Transitional Housing: Help for the Hurting

Throughout history, churches have sought to ease the suffering of those experiencing difficult times. Whether the homelessness is due to a natural disaster, a life event, abuse, or addiction, a church may be confronted with the dilemma: should it open its doors to those needing shelter? 

Assess the risks

Before your ministry decides to provide transitional housing, there are practical matters to consider. Living arrangements, safety procedures, and risk management practices should play a role in your decision-making assessments.

Take time to examine the risks involved. Your local and state laws may address additional issues, such as zoning restrictions, staff-to-resident ratios, and restrictions on allowing sex offenders to be present within a certain distance of a school or day care operation. 

Look objectively at your accommodations. You may be considering a recreational space or a meeting room to use as sleeping quarters. Your ministry may own a suitable home or apartment, or can offer a spare room inside a parsonage. When considering any space, try to evaluate it objectively. Look at these safety issues:

  1. Suitable sleeping and bathing quarters. Churches generally are built for meeting and worshipping, not for residential housing. Take a moment to visualize a guests’ housing experience: Are bathing facilities adequate for both men and women? Are sleeping areas sufficiently private? Can doors be locked?
  2. Sexual misconduct concerns. The safety of your guests, especially children, is paramount. Opportunities for sexual misconduct increase if multiple families sleep in the same room or share bathroom facilities. Are there ways to protect children from other guests?
  3. Proper heating and cooling systems. You’ll want to ensure your guests are comfortable, especially children and vulnerable adults. Can you provide air conditioners, fans, or extra blankets as needed? Can you safely heat the proposed guest quarters? Note: Space heaters can be a fire hazard and are not considered a safe option.
  4. Kitchen facilities. Will you offer access to kitchen facilities, or will guests use a hot plate or ice chest in their living quarters? Will volunteers prepare the meals? Be aware that allowing guests to cook their own meals can increase your fire risk. Likewise, it’s possible that your guests could get sick if their food isn’t stored or prepared safely. 
  5. Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Do all living spaces have working fire detectors and carbon monoxide detectors? Could residents open windows to escape in the event of a fire? If not, how would they get out?


Put fresh eyes on security procedures. If your church decides to open an emergency shelter, it may be time to review security procedures that would apply to your guests, such as the following:

  • Will the guest be restricted to certain areas? 
  • Will you provide the guest with a key?
  • Will family, friends, and others be permitted to visit? If so, under what conditions and how will that be monitored?
  • Will the guest have access to areas with costly property items or sensitive data?
  • Will the guest have unsupervised access to children or vulnerable adults? 


Think twice before offering employment. In exchange for sanctuary, your guest may offer to perform tasks for the ministry. Maintenance or technical work, cleaning, or professional services may benefit your ministry or seem like an equitable arrangement until you examine the laws governing employment. Any work may be considered employment, and may be subject to federal and state labor laws, including workers’ compensation.

Take a second look at your insurance policy. Ask your insurance agent to review your policy, looking for areas where you could be vulnerable. Carefully examine both your property and liability coverages, including workers’ compensation and auto liability policies. An upfront conversation with your agent may expose weak spots in your plan or provide peace of mind.  

Brotherhood Mutual offers The Church Safety & Security Guidebook, a comprehensive guidebook to help ministries develop safety and security policies. It’s full of step-by-step instructions, checklists, and safety role-playing scenarios.

Making Transitional Housing Work

Christian churches share historical roots when it comes to offering shelter to the homeless. What works for one ministry may not work for another. Only your ministry’s leadership can decide what works for your church. 

Your decision should involve your leadership team, a locally licensed attorney, and your insurance agent. It’s important to have the conversation, even if the situation has not presented itself yet. By asking the question in advance, you’ll be better prepared to respond. 

Churches as Sanctuaries

Sensitive Locations. Federal law prohibits concealing, harboring, and transporting unauthorized persons who have unlawfully come to, entered, or remain in the U.S.1 In 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection offered clearer language on how the law applies to what it calls sensitive locations.

The ICE sensitive locations policy states that federal agents generally should avoid certain places when interviewing, searching, surveilling, or arresting people who are suspected of entering the country illegally. These sensitive locations include churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples, and religious ceremonies, such as funerals or weddings. Enforcement actions, such as arrests, interviews, and searches, also need prior consent of a supervisor. 

The policy also states that ICE should exercise caution and “particular care” with organizations that assist children, pregnant women, victims of crime or abuse, and individuals with mental or physical disabilities.

It’s important to note that this policy is not prohibitive. The policy is not a law, and it does not provide immunity to a host church. It also does not cover “exigent circumstances”—defined as urgent to national security—or if a person is immediately at risk of harm. Churches that choose to harbor people who illegally entered the country should not rely on this policy as an absolute guarantee of rights. As an extension of changes in the political climate, a new law could alter this policy, or the policy could be rescinded without notice. 

Sanctuary Churches and Religious Freedom. As of the summer of 2017, the idea of a sanctuary church has not been tested by the courts through the lens of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Pay attention to the current political climate. Changes in attitudes—and laws—surrounding illegal immigration and sensitive locations could pit immigration reform and religious freedom against one another. As a guide, courts may look to whether a ministry’s ability to practice its religion is burdened by border security laws, or if the church consistently applies its Bible-supported practices. 

1“9-73.100 - Immigration Violations—8 U.S.C. § 1324,” United States Department of Justice, Offices of the United States Attorneys, 1907 Title 8, U.S.C. 1324(a) Offenses,