Emergency Response vs. Prevention: Shelter Staff Perspectives on Shelter Effectiveness

Raising the Roof
September 13, 2018

This blog post is part of our series which highlights sessions of the 2018 National Conference on Ending Homelessness. Hear Jenny Lam speak on Monday, November 5th at 1:30 PM. Learn more about this upcoming conference presented by CAEH. 


As Talley and Timmer eloquently put it, “If we intend to address homelessness, we must not allow ourselves to mistake another problem – the creation of a dependent and controlled client population in the shelter system – for the solution.” According to the literature on homelessness, the current response to homelessness heavily relies on the provision of emergency services, such as shelters, day programs, and soup kitchens. In recent years, however, there has been a shift towards thinking about the prevention of homelessness. 

Homelessness prevention is not only humane, it is also cost-effective. Studies have found that individuals who are experiencing homelessness typically have higher levels of healthcare usage, and consequently incur higher healthcare costs. Additionally, approximately $350,000 can be saved within the criminal justice system each time an individual is prevented from being homeless.

Evidence undoubtedly exists to support the argument for preventing rather than responding to homelessness. However, is academic evidence enough to promote this widespread shift towards prevention? In an attempt to answer this question, I turn to shelter staff – those directly working in shelters and operating on the opposite end of the prevention spectrum – to understand their views on shelters and its role in addressing homelessness. 

At this year’s CAEH conference, I will present the results of this qualitative research project, which explores frontline shelter staff’s perspectives on the use of shelters – an emergency response – as a strategy in addressing homelessness. This qualitative study was conducted with 13 frontline shelter staff working in adult shelters across Toronto, Canada. 

This session will be of most interest to the frontline staff, as well as other professionals in the homelessness sector who are working to prevent homelessness. This research illustrates that the efforts to prevent homelessness does not exclude those working in emergency response roles. Overall, findings from this study will inform homelessness prevention stakeholders on the steps needed to promote a cross-sectoral shift towards prevention. 

To learn more about this study, please attend this session within the COH stream. I am very excited to be taking part in this conference for the first time as both an attendee and a presenter, and I look forward to seeing everyone there!

Jenny Lam is currently the Project Manager of Community Initiatives at Raising the Roof where she overlooks the organization’s homelessness prevention initiatives, such as The Upstream Project. With a curiosity in the field of homelessness, she catered her Masters of Disaster and Emergency Management degree to focus on the ‘social disaster’ of homelessness. This ‘disaster’ lens has led her to explore the emergency versus preventative response to homelessness.

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The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.