“I Don’t Think of it as A Shelter. I Say I’m Going Home”: A Qualitative Evaluation of a Low-Threshold Shelter for Women who Use Drugs


In 2021–2022, encampments in a downtown Boston neighborhood reached record heights, increasing the visibility of drug use and homelessness in the city. In response, the city planned a “sweep” (i.e., eradication of encampments) and requested support from social services and medical providers to pilot low-threshold shelters. Low-threshold shelters reduce barriers to staying in traditional congregate shelters with more flexible regulations, longer-term bed assignments, and secured storage for contraband (e.g., drugs, weapons) instead of forced disposal. One homeless service provider opened a harm reduction-focused shelter for women who use drugs. This report describes the low-threshold shelter design and program evaluation.


This program evaluation had two primary aims: (1) to examine guests’ beliefs about shelter policies and practices; and (2) to understand the staff’s experiences working in a low-threshold model. We conducted semi-structured qualitative interviews with 16 guests and 12 staff members during the summer 2022. Interviews were thematically analyzed.


Guests expressed overwhelming approval for the shelter’s policies, which they stated supported their autonomy, dignity, and safety. They emphasized the staff’s willingness to build relationships, thus demonstrating true commitment to the guests. Guests highlighted the value of daytime access to the shelter, as it granted them autonomy over their time, reduced their substance use, and helped them build relationships with staff and other guests. The co-directors and staff designed the shelter quickly and without US models for reference; they turned to international literature, local harm reduction health care providers, and women living in encampments for guidance on the shelter policies. The staff were passionate and committed to the health and stability of the guests. Most staff found value in the low-threshold model, though some were challenged by it, believing it enabled drug use and did not require the guests to “get better.”


This evaluation indicates the value of low-threshold, harm reduction shelters as alternatives to traditional models. While these shelters do not mitigate the need for overarching housing reform, they are important measures to meet the needs of women experiencing unsheltered homelessness who face intersectional oppression.

Publication Date: 
Journal Name: 
Harm Reduction Journal