The average length of stay at Urban Ministries of Durham’s downtown homeless shelter has more than tripled over the last fifteen months. In just over a year, UMD families went from staying an average of 33 days to 116; singles have increased their length of stay from 24 to 77 days.

Joe Daly, UMD’s director of development, says the growing length of stay has to do with a number of factors, including the shelter’s emphasis on the Housing First model, which focuses on finding clients stable housing and preventing further homelessness, and on reducing barriers to staying at the shelter. With the city’s lack of affordable housing and the Durham Housing Authority’s long waitlist for Section 8 vouchers, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a place for clients to live after they leave the shelter. 

“The Housing First model has also been adopted by the continuum of care in Durham—that’s a collection of public and private agencies and service providers helping to address homelessness as we see it in Durham,” Daly explains. “It’s really considered best practice at this point in terms of helping folks exit to permanent housing as quickly as possible.”

Once a person experiencing homelessness goes through this continuum of care, his or her total amount of time in the system is tracked cumulatively. So if a UMD client leaves the shelter but returns a few years later, each visit counts toward the total length of stay. 

On any given night in Durham, about 590 people experience homelessness, whether they are staying in a shelter, a car, or on the street. UMD offers 149 beds to men, women, and children, and it also keeps a reserve of 30 beds for cold winter nights. But the longer people stay in the shelter, the fewer beds it has for new clients. As a result, the number of people UMD served declined last year to 792, compared with 826 in 2017.

UMD executive director Sheldon Mitchell explained during an April 1 presentation to the Durham County Board of Commissioners that UMD clients often face multiple barriers to finding housing—little or no income, medical and mental health challenges, and criminal records that may bar them from housing and voucher eligibility.

“As far as length-of-stay goes, we are definitely interested in getting those numbers to go in the other direction if possible, but there are just a lot of factors that are contributing to it,” Daly says. “Within the system, there are barriers to folks getting housed: having the income to pay for housing, the availability of vouchers, landlords willing to take folks on, and even getting together the documents that they need to obtain that housing can literally take months.”

While long lengths of stay present challenges for other Durham shelters, including Families Moving Forward and the Durham Rescue Mission, neither has seen the sharp increase that’s occurred at UMD over the past year. Families Moving Forward, which serves families with children, tracks an average length of stay between 130 and 142 days, while the Durham Rescue Mission works with its clients for a much shorter amount of time: about 32 days.

Daly thinks UMD’s spike might have something to do with the increasing amount of chronic homelessness it has seen among clients over the past year. The most recent survey data shows that 31 percent of UMD’s residents are chronically homeless, meaning that they’ve been homeless for more than a year, or repeatedly over several years. 

“These folks are coming to us with more personal barriers and more of a difficult history to overcome in order to get them housed,” Daly says. “It’s tougher.”

Given the state of the housing crisis in Durham, it may be difficult to prevent the sort of bottlenecking that UMD and other service providers are seeing. However, Daly thinks that a few of the city’s recent interventions are on the right track, including city-supported programs to help people expunge charges from their criminal records and to provide landlords with incentives to accept Section 8 vouchers.

“But then we get back to the question of, well, we need more affordable housing,” Daly says. 

The city is ramping up its efforts, but it won’t be quick—or cheap. In his recent State of the City address, Mayor Steve Schewel proposed a $95 million affordable housing bond, which would build more than eighteen hundred affordable rental units, and, if passed, become the largest affordable housing bond in state history. Durham is also trying to prevent homelessness through eviction diversion, an effort to keep people out of shelters in the first place.

Bringing the average length of stay down comes back to keeping people out of the cycle of chronic homelessness. For UMD staff, this is the goal.

“Our hope is that once folks move on into that next step of their lives, they’re not ever having to return to stay with us within the walls of the shelter,” Daly says.

Clarification: The second paragraph of this article has been clarified to list lower barriers to shelter access as a factor contributing to the increase in length of stay.

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