relate answers to the built environment, relationships with community members, and to characteristics of their own service delivery.

Data was analyzed using analytic induction and constant comparison strategies (see Goetz & Lecompte 1984; Glasser & Strauss 1967) to detect patterns within the researcher field notes, within and between participant responses related to the characteristics of an ideal social agency, community fit, and perceptions of safety. Specifically, the researchers read through all the field notes with the objective of identifying common themes, after which the themes were then coded and data were searched for instances of the same/similar phenomenon. Finally, following this process data was then translated into working hypotheses that were refined until all instances of contradictions, similarities, and differences were explained (thus increasing the dependability and consistency of the findings). All members of the research team collaboratively worked on this stage of research to maintain the credibility criteria of the study. The themes from the interviews with these 17 youth shelter operators demonstrate the role of community relationships, the built environment, and service delivery on the success of the shelter. A final section describes the interrelationship between the themes.


Community Relationships

Community relationships were a significant factor contributing to the success of the youth shelter according to the interview respondents. Specifically, respondents identified the importance of creating an environment in which the shelter patrons felt as though they were a part of the community or neighbourhood. Many respondents described this as being connected with public perceptions and "Not in my backyard" attitudes held by other community members. To rectify this, many shelters identified the need for "good neighbour" policies--where curfews would be instated and rules around loitering and illegal substance use would be enforced.

Beyond programming aspects of community relationships, respondents attributed some success to their ability to get the community involved in the shelter. Some respondents suggested that being able to identify what the project is and how the project can support the aims of the community was a useful tool to engage with community members; essentially resulting in them "buying" into the shelter project as a viable, vibrant community member. Many respondents identified that this was accomplished through ongoing education and public consultation efforts with community or neighbourhood members and stakeholders.

A focus of these discussions, described by shelter operators, was around identifying the particular needs of a youth population, the effectiveness of their service delivery model, and the role of the community in meeting those needs. Within many shelters there are age cutoffs which preclude youth from accessing services; this is both to protect their inherent vulnerability and their unique needs. Demonstrating these vulnerabilities and needs to the community was helpful from the perspective of shelter operators in facilitating the community 'buying into' many of the youth shelter and support projects involved in this study. Furthermore, some shelter operators described the need to demonstrate to local neighbourhoods how they serve to model for youth the transition to being community members themselves.

Built Environment

Aspects of the built environment, internal and external to the shelter, were also identified by respondents as impacting the overall success of their shelter service. With regard to the external environment, respondents identified the need to consider the style of the shelter facility. Some shelters were larger group home type settings, but the congruency of the physical building resembled that of surrounding houses. In fact, all the shelters were consistently designed to "fit in" with their surrounding community--whether they resembled an old Victorian style house or large residential apartment building. Furthermore, landscaping and other design features (things related to entrances and privacy) were also factors to consider. Fencing provided an outlet to offer service outside of the residence and created a sense of privacy for residents of the shelter. There were also connections with social markers, like signage. The shelter operators interviewed were aware of the positive and negative aspects of having signage on or around their properties. It is important to consider the face of the organization being presented outwards to the community in a very physical sense. Also, like shelters for domestic violence, signage and other aspects of the physical building were reported by respondents as having an impact on the safety of youth.

Respondents also identified internal built environment factors to consider. An example is sleeping arrangements that were created. Most youth shelters in this study provided single room occupancy or bedroom type sleeping and living arrangements. Some recognized that this was important to give a sense of belonging in the residence and made comparisons to the drop-in and communal living models of service delivery as being less effective in promoting a sense of 'home'. Creating a home like environment was a significant component of success for the youth shelter operators interviewed in this study--and was much more important within these 17 interviews than it was as an emergent theme from the collection of interviews from the larger study. Does this fulfill the role of 'parent/family' in the typically developmental transition from living at home to living independently as an adult? Further insight is needed to explore this concept and how it is manifested in a physical and social sense within shelters and what the implications are for transitioning to permanent housing.

Finally, respondents identified that the internal physical environment in relation to the concepts of privacy and ownership are necessary to consider when determining the size of the shelter. Many of the shelters in this study offered services to less than 10 occupants, but larger shelters were also successful by maintaining variations of these internal physical dynamics.

Service Delivery

There are multiple factors related to service delivery that shelter operators identified as contributing to their overall success. For example, with youth shelter and support services, several respondents described the need to offer services that were tailored to meet a particular need. Youth coming to a shelter have different needs and experience a diverse range of pathways to becoming homeless and unique trajectories from homelessness. Recognizing these needs and offering services that were not all-encompassing or generically only providing shelter support, were identified by shelter operators as necessary. From a service delivery perspective, the benefits of offering tailored services would allow an organization to specialize in particular areas of skill development; utilizing practices that have been demonstrated within the literature (from both an empirical and experiential perspective) to contribute to positive or desired outcomes with particular groups of youth.

Being able to offer tailored services had further implications for the shelter and support services framework utilized by service providers. Many respondents described how offering targeted services based on population or group (i.e. personal characteristics like sexual orientation, gender, or ability), health issues (i.e. mental health or addictions), or pathways to being homeless (which would include an overlap of these aforementioned characteristics) contributed to the way in which service providers engaged and intervened with the youth temporarily living in the residence. For example many described a framework in which the shelter was considered to be a temporary home of the youth. One aspect of this relates to the use of support models to help resolve some of the issues that lead to homelessness. This is individually focused, of course, but being responsive to those individually rooted needs is necessary when thinking about shelter success for homeless youth.

Interconnection Between Community, Built Environment, and Service Delivery

These findings demonstrate that shelter success is defined in part by an interaction between the shelter service delivery model, the surrounding community, and the built environment. For example, respondents identified how aspects related to the built environment, like the positioning of doorways and signage, was linked to attitudes towards client dignity and respect. Also, the physical design and space of shelters impacted greatly where, and the manner in which, programming was offered. With regard to community relationships, policies (e.g. neighbuorhood interaction policies) and programs (e.g. community barbeques) were instituted in many youth shelters that facilitated positive interactions between the shelter, shelter staff, and shelter residents, with other members of their community.

Furthermore, respondents identified the need to appeal to community members. One of the questions that comes out of this research is how do we get the community to 'buy in'? Many respondents suggested the need to consult with community members and appeal to them for the need of their service. One way to do this, identified by respondents, was through offering tailored services that meet specific population needs. For example, some respondents described the need to offer services for gay and lesbian youth who have left their parental residence; as this was a population migrating to a particular community in San Diego. Likewise, other respondents offered tailored services specifically for youth experiencing mental illness because this was an issue with which the community was able to identify. What happens, though, when we offer tailored services? The benefits, as respondents pointed out, exceeded meeting specific, or targeted client needs, but it also provides opportunity to address particular pathways in and out of homelessness, helps promote dignity and respect for clients, and can create home and community environments for the shelter and the residents of the shelter. This then brings into question aspects of the built environment to consider; in particular, factors such as structural and design congruency, size, and location of programming.


Overall, the findings are clear that reaching out to the community was the link between all three factors and shelter success. For example, some of the findings illustrated the relationship between shelter design and size and community congruency; this in turn affected the perceptions of other community members in general. There were links between service and community; respondents, for example, demonstrated the need to engage youth in the community through 'good neighbour' policies (e.g. determining appropriate space for gathering and interacting, and enforcing rules around behavior that detracts from the perception of community safety) and community enhancement activities (e.g. helping neighbours with yard work and cleaning up streets). Within each of these discussions between service and community there are also points related to the physical and built environment that can be extracted. For example, how space is managed for service delivery (i.e. counseling or addictions treatment, training or educational programs etc.) or home related activities (socializing, entertainment, recreation, cooking, sleeping etc.). Each contributes to the success of the shelter in relation to service delivery, but the physical space of where these activities occur impacts relationships with community. A further example is signage. Making clients feel as if they are a part of the community for some respondents meant that there was no signage. This also has implications for perceived dignity of clients and the right to privacy and the overall impact of the shelter on the surrounding neighborhood and the safety of people staying in the shelter.

Through discussion we can begin to understand the complexity of this relationship between success and the multitude of factors that can contribute to success; along with the significance of understanding ways to develop positive community relationships. To understand this overlap it is useful to conceptualize a framework illustrating the intersectionality of these multiple factors. The following (Figure 1) provides a beginning point to consider incorporating community relationships in the development or redevelopment of shelters for youth. Based on the findings from this study we suggest that a three part framework be considered around the themes of localized service needs, connecting to community, and maintaining community role.

Localized service needs refer to three overlapping categories of needs, that are community needs, neighbourhood needs, and client needs. Connecting with community requires an appraisal of the presenting needs of the community. Is there an immediate and demonstrated need for this service in that location or in that local environment? If so, how can that need be demonstrated? Some shelter operators demonstrated the relationship between stable residential living and pathways from homelessness, others illustrated transient patterns into particular localities (for example, gay and lesbian youth going to gay and lesbian districts or communities within cities), as defining the need for a shelter service in a community.

From this it becomes seemingly important to determine what the experiences are between community and youth homelessness and this requires a consideration of the perspectives of all stakeholders within a particular locality. Likewise, neighbourhood and client needs are necessary to consider. How does that particular shelter meet identified client needs, and how can that then be translated to the surrounding neighborhood?

After the identification of localized needs, connecting with the neighbourhood community is a next step. For respondents in this study, this was accomplished through education and advocacy (i.e. consultation and meetings), the built environment (i.e. congruency, design, landscaping, and location of services), and service delivery characteristics (i.e. approaches taken by staff members and the level of dignity afforded to clients).

Finally, respondents recommended the need to also maintain community role. The shelter itself is a part of the neighbourhood and acts as a member of that local community. This is necessary to recognize and understand roles and responsibilities within communities. This can be conceptualized in three main ways: by being conscious of neighbours (i.e. sound levels, loitering, garbage, swearing, and shelter staff parking etc.); through service delivery approaches that help to 'normalize' services (i.e. offering service in a manner that replicates residence or 'home'); and by making positive neighbourhood contributions (i.e. engaging with neighbours, picking up garbage, promoting neighbourhood interactions and cohesion).


Following multiple aspects of this model contributed greatly to the success of the shelters in this study within the communities they were located. Besides demonstrating the link between each of these three factors and their integral role of developing community relationships for shelter success, the research provides evidence of reasoning why this is so important to consider. For example, there are inherent issues of social justice and social action involved with following a framework which focuses on developing and maintaining community relationships. Advocacy efforts and public education were significant for many shelter administrators to begin to break down some of the barriers and challenges that are created for service delivery when communities are in opposition to the services being offered. Some respondents identified how they were not welcome at first into their present community but through practices of engagement with community members, as captured in this model, they were able to make positive strides in their service delivery. For example, following a standard shelter service model that only considers the service delivery aspect by placing emphasis wholly on the service--not on other aspects such as providing a temporary home or helping people to feel like they belong to a community--recognizes people only as service users. In contrast, following models like the one proposed here results in programming that is empowering for youth and targeted based on their particular needs, and helps to facilitate positive approaches of interaction with the youth in the shelters; internally within the shelter through service delivery arrangements and externally to the shelter through inclusion within the community.

It is important to note that this model is not representative of literature describing community integration (see for example: Gulcur, Tsemberis, Stefancic, & Greenwood 2007; Wong, Metzendorf, & Min 2006). Community integration literature primarily focuses on the networks and social supports that individuals have in their communities; and tends to be measured by experiences of isolation (Carling 1990). Service providers, though, are not usually conceptualized within discussions of community integration, and it is widely assumed that they are facilitators of community integration for marginalized or isolated individuals. Research demonstrating the success of community integration is sparse. The model developed from this research seeks to move away from the individualized focus of community integration models and begins to recognize the impact of the immediate local context on service delivery success. The model acts as a conceptual tool in which youth shelter and support service organizations can begin to think about how their services are impacted by their local external environment (i.e. community and built environment dynamics), and what measures they can/ should undertake to promote successful services for their client populations.


The research has several implications for service delivery with youth experiencing homelessness. At the outset it provides a framework in which newly developing shelters and redeveloping shelters can follow to create strong ties to their local communities. There is ground work, of course. Communities of practice need to be considered before approaching the community with the proposed shelter plan--does the shelter meet the needs of this community? And, alternatively, does the community meet the needs of the shelter? These questions can be answered in several ways--in relation to programming, with regard to the physical congruency of the built shelter, or with reference to the cultural and social needs of the community where the shelter is or is to be located. Some shelters faced opposition when they moved into their present community, and others faced opposition later in the shelter's history. How those relationships were negotiated was significant for the overall success of the shelter, and, for some, aided in understanding appropriate and effective ways with engaging youth.

While we tackled some of these systemic (i.e. public and community perception) and built environment (i.e. location and design) issues impacting service delivery of homeless youth and provide a more holistic appraisal of the situation of youth homeless service delivery, we find that these issues need to be further conceptualized in relation to the experiences of youth that are homeless. Experiences identified in the literature relate to vulnerabilities (Berzin 2008; Shane 1991; Waiters 1999), self-concept or identity (Hyde 2005; Karabanow 2006; Miner 1991), experience or satisfaction with shelter stays (De Rosa, et al. 1999, Peled, Spiro, & Dekel 2005), the experiences with other systems (like child welfare, health care, or juvenile justice systems) (see for example: Park, Metraux, & Culhane 2005; Thompson, Zittel-Palamara, & Forehand 2005), and personal development issues like adjustment, coping, and stress reduction (Dalton & Pakenham 2002). Further research is needed to explore how strong community relationships interact with these other experiences of homeless youth.

Furthermore, more information is needed to understand pathways to and transitions from homelessness. While shelter operators are challenged to provide meaningful and tailored services they also need to know specifically what they are seeking to address. One size fits all models of service delivery do not work beginning to recognize the barriers placed on shelter success from community relationships and dynamics acts as an important starting point to get to a situation where shelter services can be offered in a less stigmatizing and socially degrading manner. People should not be made to feel inferior because they no longer have a place to call 'home.' Instead, as shelter operators interviewed in this study illustrated, we can create temporary 'home' for these youth in transition to home by engaging more effectively with the local community.


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Christine A. Walsh

Micheal L. Shier

John R. Graham

Faculty of Social Work University of Calgary
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