Living And Working With Grief And Loss In Emergency Shelters

statue of woman - her face exhibits sadness or grief

Consider everyone who comes in contact with emergency shelters, whether staff, residents or volunteers. They all experience grief and loss.

Shelter residents often arrive at shelters with multiple losses. A person could:

    • have lost their ID
    • have lost a spouse or a child.
    • have received a negative health diagnosis.
    • have lost work or housing.
    • be shunned by their family.

Shelter residents face these experiences while sharing space with others in similar circumstances.

Shelter staff are keenly aware of residents’ losses. And when they experience grief or loss (either their own or that of others), shelter workers can struggle in their work. There is a high level of turnover, especially among front line staff, in emergency shelters. Shelter managers attribute this in part to the burnout that can come with multiple experiences of grief and loss.

Recognizing how significant grief and loss are to shelter life, the Toronto Shelter Network1 has pulled together resources that are currently in use to help with these challenging situations. The resources were gathered through interviews and focus groups with shelter staff and published in the report titled Toronto Shelter Grief & Loss Program.

Gathering advice and experience from other shelters is helpful for managers and staff who want to change how they do things in their own workplaces. Knowing that a policy or procedure is in use elsewhere can help get over hesitation about changing existing practices. It is also a reminder that there may be people close by who can help with introducing new practices. For organizations with tight budgets, ideas that can be implemented at minimal cost are also a significant benefit.

The shelter staff who participated in the interviews and focus groups described above called for more supports to shelter residents. Sharing existing strategies helps, but the system overall is not well resourced to support the grief and loss experienced by residents, staff and volunteers.

The resources discussed in this report are obviously intended for emergency shelter staff in Toronto, but it’s highly likely that people living and working at shelters in other locations also experience grief and loss. The report that emerged from the interviews and focus groups could have broad application.

The Toronto Shelter Network’s report is posted at the Homeless Hub: Toronto Shelter Network Grief & Loss Program Report


  1. The Toronto Shelter Network supports the operation of emergency shelters in Toronto. For other work by the Toronto Shelter Network, try: Positioning Emergency Shelters To Give The Best Possible Support To Their Clients