Shelters provide people with a place to sleep when they are without a usual place of nighttime abode and are seeking a respite from the elements. In the homeless service system, shelters offer a temporary reprieve for those who may be able to return to stable housing in a matter of days, and they are a first step in the continuum of care for those whose path to permanent housing may be long term.
Shelters vary considerably in size, admission criteria (some adult shelters are single-gender), length of stay (there are no time limits on length of stay in New York City shelters, but in some locales the length of stay is limited to 90 days or fewer), the types of accommodations, and services provided. Shelters typically offer three meals a day and shower and laundry facilities. In some cities, there are specialized shelters for people with mental illness that have on-site services for health, mental health, substance abuse treatment, employment training, and case management. Shelters typically have curfews, prohibit the possession of weapons, and forbid abusive or assaultive behavior. Some do not allow the use or possession of drugs and alcohol. Some may require that shelter guests help with menial chores.
In response to criticisms of 30 years ago that shelters were overcrowded, oppressive (Lipton & Sabatini, 1984), dangerous (Hopper et al., 1982), and similar to the worst of the nineteenth-century almshouses (Lipton & Sabatini, 1984, p. 161), emergency shelter programs in receipt of public funding must meet specific health, safety, and quality standards. Despite such measures, some street-dwelling homeless people eschew shelters, voicing complaints reminiscent of those heard in the 1980s. In terms of cost, shelters are an adequate response to an immediate housing crisis for most individuals, but they are an expensive long-term solution compared to permanent housing (Spellman et al., 2010).