It all began with bedbugs. Running an emergency shelter for homeless families coming from a dense, urban residential environment requires one to be something of an expert on how to avoid these cunning creatures, how to destroy them and, if they are spotted, how to manage the panic that arises among those living and working in tight spaces. Still, we had reached our wits’ end, exhausted by the emotional toil of waging war against a tiny insect. We needed help.
We reached out to numerous likely sources for assistance. Hotel operators had some insights, but their advice did not quite fit the bill as we struggled without their financial resources. Those running student dormitories knew how to manage a limited budget but could not understand our client population. Exterminators knew how to fumigate but could not appreciate how one more relocation or loss of control and dignity would affect a family already experiencing the trauma of homelessness. Public health officials suggested we close rooms for extended periods of time, not mindful that every shuttered room is a family left on the street or in an abandoned building.
We felt isolated in our struggles and needed help from those who would understand — about bed bugs – but, also, more importantly, about all that we were dealing with as a shelter provider. Indeed, operating a homeless shelter is akin to running a hospital emergency room as we must devote extreme attention to the immediate crises before us. We knew there were other shelters in New Jersey with expertise with whom we should consult. What we did not have was an established way to connect and share and learn from one another.
So, on an unusually snowy morning in November 2018, representatives from shelters from across New Jersey convened at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation headquarters for a daylong meeting organized by the NJ Coalition to End Homelessness. It was a test, of sorts. If given the chance, would shelter providers find there was value in gathering and sharing information with like-minded individuals? The answer was a resounding YES! Even with snow, dozens of homeless shelter and service providers showed up. People representing forty homeless agencies of all sizes and type came from all over New Jersey.
We found advice on bedbugs of course, but also much more. At this first gathering, we learned from one another about various policies, solutions and programs being implemented in different counties across the state. We discussed unique challenges of running a shelter; how to support staff working in difficult situations, trends in opioid use and treatment, and the effect that increases in the minimum wage would have on the provision of shelter. We shared common concerns of always needing more funding, seeking qualified staff, and trying to find time and resources to offer meaningful professional development while still running what, on most days, feels like an emergency room.
We shared time-sensitive updates on pending homeless support legislation that will have a major impact on how shelter is offered in our state. We organized into committees to focus on funding challenges, rural county issues, legislative advocacy, understanding statewide standards, and issues regarding the regional Continuum of Care committees tasked with coordinating homeless services.
After just hours of discussion, it was apparent that maintaining a shelter provider network could yield meaningful benefits, not just for providers, but more importantly for families and individuals we exist to serve. All agreed that converting this one-time meeting into a new statewide shelter providers’ association, where we would continue to meet and collaborate, is of utmost importance for addressing overwhelming issues confronting NJ shelters. Some of the proposed objectives of such a collaborative network would include the following:
• Establishing a staff training collaborative to maximize scarce resources
• Sharing critical new literature and research on best practices
• Developing opportunities for collective purchasing and online forums for collaboration
• Developing peer-to-peer networks and sub-committees for all staff levels and topics
• Analyzing, disseminating & responding to critical legislative/government policy proposals
• Coordinating and leading advocacy efforts on behalf of clients and shelter providers
• Sharing updates on availability of in-kind goods and donated professional services
• Establishing a strategic plan to address state-wide shelter provider issues