Drug Users Welcome: An Oklahoma City Shelter’s Encouraging Approach

    On April 6, Oklahoma City opened its only low-threshold night shelter for people experiencing homelessness. With 140 beds, including some for families, City Care Night Shelter’s goal is to welcome folks to come and stay as many nights as they need. For people who use drugs, it represents the rare shelter that welcomes them regardless of whether they are using, or taking medication for opioid use disorder.

    “We believe we are a community that should have at least one open door,” tweeted Adam Luck of City Care, the local nonprofit running the shelter. “We also believe this door should open into a place thoughtfully designed, expertly built and beautifully curated, just as we hope a place would be for any family member or neighbor.”

    City Care Night Shelter offers dining, laundry service and personal storage—and a handwritten note on every pillow. Guests must leave the shelter by 7:00 am each morning, and are welcome to check back in each evening (4:30 pm for families or 6:00 pm for individuals).

    “Sobriety is not a requirement at our shelter.”

    Asked by Filter if drug users are welcome, Staci Sanger of City Care said, “Yes. This includes anyone, wherever they may be in their journey. We will store guests’ possessions in one of our storage rooms at night and nothing potentially dangerous, such as weapons or drugs, would be allowed in the actual dorms. Sobriety is not a requirement at our shelter.”

    The city’s shelter bed capacity has dropped significantly due to COVID restrictions. A temporary winter shelter that the city had operated since January closed just days before Night Shelter opened.

    Research has suggested that “no tolerance” policies are prevalent in shelters, even during cold weather. One study cited Jacksonville, North Carolina, where all homeless shelters entirely exclude people who use drugs. In California, the main provider of homeless services in San Luis Obispo County, CAPSLO, also discriminated against drug users—including requiring drug and breathalyzer tests for those whom they suspect of being intoxicated.

    In April 2015, the Manchester Area Conference of Churches (MACC), a homeless provider in Connecticut, chose to close rather than shelter people who use drugs. The organization rejected $174,000 in funding from the state, which required shelters to accept people who use drugs, including alcohol. MACC stated that it didn’t have the resources to support drug users and argued, falsely, that drugs posed a safety risk to everyone in the shelter.

    In November 2018, the Montana Rescue Mission in Billings, Montana, announced it would no longer shelter drug users. They made no exception even for “code blue” nights—when the city faces severe cold and snowy weather. “The only change we’ve made is we expect to them to be sober,” shelter director Perry Roberts told the Billings Gazette. “We just decided [on the change] in order to maintain peace.” Roberts also alleged that sheltering drug users could “trigger” guests in recovery from substance use disorders.

    In Massachusetts, shelters—even those that receive state funding—are allowed to set their own policies for drug use. Of the 39 shelters that receive state funding, 18 operate as “wet” shelters, which don’t require sobriety. One shelter, the Pine Street Inn in Boston, will accept guests in any condition of intoxication, as they are behaving safely. It doesn’t allow guests to bring drugs, including alcohol, into the shelter, however.

    In Fitchburg, Massachusetts, the shelter at Our Father’s House does require guests to be sober. Directors and staff told WBUR that they evaluate people on a case-by-case basis, and will refer them to other facilities for treatment, detox or night shelter. They give people the opportunity to stay overnight and sober up, but reserve the right to ask them to leave. 

    Requiring shelter residents to be sober does more harm than good. The Downtown Emergency Service Center in Seattle, which operates as a low-barrier wet shelter, has found that its services help residents to decrease both their alcohol use and their chances of remaining homeless.

    Sheltering homeless drug users in places where they are not alone and can receive health attention also helps keep them alive. A 2017 study in Boston found that one in three deaths among homeless adults under age 45 was due to overdose—a rate at least 16 times higher than the general population of Massachusetts. 

    It’s a welcome change to see a new shelter adhere to best practices to keep all of its guests safe—whether or not they’re using drugs.



    Photograph via City of Oklahoma City

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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