Shelter is a human right and emergency shelters are a vital element of the public health infrastructure. When designed and operated using both preventive medicine and social work best practices, emergency shelters are uniquely situated to promote the health and wellness of individuals accessing services as well as the surrounding community.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that emergency shelters play a critically important role in a community’s public health and need to be smaller, wide open, ensure a welcoming and calm environment, and be staffed by social work professionals.
Elena’s Way will be a new, best practice 24/7 Wellness Shelter, like the highly successful shelter operated by Preble Street at the University of Southern Maine Sullivan Gym in summer 2020. The Elena’s Way Wellness Shelter will be located at 5 Portland Street and is scheduled to be open in fall 2022.
Informed by a response to the COVID-19 emergency, Elena’s Way will be an ongoing part of the solution to homelessness and will provide warmth, safety, and intensive services to 40 people of all genders experiencing homelessness and complex health and behavioral issues who cannot access any other shelter.
What is a Wellness Shelter?
A Wellness Shelter is a 24-hour, service-inclusive, and trauma-informed emergency shelter for individuals experiencing homelessness that is grounded in social work and medical best practices. A Wellness Shelter provides a therapeutic environment for those accessing services to heal, rest, and stabilize as they connect with trained social work staff to pursue casework goals related to housing, healthcare, employment, and community integration.
A Healing Environment: Through shelter design and operational policies and procedures, a Wellness Shelter aims to create a healthy, therapeutic, and trauma-informed environment. In addition to yielding improved casework outcomes for those that access services, research has shown that the behaviors of mental health and substance use disorders can be reduced or eliminated in an environment that is healing and restorative.
Personal Space: Created in consultation with medical experts, the layout, design, and operational workflows of a Wellness Shelter maximize personal space. High ceilings and general spaciousness provide a sense of calm and quiet that is atypical of traditional shelter settings. Social distancing is incorporated into all aspects of shelter design and beds are at least six feet apart. This space not only mitigates the spread of contagious diseases, like COVID-19, but also positively impacts emotional health.
Comprehensive Services: Professional casework, meals, laundry, storage, and mail are all offered on-site, maximizing the ability of those accessing services to stay within the program and reducing the need for unnecessary trips to-and-from the shelter to meet basic needs. This is not only beneficial from a preventative medicine standpoint, but also promotes opportunities for rest and healing among a population that is significantly more prone to physical and mental health conditions. Collaborations with mental health, substance use, and medical providers are actively pursued, and these caregivers are welcomed into the shelter setting and invited to “meet people where they’re at.”
Empowerment: A Wellness Shelter promotes individual agency, offering opportunities for choices that empower those accessing services to be the decision-makers about how to best meet their needs. Unlike traditional shelter environments, a Wellness Shelter provides access to beds at all hours of the day, allowing individuals to rest whenever needed. Similarly, nutritious food is always available, promoting choice and minimizing the need for lines or crowding. These operational plans are created intentionally to negate the common theme within homeless services where those who access resources are forced to compete for limited supplies.
Professional Social Work Staff: All shelter staff are trained in social work assessment and use established social work best practices in their approaches, interactions, and interventions. The principles of harm reduction, client-centered care, and strengths-based social work are essential tools for staff and critical to establishing the trauma-informed and therapeutic environment distinctive of a Wellness Shelter. This helps to mitigate behavioral issues related to mental health and substance use disorders and allows individuals who may not access or succeed in traditional shelter environments to achieve stability in a Wellness Shelter setting.
Behind the struggles faced by many of the people Preble Street serves are fundamentally broken mental health and shelter systems. Living in high-stress situations on the streets or in crowded shelters with limited access to treatment makes people experiencing homelessness particularly vulnerable to chronic mental health issues and co-occurring substance use disorders. Earlier this month,
By Sam Chamberlain (he/him), Managing Director of Preble Street Quarantine Shelters Note: With funding from MaineHousing, Preble Street operated a Quarantine & Isolation (Q&I) Shelter in Scarborough from May 2020 through March 31, 2022. Because of decreased need, the state consolidated this service to Lewiston as of April 1, 2022. As social workers — and
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