Intentional Communities to Create Shelter for Underserved Vulnerable Populations

“People heal in community.” –Gabor Mate, addiction expert, speaker, and best-selling author

For those of us who want to live in community and do service work, but don’t have the financial means to create it, partnering with government and non-profit organizations to meet the needs of a particular demographic could be the ticket to creating your dream. The following section covers many vulnerable populations that are eligible for public and private grant funding.

You can create a leadership team to operate a co-housing community as a halfway house, safe house, recovery program, or a training site for rehabilitation of prisoners. You can work out the details of governance and getting along, develop staff competencies, and report on projects that show success. If it feels like an exciting opportunity, but beyond your capacity, know that you can build up capacity and bring in consultants to guide you. Here are two examples of how it has been done, first by a group with a shared philosophy providing long term housing and care for those with mental disabilities, as villages. Seasoned communitarian Jan Martin Bang writes of Camphill, a network of ecological villages created in the 1940s by Austrian refugees who coalesced around a philosophy they shared called anthroposophy. They had schools for children with mental handicaps and subsequently developed communities where adults with mental disabilities worked alongside helpful coworkers to support themselves (Bang, 2007, p. 39). Wikipedia shows them present in 27 nations, with 128 separate communities presently. Their movement shows the strength in this model. Bang writes, “In my experience of Camphill, it is those with handicaps who carry a lot of the continuity and stability of the community. By centering our lives around their needs, structures are created…when we coworkers forget, our friends remind us” (p. 106).

A more urban and experimental program provided similar help and residence to those leaving a mental hospital.

A landlord-supervised [cohousing] apartment program—a new type of community residential treatment modality—was developed through the collaborative effort of a state mental hospital, the Massachusetts Department of Public Welfare, and citizens as landlords. The authors make a number of comparisons between this modality and more conventional facilities such as halfway houses, family care homes, nursing or rest homes, and independent apartments or rooming houses. They conclude that in a community such as the one described, this modality appears to be financially and logistically superior to the others. (Chien & Cole, 2006, p. 1).

For most, meeting intense specialized needs would be too daunting, because of all the regulations and academic degrees needed. You could start by operating as a half-way house for a vulnerable population that has already gone thru treatment, or you could partner with a clinical facility while you provide immediate housing for those in more severe need. Later there’s a section on transitioning to long term intentional community for those who aren’t capable of re-integrating into mainstream society or want to remain to work in community.

Why Serve Vulnerable Populations?

The answer to the problem of inequality is for the people who are fortunate enough to either have been gifted or deserved more to do everything they can to make the communities around them as strong as they possibly can. –Jill Stein

Concentration camp survivor Eli Wiesel said, “to be free is important, but to help others be free is even more important” (HappyScribe, 2020, 27:45).

These are some societal benefits of living in groups that share resources and have social bonds including trust.

  • Affords a basic-needs safety network with direct assessment of accountability and competence, as opposed to the government’s one-size-fits-all solutions
  • Can prevent exploitation of the elderly, children, and women by providing additional oversight
  • Provides a supportive context for developing emotional maturity which can increase mental health of one’s children
  • Can lessen numbers of unattached youths living in the streets, seeking belonging with gangs
  • Can alleviate injustice of overcrowded prisons and lack of criminal rehabilitation
  • Can provide a short-term and long-term ability to support and absorb refugees
  • Can alleviate poverty, joblessness, and exploitation of low-wage or low-capacity labor
  • Alleviates isolation, countering an epidemic of loneliness and feeling unvalued, which contributes to exploitation of others
  • Can lessen reliance on escapes and addiction, which often stem from insecurity and inability to cope with constant competitiveness

We can build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at the ground level, where it matters most. This promotes peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development and provides access to justice for all.

Many people who have the strong sense of empathy that drives us to want to help or rescue others, we have our own wounded past. Helping others is one path for healing. It gives us a focus that is productive, where if we self-focus we can spin out in destructive ways. We need to commit to continual emotional healing tho, or we may unknowingly damage those we seek to serve, or ignore our needs and never experience the greater capacities and joy we could find. More about that in the section titled Get Yourself Prepared.

Shelters for Escaping Sex Traffiking

The function of freedom is to free someone else. –Toni Morrison

Human trafficking is a $150 billion industry globally. In fact, the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) 2016 estimate reveals that 40.3 million people were victimized worldwide through modern-day slavery, 5.4 victims per every thousand people in the world. Of these 40.3 million victims in 2016, 29 million were women and girls (72% of total amount).  Almost 5 million in 2016 were victims of forced sexual exploitation globally, with children making up more than 20% of that number.…close to 25 million persons who have been subjected to forced labor worldwide, and 15.4 million in forced marriages. The common thread that binds them together is the loss of freedom. Exact numbers of trafficking victims are difficult to quantitate due to the concealed nature of the rapidly progressing disease and public health emergency. (Toney-Butler et al., 2021, para. 4)

Once entering “the life,” they have a low life expectancy of 7 to 10 years. There are too few resources for giving the traffiked a safe shelter, emotional and physical healing, and an opportunity for a different line of work. Bartman (2020) states that “housing was one of the main impediments for survivors to successfully escape a life of being trafficked” (para. 1). Human traffickers exploit the lack of available beds in youth homeless shelters. They manipulate the young and homeless by telling them that shelters are full. In two studies that covered 13 cities across the United States and Canada, approximately 20% of the homeless youth interviewed were identified as victims of some form of human trafficking (Covenant House, 2021). Toney-Butler et al. (2021) have extensive recommendations for identification, communication, and safety of those recognized as trafficked.

Shelter recommendations. Bartman (2020) recommends separate shelters for various characteristics of trafficked victims, because “There are different issues for juvenile females, men, boys, those with children, and LGBTQ individuals” (para. 3). Recommendations for service can be met in a residential treatment-focused setting:

  • “24/7 drop-in centers are needed that offer services such as medical attention, clothing, food, and peer-counseling, regardless of the day or time” (para. 7).
  • “Immediately provide wrap-around services like counseling, job training, legal, and other services” (para. 9). 
  • Drug rehabilitation is often needed, to prevent the victims from returning to their captors.
  • “Order, rules, and structure along with a comforting homelike environment that comes with supervised transitional housing….Many smaller housing facilities provide a house mother or direct live-in supervision along with other wrap-around services. This approach seems to be the most successful housing model for this population” (para. 11-12).
  • “There are far too many triggers or opportunities for trafficking victims to relapse without the gradual introduction of independence that supervised transitional housing offers….These women desperately need advocates who can help them navigate toward freedom and independence” (para. 11, 15). 
  • “It’s also important for a counselor or case worker to help victims find a community of support with other victims, survivors at this point. By putting the women in contact with a network of other women who were in similar situations, they can share experiences, counsel one another, and help successfully reject the life of human trafficking once and for all” (para. 18).

Shelters for runaways, abused, and trafficked need to have security and be careful of who is allowed to contact residents. Covenant House (2021) is aware of bottoms posing as incoming victims in order to lure out residents.

Bottom: A victim who is chosen by the pimp or trafficker to “handle” the other victims. They may train the new victim, post ads/control social media posts, inflict punishment if rules get broken, and book the “date.” This individual victim may feel tremendous shame and guilt because of her actions and treatment of other victims. The pimp may further control the “bottom” by threatening violence, increased quotas, or reporting her to the authorities. The “bottom” may be required to entice others into servitude by posing as a student, a concerned friend, a mother-figure. (Toney-Butler et al., 2021, sec. Traffiking Lingo)

Many of the residents would thrive if able to remain a community where they won’t feel judged, and they will feel understood, because others experienced the same humiliations. Standard care often transitions vulnerable people from a caring supportive environment back into a harsh lonely life, where they often cannot be self-reliant because of being trafficked at a young age. Let them leave if and when they are ready to. If they don’t want to leave, they can be trained to be the staff in their shelter or another.

U.S. safe houses. Safe House Project (n.d.) states that without a safe place to go when victims of traffiking are identified, 80% of survivors end up being re-trafficked. The Office for Victims of Crime Training and Technical Assistance Center (OVCTTAC, n.d.) under the U.S. Department of Justice states that “finding adequate and appropriate emergency, transitional, and long-term housing is often the biggest service-related challenge that task forces face” (para. 1). Substance abuse and criminal history—for victims forced to commit a criminal act as part of their exploitation—may prohibit their placement with many of the more routine housing options” such as domestic violence shelters, youth shelters, or apartments (para. 4). This source can help you understand how to coordinate with a task force that works to identify, rescue, and seek justice and services for victims of traffiking. Your services might include a caseworker who helps manage legal services, partnering with a number of psychologists who have experience with the population, and a house manager who lives on site. You might choose a location close to law enforcement, or have on staff a security guard. Study the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), and help the authorities comply with law by partnering to provide the services they are required to fund. In the past 3 years, Safe House Project (n.d.) has granted new or expanding safe house programs over $400,000.

Canada safe houses. A report by YWCA Halifax (2019) identified only eight shelters for victims of trafficking in all of Canada. Length of stay in each program ranged from 8 months to 2 years; “service providers, law enforcement, and survivors advocated for a minimum length of stay of at least 18 months to provide sufficient time to build trust with service users, provide therapies to address trauma, and begin rebuilding their lives” (p. 6). The length of stay is important, but combined these facilities offer only 118 shelter placements at any one time. CBC (2019) stated that altho the federal government said it invested $14.5 million last year to set up a multi-lingual, 24-hour emergency hotline for victims of human trafficking, in 200 languages, because many victims are foreigners kept vulnerable by their inability to communicate. Yet due to the limited facilities, callers get put on a wait list, which can take a year to get in. Hotel rooms are sometimes offered, but these placements are not secure nor do they have psychological support services. YWCA Halifax (2019) states that traffikers tell their victims that there is no room in the shelters, and it is true. According to the Government of Canada (2020), the hotline was an investment prior to the $19 million to be administered by two federal departments responsible for the implementation of the 5-year National Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking. Police services in Canada have reported 1,708 incidents of human trafficking since 2009 (Cotter, 2020), which suggests approximately 190 cases per year based on the year reported on. Clearly there is a need for more facilities. YWCA Halifax (2019) has 14 pages of best practices to guide providers working with this population (see references section for URL).

Resources: Stories of trafficked women are on Youtube and https://dl.bookfunnel.com/ocvbp8gyva

Elevate Academy is an online school for survivors of human trafficking: https://elevate-academy.org

Shelters for Refugees

Human rights activists and refugees are groups that could be supported with caseworkers who speak the language of the served group. As newcomers, they need ongoing support to learn a language and become established in a new nation. Just as immigrant groups have tended to congregate in neighborhoods, intentional communities can help foreigners become resources to each other, sharing tips for navigating their new location and seeking comfort in the familiarity of a shared home culture and language.

Shelters for Unsupported Youth

Unsupported youth need close supervision by supportive adults, continued education or skill-building opportunities, and therapeutic services. They would crave independence and opportunities for physically and emotionally close relations. They should be supported in the highest level of freedom and responsibility that they show the capacity to manage well. These children need scaffolding and long-term mentoring. Once they are helped to transition to life as a young adult, they still need a place to come home to restart if opportunities fall apart. They still need a place to come visit and feel like family. An important consideration for serving minors is that all members of your team, and anyone on site who is a legal adult, will need to pass background checks.

Runaway tweens and teens.  The U.S. Department of Justice calculated that there were 628,900 runaway or “thrownaway” children in a 1-year period (Sedlak, 2002). Covenant House has decades of experience offering shelter to children and is a good model to follow. Partnering with or joining their organization could be the fast track to setting up an additional facility.

Sarnoff (2021), Executive Director of The Alliance to Rescue Victims of Trafficking, lists several factors that contribute to victimization, including the following:

The greater percentage of child victims do not have a home, refuge, or friend to stay with if they decide to escape. This predicament forces them to stay with their perpetrator rather than risk homelessness. In 2013, according to MissingKids.com, one in seven runaways was endangered in the United States and likely to be trafficked for sex. These are staggering figures yet despite the current statistics the United States does not provide government funding to house child victims. The government’s current solutions when addressing the lack of safe houses for survivors is to place the child victim in foster care or shelters, both unacceptable answers since each is incapable of providing rescue and rehabilitative programs. (sec. Why?)

Sarnoff claims that a former U.S. government official explained that vulnerable children cost too much to maintain. It is past time to re-examine spending priorities.

Aged-out foster teens. Each year approximately 20,000 foster children in the United States will “age out” and become economically responsible for themselves. Those who had supportive family members who could care for them would not have been counted in this category. How many unsupported 18-year-olds in our current economy, with maybe a job as a grocery or convenience store clerk, have a chance of making a decent life for themselves or even paying rent and utilities? The following numbers are likely distorted because of the numbers that weren’t reachable after leaving the foster care system, who were likely worse off than those that remained in contact. Only 65% nationally reported graduating from high school or getting a GED. By age 21, 29% in the United States reported having experienced homelessness, and in some states over 50% (U.S. Department of Human Services, 2018). Fortunately, there are Supervised Independent Living (SIL) programs for voluntary Extended Foster Care placement, where youth 16 and older can live on their own under a supervised independent living setting. They still receive case management and support services provided by a DFPS contracted provider to help them become independent and self-sufficient.

Foster kids. The Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition (2019) explains that the two options currently available for most placements are generous but inadequately trained families or group homes, an institutionalized setting. I’ve worked as a foster care caseworker and I’ve worked in a group home for the children with more challenging behaviors. The group homes are challenged by high turnover. Similarly, the Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition explains that only 40% of families continue after the first year because they usually don’t get the optimal level of training and support. An intentional community of foster parents could be an ideal solution for increasing foster parent longevity. With a variety of supportive adults available, foster families would have more flexibility. When there is not an ideal fit between a caregiver and child’s temperament. There might be a better fit found within the community, and a replacement could be made with less disruption for the child’s routine and new relationships. The Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition recommends involving family members in the child’s life. A community setting can be a safe and comfortable way to do this. Instead of the visiting family members being in the strange context of visiting their children in someone else’s home, group settings such as meals or game time could be more conducive to relaxed play, with plenty of supportive adults to assist if an awkward or dangerous situation were to develop. To get started, it may seem less intimidating to offer respite care, in which you would house children for limited periods of time, possibly as short as a weekend, to give regular foster parents a chance to travel to visit distant family, for example. This is a huge need that supports the success of their long-term care. There is still some remuneration. That is not the reason most foster parents open their homes, but it does help make the inconveniences feel more acceptable.

The stipend for fostering is not large. The stipend for fostering more challenging children—with the expectation of more time expenditure—is larger and could offer an adequate support for a full-time foster caregiver, if cost of living is low, offset by shared resources. A group of foster parents having specialized training could adequately meet some special needs without the licensures and specialized degrees that would be needed to create an institutional setting, because the clinical services would be outsourced by the state agency.

Shelters for the Chronically Homeless

With millions spent on cleaning up homeless camps each year, at least some of that funding could be diverted into resolving the core issue of homelessness, rather than focusing on symptom management. With city regulations preventing the building of substandard housing, the number of housing projects needed is affordable. Also, with both residential neighborhoods and business districts objecting to homeless projects near them, tiny home villages may be easier to place in semi-rural or industrial areas. It’s important not to be overly optimistic nor too pessimistic. There are many challenges with the homeless population, but they also develop their own norms as a subculture. They don’t live in chaos, tho it may appear so.

Utah found that it cost less to house the homeless than pay for the law enforcement and emergency room visits for the homeless. They were only able to get the votes to proceed with the free or subsidized housing by the stipulation that residents had to pay for the housing by a percentage of any wages. Upsides of such projects are fewer homeless in and out of jail, fewer makeshift tents on the sidewalks, less violence among the homeless, and decreased litter in the streets. We have increasing homelessness in the United States.

Portland Oregon has long had a serious homeless problem, and it has increased in recent years. If you park where it’s not well lit, it is not uncommon to have a car window broken by someone just looking for some change. Along with tiny home villages, I heard from a local—but couldn’t locate any documentation—the city is also trying use of an outdoor facility away from town where homeless people can set up camps without having to keep moving. They have their basic necessities provided for and can take day trips by bus back into town if they keep up good behavior. Those who don’t have good behavior are at a distance that would keep them from meandering back into town. It’s easier to sit and play cards.

Heben (2018), author of The Village Collaborative and Tent City Urbanism, has lived in tent villages and helped establish several tiny home neighborhoods in Oregon. He is now project director for Square One Villages. He believes that the ecovillage movement can help address the housing shortage and ecological sustainability simultaneously.

Occupy Madison, in Wisconsin, received pandemic-related funding in 2020 for the tiny homes project that had been in slow progress since January of 2013. They had the management structure in place and pre-established relationships with city officials, so they were able to get temporary zoning and move into action quickly, with 700 volunteers working over 3 months to get 34 “huts” built before the coldest weather set in. They largely used donated and repurposed materials, and appliances from Re-Store, run by Habitat for Humanity. They set the huts around a repurposed building, renovated to have 8 showers, 4 washers and dryers, and a non-commercial kitchen (T. Jones, personal communication, March 23, 2021). The website occupymadisoninc.com shows features of the upgraded tiny homes that are intended to eventually replace the huts. It also describes the process for applying for a tiny home, which includes keeping rules and working as a volunteer on the project to earn equity hours. There is also a how-to page with advice for starting a similar project in your own community. <seeking permission for use of their description

Zoning and building regulations have been one of the most challenging issues for tiny home plans. One group overcame this challenge by creating a contract with an indigenous tribe, whose sovereignty of government does not allow local government to restrict their building types.

Persuading funders and policy-makers. Altho a different section discusses general principles for seeking funding, the issue of homeless ness needs particular finesse. When most think of a typical homeless person, they think of the segment of society that is either (a) incapable of supporting themselves, because of mental illness or mental deficiency, or (b) unwilling to work, preferring to dumpster dive, beg, or steal. These are the long-term homeless, vagrants, that haven’t been reachable with existing support systems. They are by many not seen as victims of the system but more as predators and freeloaders. It is helpful to emphasize to funders how your plans benefit the public, who want to be free of litter and panhandling on their streets.

Fiscal conservatives may like this setup as long as it doesn’t require new government funding. Suggest diverting some resources that are a less useful allocation into your more helpful program. Libertarian-leaning officials especially will like that residents have to help build their own house. A libertarian may say it’s a business owner’s job to get rid of the loiterers, but it’s not an acceptable solution to taze or threaten them. Passersby don’t want to see that either. That’s bad for business too. Frame your project as a benefit to law-abiding citizens by making streets safer. Make the accommodations very basic in order to serve a greater number and to allow the residents to take responsibility for their own improvements. 

Allowing for vices. The homeless want the freedom to set up and sleep where there are resources, whether from petty theft or panhandling. The homeless also want freedom from theft of their stuff and from violence. Some homeless will want to continue panhandling to afford cigarettes and drugs. Homeless villages could be designated as allowing or disallowing these products to be sold and used on site, and those wanting cannabis could be helped to get their medical permission to buy it if their state allows.

Layout of the facility. One problem the homeless have is other homeless stealing their stuff. If there are dorms for new residents who will assist with building their hut or tiny home, they need lockers in a common area where they can be monitored to prevent break-ins. Residents can help make the facilities affordable. For example, start with zero-tech composting toilets if your state laws allow. Many websites show low-maintenance designs that keep odors minimal by tossing in sawdust after a deposit. You can super-insulate the tiny homes, face windows south for passive solar heating, and have skylights. Residents can buy their own solar electric chargers for electronics. Facility vegetable gardens can be tended by residents. An orchard area, or even a couple of fruit trees, is ideal for chickens to live under because they eat any fallen fruit. 

Recommended reading on this topic: https://www.squareonevillages.org/tent-city-urbanism

Program for veterans “The Road Back from Hell” by Mark Goulston, suicide prevention expert

Shelters for the Newly Homeless

It would be good to start with the most newly homeless who haven’t adjusted to life on the streets. A priority would be families with children who don’t have extended family as a backup; they will be seen as a funding priority. The newly homeless who have jobs or school should have first access to transitional housing that allows them to stay close to their current neighborhood.

There are women who want to parent but aren’t fully capable of doing so independently. Often the state gives custody to capable family members who can supervise visits with a parent. Otherwise, in adoption outside the family, children are completely cut off from their parents. It is considered best for the children and the adoptive parents. While this is certainly the case sometimes, it should not be the default. An intentional community setting would allow a parent in crisis, without capable family placements for the children and/or parent, to have support in child-raising so they can maintain a parenting role, even if partially. This prevents a traumatic separation that can devastate both parent and child. Some would say this would enable bad parents to shirk their duties; however, emphasize to potential funders that the best interests of the child are a priority here. This would give child protection caseworkers another alternative as they navigate policy and difficult decisions.

Shelters for Homeless with Moderate Mental Illness

Mental health challenges are common with the homeless. Substance abuse is often a symptom of chronic anxiety or depression, and can lead to more severe mental illness. Rumination and apathy can immobilize. Without the capacity to numb when drugs and alcohol aren’t available, despair may come out in violent ways that can be difficult to manage. For residents with substantial addiction, it’s important to accept new residents only after they’ve been to rehab or sober from jail.

There are some who struggle to cope with the physical and emotional demands of modern life who in a community setting can thrive, as noted in the following description:

And the only place I could find was this boarding house—this is in Durham, North Carolina—that was also a halfway house for where the state government would pay for people who had been released from mental institutions and were on their way back into the real world….I’ve been in a bunch of other situations like that, and you would think that people were really struggling mentally, but in fact, the people in this halfway house, we used to hang out in the kitchen and talk all night long, were among the smartest people that I ever met and the funniest and the most interesting. And what I concluded from hanging out with them and from others in a similar situation was that they weren’t crazy at all, that they were actually the smart people who had seen through the bullshit and because of that, they couldn’t function in the world. They couldn’t hold a job because they just couldn’t take the bullshit, and that was how they wound up in institutions, because the greater society thot, “Well these people are absolute rejects. They can’t fit in.” But in fact to my mind, they were actually the people that really saw through everything. So in a way, I felt bad when I had to leave this house, because I liked the people so much. (Pressfield, as cited in Ferriss, 2021, para. 21)

Kerouac (1976) too wrote, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding” (p. 5). A tiny home village could invite in those colorful social misfits willing to take on chores that pay them minimally, enuf for their cigarettes and such, or could take part in a community business.

Film directors Baksh and Thomson (2019) describe a community consisting of formerly institutionalized patients that thrive as farm and factory workers who produce 1.4 million high quality packaged yogurts per week.

The workers at La Fageda yoghurt co-operative suffer from schizophrenia, depression, and compulsive behaviour disorder.…Before they came to La Fageda they were locked up in an asylum, drugged up with no productive activities at all….The fact that they now have productive lives, earn a living, have hobbies, have even got married is due to the far-sightedness of one man: Cristobal Colon. He was a psychiatrist at an asylum, but he believed that this was the wrong way to treat mental illness, so he resigned. Amazingly he got permission to take a bus load of patients with him.…Yoghurt Utopia is about Colon’s determined struggle to realise his radical vision of alternative care for the severely disabled by integrating the wildly individual idiosyncrasies of the workers into a successful business and into society. (para. 1-4)

While you may not have the requisite credentials to manage a psychiatric facility, partnering with a psychiatric facility could allow you to provide long-term care for those whose condition can be managed well with medication. Colon’s facility has professionals that offer as-needed mental health support to the residents/workers.

Half-way Houses After Substance Abuse Treatment

While there are many good facilities available, most are privately run and costly. Recovering addicts may have had their substance abuse rehabilitation and transition housing paid for by private insurance or government funded health care, but may have drained any private or family funds to make up the cost difference. To qualify for the most support possible for ongoing support during transition, it may be useful to focus on a subgroup such as women with children in foster care, in order to help moms successfully meet their requirements to receive their children back to their care. By developing a relationship with your local state department for foster care, you could get referrals for clients who do not have family members who can offer the ongoing support and who are motivated to maintain sobriety.

Half-way Houses After Prison

Charles Eisenstein describes the importance of work like the Compassion Prison Project and the Compassion Trauma Circles available to the public:

She does this work in prisons. Her film is called Step Into the Circle … She’s helping these men release themselves from shame and from self-judgment, and this profound healing that’s happening. If that doesn’t happen, then there is no more beautiful world possible.… We can’t hope that is going to change from the top, that the system is going to change without a … corresponding healing in every member of society, which doesn’t mean that we ignore systems change and only work on our personal healing, only do work in the prisons, only do work in the slums, only do work with the traumatized and so forth, but it means that when you’re orienting toward what is your work, valorize that work as much as any political work. (Rebel Wisdom, 2020, 1:00:55)

Finding housing and employment are daunting challenges for ex convicts. Understandably, they are usually rejected after background checks. Some feel a continued life of crime is the only way to support themselves. Three-quarters of them are rearrested within 5 years of their release (Li, 2018). Li notes that for housing challenges specifically, most leave prison with limited finances to secure an apartment, face strict housing policies against renting to people with criminal records, and are ineligibile for public housing. Access to affordable housing options and lenient policies can help support their transition back into their respective communities and is an important factor in recidivism prevention (Li, 2018). Police admit they can’t control drug crime; they say they need more social services available (Gladwell, 2019).

This would be a challenging but loyal population to work with, loyal because they have so few other options. A possible good placement for ex convicts long term would be as unarmed security officers to team up with an existing security official at communities serving other vulnerable populations. This type of placement could give them an opportunity to perform valuable service that they may be well suited to, and to be respected as a member of a community.

The U.S. Department of Justice (2004) prepared a step-by-step guide for groups planning to develop housing for ex-offenders, including two case studies. They recommend the following:

  • Understand the collateral support services available in your community so that you can develop a coordinated strategy with other providers.
  • Avoid duplicating services, as that puts you in competition for funds and other limited resources.
  • Develop a demonstration project to serve the ex-offender population at another step in its reentry.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD; U.S. Department of Justice, 2004) suggests a skills training component, by which residents could work to expand the number of units available by rehabilitating abandoned housing that may already belong to the city. HUD states, “The construction industry is one of the most willing segments of the economy to hire ex-offenders” (p. 5).

Transitioning to Self-reliance and Long-term Intentional Community

For all types of shelters and half-way houses, when a resident reaches a point of sufficient stability there ideally would be intentional communities to transition to. Long term communities could have fewer restrictions for high-functioning people who (a) prefer to maintain a community lifestyle and are able to take on increased responsibilities or (b) are likely to need a small degree of lifetime support.

Altho there are many domestic violence shelters, these typically provide only 10 days of shelter. If you have interest in serving this population, setting up a long term housing for a specific subgroup may be the most useful. For example, by targeting a specific language or age demographic, your program could provide commonalities that enhance residents’ support of each other and enable additional funding streams to be accessed for the hiring of services specific to their needs, including trauma recovery, job training, and child care during job searches. You could be a resource to short-term shelters by informing them when space becomes available.

Different shelter communities could be open to certain groups with common interests and specific needs: families, LGTBQ+, religious preferences, cannabis or no, the elderly who need nursing staff, or the immune compromised who need strict policies about visitors. This size of community can be self-policing. There’s accountability based on reputation, unlike the anonymity of the city that allows for constant finding of new victims, new dupes.

Staying urban. It may be a valuable model for the village to transition itself from a therapeutic facility into cohousing or cooperative housing (see definitions section). A set of residents in treatment may reach a point where the majority of members can support themselves financially by taking over some functions the support staff used to perform. They could find housing as a group, nearby the shelter or half-way house. In this way, residents benefit from staying with other residents they have grown to trust, along with maintaining specific rules and procedures they have helped design. The therapists and other support staff can move on to serve in the same way at a new facility, while maintaining some professional functions with the original community, to maintain licensure. See the Intentional Communities section.

Going suburban or rural. Group self-sufficiency becomes a huge value when it comes to providing for populations that otherwise the government and taxpayers have to support. For people who don’t have the capacity or desire to take on local jobs, or where there are too few jobs for the applicants, some degree of subsistence-level low-tech farming makes sense. Even if in a suburban setting only fruit trees, gardens, and chickens are allowed, this would give residents potentially enjoyable work. Grant applications for this kind of long-term residential facility should emphasize the numbers of identified individuals who can contribute to their own care and whose farming work improves their health, thus alleviating another public cost. See the Small-scale Farming section and Ecovillages section.

The Need for Affordable Housing

People have been savaged by a predatory economic and political system. –Jill Stein

There are many residential units or entire buildings bought up as investments—sometimes by foreigners—that remain uninhabited. It drives up housing costs. Those who talk about bootstrapping it often have a privileged background and deny that others didn’t get an even start. The rising wealth gap stands to increase the challenge of affordable housing.

There are reportedly thousands of law-abiding capable U.S. citizens living out of their cars while holding jobs, as documented in several Youtube videos. There are mothers denied child support while unable to find adequate childcare so they can work, and who live too far from where they can access public welfare services without transportation. There are war vets who make up a large portion of the chronically homeless, but Stasha (2021) reports that over the past decade, this demographic has received much funding and attention.

If you don’t have a particular passion for helping a specific population, you could simply create low-income housing and hand-pick the communitarians who will team up with you to create your co-operative housing. Simply as a local example that it is possible, you would be doing a public service.

Resource: SG Blocks, a premier designer and fabricator of stackable structures from re-used steel shipping containers. These are affordable, certified as an approved building material, and much more durable than current construction types. See sgblocks.com

Schooling for Children

A place designated for families has to be a good place for children. If attending local schools is unworkable or too unsettling, children would benefit from a teacher and tutor to guide them in their studies. Connect with home-schooling or self-design schooling in your area. There are excellent free online resources such as Kahn Academy that match lessons to skills expected at various grade levels. Care.com is a good source for finding tutors and people qualified for and interested in childcare. This site and some other services provide background checks.

Management of Intentional Community for Vulnerable Populations

We have a choice to be present. We have a choice to write new endings, even for storylines we didn’t start. We don’t need to be powerful insiders before we show up for others living on the outside. We can serve and maybe no one will notice, but we can still act in love. In fact we must, and when we do we are made new. –Morgan Harper Nichols

A key to intentional communities working as a rehabilitative solution is that they wouldn’t be facilities managed by a government bureaucracy. They would be self-managed, possibly as a network of small intentional communities, possibly with staff hired by a non-profit organization. Residents too would have responsibilities. Rather than allowing residents to apply for a role within the community, some communities insist they be nominated by others. Residents could get time banked hours for jobs. The minimum requirements prior to receiving any pay would be a good record of attendance at governance council meetings and therapeutic groups. Residents wouldn’t have to participate actively in these, but they would be expected to show up and not disrupt. It would be important to start small, set the culture well, and add new residents gradually. Consider keeping the shelters gender-specific to avoid drama. It’s important to allow for time to mend, without the distraction of hooking up.

For effective self-governance, cap it at the Dunbar number of 150 to include residents and staff. Larger than that, any type of consensus decision-making may be unworkable. Rural communities far from services could include someone trained in first aid, a general financial manager and accountant, a building and grounds manager, a human resources person who is also a therapist and mediator, a government liaison who can write grants, a general manager who is the public face and coordinates timing of visits and meetings, a security guard, a teacher if it’s a family facility, and a kitchen manager.

Depending on severity of needs, staff numbers would vary. In a larger community, pod managers could be available to groups of 10. With oversight, residents could almost completely staff the facility.

Work and Training

The right-wingers don’t want to admit that for some people, there are no jobs; they think that conscientiousness in and of itself will do the trick. –Jill Stein

Training that could be observation-based include building maintenance, common space use, schedule coordination, event facilitation, communication technology and library materials management, marketing, gardening, and waste management. Access to certification programs could benefit both the facility and the residents, should they choose to later bring those skills to the workplace. Relatively low-cost trainings that could be brought onsite or taught by qualified permanent staff include childcare, commercial food preparation, and first responder medic.

Any of the projects of housing for vulnerable populations could be more successful at meeting residents needs by incorporating a training program. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development helped develop the following program.

Funding and supervision for the training program may be available through the local Workforce Development Council. These councils operate in every locality throughout the country. They receive Federal funds for these programs to help people gain marketable skills that lead to employment and self-sufficiency. These funds originate in the U.S. Department of Labor, go through each State government, and then to the local councils. They can be helpful in a number of ways with training programs. Don’t overlook vocational and technical schools and labor unions in your area. They can help you design a curriculum and identify instructors. Labor unions, especially through their apprenticeship programs, may be an excellent partner in your efforts to develop a skills-training program. (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2004, p. 5)

Resources for Funding

In a society where the good is defined in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, there must always be some group of people who, through systematized oppression, can be made to feel surplus, to occupy the place of the dehumanized inferior. —Audre Lorde

Before discussing the financial side of social services, I want to deflect some criticism. I imagine someone will protest that it isn’t right to see vulnerable populations as a potential gravy train. Agreed. That isn’t what I’m promoting. Obviously most people can find quicker and easier ways to make money, especially if they have the kind of energy and conscientiousness it takes to make a successful startup. What I would like to get across is that there are ways to support ourselves and our families while engaging in noble work. We don’t have to give up our idealism. The work I’m describing could be a good fit for those who identify with some combination of the following:

  • You have a genuine impulse to better the human condition, especially if you want to help people in a particular set of difficult circumstances.
  • You are making ends meet but don’t have extra to donate to causes.
  • You feel stuck in the rat race where your work isn’t creating real value, just making money for someone while offering something comparatively trivial.
  • For whatever reason you have difficulty keeping employment or just feel more secure or happy being your own boss.
  • You want to be active and not stuck behind a desk.
  • You can’t tolerate most work cultures and want to create a collaborative engaged one.
  • You want to create a context where community and social engagement can thrive.
  • You see the importance of developing group self-sufficiency to get thru economically insecure times. 

Much grant funding is available only to certified non-profits. Rather than going thru the process of gaining non-profit status, or as you wait for your application to be processed, you might partner with or work under the umbrella of a values-aligned nonprofit to receive grant funding. Donating or selling surplus property or furnishings at a very low price is an incentive if businesses can get a tax write-off. As a non-profit or partner of one, you can get lots of recently-expired foods.

Camphill in Norway, a community serving people with mental disabilities, is strong financially, “having negotiated a pretty secure arrangement with the government department responsible for the handicapped” (Bang, 2007, p. 181). The U.S. Department of Justice (2004) guide for developing housing mentions the following types of funding buckets. These would be useful search terms to combine with the name of your state.

  • Continuum of care programs
  • Emergency shelter grants
  • Supportive housing program
  • Shelter plus care (for hard-to-serve homeless people with disabilities in connection with supportive services funded from other sources)
  • Moderate rehabilitation for single room occupancy dwellings
  • State housing finance agencies

Resources: The app Bulk can help you locate bulk food retailers near you. Many small food retailers are willing to special order in bulk and pass on some of the savings.

Kiva is a microcredit lender that similarly allows for crowd-sourced low-interest loans to small businesses.

References

Baksh, D., & Thomson, A. (Directors). (2019). Yogurt utopia. https://www.globalhealthfilm.org/resources/46-yoghurt-utopia-2019

Bang, J. M. (2007). Growing eco-communities: Practical ways to create sustainability. Floris Books

Bartman, C. S. (2020). Challenges of finding housing for human trafficking victims. https://inpublicsafety.com/2020/01/challenges-of-finding-housing-for-human-trafficking-victims/

CBC News. (2019). A huge gap: Shelter space lacking for human trafficking victims in Ottawa. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/human-trafficking-ottawa-lack-housing-1.5182085CBC (2019)

Chien, C.-P., & Cole, J. O. (2006). Landlord-supervised cooperative apartments: A new modality for community-based treatment. American Journal of Psychiatry. https://doi.org/10.1176/ajp.130.2.156

Cotter, A. (2020). Trafficking in persons in Canada, 2018. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2020001/article/00006-eng.htm

Covenant House. (2021). Opening doors for homeless & trafficked youth. https://www.covenanthouse.org/homeless-issues/human-trafficking

Ferriss, T. (2020, February 27). #501: Steven Pressfield on The Artist’s Journey, the Wisdom of Little Successes, Shadow Careers, and Overcoming Resistance. https://tim.blog/2021/02/27/steven-pressfield-transcript/

Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition. (2019). The real “crisis” in foster care. https://www.foster-adopt.org/blog/real-crisis-foster-care/

Gladwell, M. (2019). Talking to strangers: What we should know about the people we don’t know. Little, Brown and Company.

Government of Canada. (2020). Government of Canada invests $19 million to reduce human trafficking and support those most impacted. https://www.canada.ca/en/women-gender-equality/news/2020/07/government-of-canada-invests-19-million-to-reduce-human-trafficking-and-support-those-most-impacted.html

HappyScribe. (2020). Conversations with Oprah: Elie Wiesel. https://www.happyscribe.com/public/oprah-s-supersoul-conversations/conversations-with-oprah-elie-wiesel

Heben, A. (2018, June 26). From camp to village. Wisdom of communities 4: Sustainability in community: Resources and stories about creating eco-resilience in intentional community (Vol. 4, pp. 251-256). Communities Magazine.

Kerouac, J. (1976). On the road. Penguin Books.

Li, M. (2018). From prisons to communities: Confronting re-entry challenges and social inequality. https://www.apa.org/pi/ses/resources/indicator/2018/03/prisons-to-communities

Office for Victims of Crime Training and Technical Assistance Center. (n.d.). Human trafficking task force e-guide: Safe housing options. https://www.ovcttac.gov/taskforceguide/eguide/4-supporting-victims/44-comprehensive-victim-services/safe-housing-options/

Rebel Wisdom. (2020, November 23). Charles Eisenstein, sensemaker Q&A [Audio podcast episode]. https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/rebel-wisdom/charles-eisenstein-Jl-BnxOyQqp/

Safe House Project. (n.d.). About [page and] Safe house funding & mentorship. https://www.safehouseproject.org

SarSarnoff, C. (2021). How many safe houses exist in the United States? http://www.laht.com/article.asp?CategoryId=13303&ArticleId=2358864

Sedlak, A. J., Finkelhor, D., Hammer, H., & Schultz, D. J. (2002). National Estimates of Missing Children: An Overview. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/196465.pdf

Stasha, S. (2021). How many veterans are homeless in the U.S.? https://policyadvice.net/insurance/insights/homeless-veterans-statistics/

Toney-Butler, T. J., Gossman, W., & Mittel, O. (2021). Human trafficking. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430910/

U.S. Department of Human Services, Children’s Bureau. (2018). NYTD services and outcomes reports. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/report/nytd-services-and-outcomes-reports

U.S. Department of Justice. (2004). Guide for developing housing for ex-offenders. https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/203374.pdf

YWCA Halifax. (2019). A review of housing practices for victims of human trafficking. https://www.ywcahalifax.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Safe-Landing-Research-Report-Housing-Victims-of-Human-Trafficking.pdf