Thousands of heroic Americans have worked tirelessly to establish shelters, find the money to keep them going, staff them at the correct level, observe all applicable laws, and perform an unbelievable number of diverse tasks. As a result, some of the people experiencing homelessness are allowed to spend days or nights under a roof, some of the time, in some places. For both its providers and its guests, shelter space is hard-won.
So then, why would street people avoid shelters? Because not everyone shares the same hierarchy of needs, and a homeless person might have priorities that conflict with the seemingly obvious. It’s very hard to tell helpers that what they offer does not solve everything and might even make an individual’s situation worse. Change.org published the views of a person writing under the name SlumJack Homeless, who reminds us that we don’t live in a one-size-fits-all world. As he expresses it, “The ONLY thing that ‘the homeless’ have in common is that we don’t have homes.”
Check-in time might be as early as 5 p.m., and if you leave, someone else gets the bed. Depending on the rules, or the disposition of the staff, it might mean permanent banishment. The rules were established to help people with substance-abuse problems avoid the temptations of the dark streets. But this also eliminates the possibility of, for instance, an evening AA program. In Boulder, Colo., journalist Josie Raymond once interviewed shelter director Joy Eckstine, who said:
I’ve talked to people who literally had to choose between going to their 12-Step meetings and going to the shelter…. A lot of shelters don’t let you use your own alarm clock or provide an early enough wake-up call.
This is an area where one standard definitely is not optimal for everyone. Shelter guests, including the young, the old and the disabled, are ejected back into the streets as early as 5 AM, when nothing is open and there is nothing to do and nowhere to go. But men who walk to some distant day-laborers’ pick-up point might need to get up even earlier.
The “economic homeless” are people who work, maybe even full-time, and still can’t afford housing — but the shelter system can’t accommodate them. If you finish work at 11 PM, the shelter is full and locked down. If you get off work at 7 AM, the place with the beds is closed all day. It’s ironic that the working poor get the worst deal in this respect. Rules that curb the bad habits of the most troublesome guests can be unbearably authoritarian for the productive stranger to this scene, who just wants a normal life back. For SlumJack Homeless, evening is a time to hang in coffeeshops, read the bulletin boards, talk with people who might know of work, and hook up with the free wifi to do research and look for opportunities. He says:
Those of us that show up in the best shape and even with distinct potentials to succeed in getting back OUT of the jam are driven further into it by the shelters existing and their demands and impositions and limitations… while these operations are demonstrably designed to keep the worst cases from their own demise …they also thereby become real liabilities for the more functional among us…
SlumJack compares signing in to a shelter with volunteering for jail, because you’re going to spend a lot of time in close proximity to people you want nothing to do with. When time is a person’s only asset, much better use can be made of it than spending an evening trapped in a shelter, even if it means sleeping outside.
The Good, the Bad and the Worse
The average shelter doesn’t let a person bring in many possessions and lacks secure outdoor space, so if you have a bike or a cart it might disappear overnight. These rules are understandable too. The less stuff that comes through the door, the less opportunity for smuggling in contraband or unintentionally spreading a bedbug infestation. If you didn’t come in with bedbugs, you might leave with some hiding in your clothes. And any belongings you’re allowed to bring in might attract the attention of a thief who makes a mental note to find you alone outside tomorrow.
Everyone is coughing and sneezing, and you will probably catch something. If you prefer to cover your baldness with a hat, you might be yelled at in front of a church group that an employee is leading through on a tour. You might be in line next to a guy carrying a rusty but live hand grenade, as once happened in Santa Cruz, Calif.
ABC40 reporter Dianna Maguire recently visited a women’s shelter in Massachusetts and reported on how they eat dinner, have their bags and personal items searched, do housekeeping chores, take mandatory showers, and finally are issued bedding to make up their bunks. One of the guests told her, “You’ve got to pretty much hold onto your stuff, lock up your stuff, or sleep with it.” At a shelter, you might resent being bossed around by another homeless person who was deputized to maintain order. Kevin Barbieux, a writer on homeless issues, says:
What usually happens is that the “security guard” takes advantage of his position and engages in inappropriate behavior himself…. And the administrators, wishing to be supportive of their “program people” will summarily side with their program people…
In March, the City Rescue Mission in New Castle, Penn., got in trouble for turning away a blind man and his guide dog. Because of the Fair Housing Act, service animals are supposed to be allowed. But not pets. The no-pets rule discourages many street people from ever seeking shelter. Is that fair? On the other hand, is it fair that people who are allergic or phobic should have to spend the night cooped up with other people’s animals?
The Change.org page we mentioned (no longer available with the comments) included in the comments section a long, heartbreakingly detailed description by “K K” who told of the intense horror of living in various shelters with her three children. And yes, very bad things happen to kids in even the most well-intentioned places. But sexual predation is not limited to residents. One man commented about staying at a church shelter where women were “violated by the pastor.” This is depressing enough, but to really see a lid blown off, read Renee Miller’s “I Went Undercover at a Homeless Shelter — You Wouldn’t Believe the Shocking Abuses I Found There.”
A while back, there was a National Transgender Discrimination Survey that covered 6,560 people. The homeless survey participants spoke of being denied access to a shelter, or of being forced to live as the wrong gender — for instance, if legally male, they have to stay in a male shelter no matter what. A quarter of the respondents had been physically attacked and/or sexually assaulted by fellow residents or staff members.
It’s painful to know these things, and to see how the earnest efforts of caring citizens can go awry. But it does help to understand and be compassionate when needy people refuse help. Dennis Culhane, who studied the Philadelphia shelter system, wrote, “Anyone who ever has to stay in a shelter involuntarily knows that all you think about is how to make sure you never come back.”
Source: “Why I Choose Streets Over Shelter,” Change.org, 06/03/09
Source: “Why Many Homeless People Choose Streets Over Shelters,” Tonic.com, 12/02/10
Source: “WWII grenade found at homeless shelter, transient arrested,” MercuryNews.com, 08/01/11
Source: “Homeless: Life in the Shelter,” WGGB.com, 11/27/13
Source: “The Homeless Guy: A Big Problem At Homeless Shelters,” Blogspot.com, 09/24/11
Source: “For Transgender Homeless, Choice Of Shelter Can Prevent Violence …,” CityLimits.org, 12/06/2010
Source: “Theories, Predictions and Diagnoses,” Google Books
Image by Jeremy Miles