Conceptualizing Optimum Homeless Shelter Service Delivery: The Interconnection between Programming, Community, and the Built Environment

Article by Jennifer L. Robinson and Stephen W. Baron;Published in the Canadian Journal of Urban Research (CJUR), Summer 2007. Volume 16, Issue 1; p 53-75. A copy of the journal is available in the ESPC Resource Library.

Article Reviewed by Anette Kinley in October 2008 Research Update


When it comes to homeless shelters, the interconnected factors of service delivery characteristics, community relationships and physical environment are crucial to success. The results of this Calgary-based study show that all three factors need to be considered when planning the development or expansion of homeless shelters.

The first factor, service delivery characteristics, includes elements such as: breadth of programming, effective management and attention to client dignity and safety. In terms of community relationships, some elements that help to ensure success include: correcting misperceptions about homelessness and shelters, increasing community involvement in the shelter (fostering a sense of ownership), and developing a role for shelters in the local economy.

Finally, elements of the physical environment that have an impact on shelter success include: good architectural ‘fit’ of the shelter in the community, smaller shelter size/client volume, accessibility of location and proximity to other services, and limited impact on public use of the surrounding area.

The three factors are inextricably interconnected. If, for example, the physical space around the shelter is not orderly or well-maintained, the community�s perception of the shelter is more likely to be negative, and will prevent community engagement and relationship-building.

While the article brings to light many important factors to be considered in shelter planning, it does not fully explore some of the issues discussed. In particular, the conflict between the goals of 1) increasing public awareness and understanding of homelessness and 2) increasing the public�s sense of comfort and safety. While the article states that the first goal is furthered by the visibility of homelessness, it recommends concealing the unpleasant aspects of homelessness to achieve the second goal. The failure of the authors to explore such contradictions leaves a number of crucial questions left unanswered.

The article is based on the results of a study conducted from 2006 to 2008 to inform the redevelopment of a homeless shelter in Calgary. The study involved interviews with 50 North American and UK experts in homeless services and urban planning and design.

The Summer 2007 edition of the CJUR features numerous other articles on the topic of homelessness. Articles offer insight into: street youth, health, public opinion, long-term research and causes of homelessness.


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