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Why Don't Homeless People Use Shelters?

Kylyssa Shay was homeless for over a year in her youth; it lead her to become a homelessness activist. She thinks, feels, and has opinions.

When I was homeless, I spent a lot of my time sleeping "in the rough," which is another way of saying outdoors. Many homed people assume the homeless don't use shelters because they're drug users (and drug use is against the rules) or refuse to follow some other aspect of the shelter's rules. But no, I was neither using drugs nor too defiant to obey the rules.

I've been asked why I didn't just stay in shelters. The issue is pretty complex, but here is my answer, my reasons for sleeping in the rough, and also some of the reasons I've seen others avoid shelters. Some of these might surprise you. I know I was shocked to discover a few of them myself.

Please keep in mind that not all facilities have all or even any of these downsides. Still, these are the things many homeless people have experienced at some facilities in the U.S. which may have caused them to later avoid using them at all. There are good ones out there, too. They can just be hard to find sometimes.

photo by Beverly Lussier

photo by Beverly Lussier

19. No Pets Allowed

Trading faithful companionship for somewhere legal to sleep is not an option for some. Think about your family dog, the one you've loved for years who is a member of your family. Now imagine that you become homeless and all you have left of your old life is that faithful, lifetime friend. He is your only source of affection and companionship. Could you abandon him without a second thought?

Pets are usually not allowed into shelters, so their owners often choose to sleep outside with the only friends who haven't deserted them: their pets.

18. Denied Entry Due to Mental Illness

Some people are denied entry due to mental illness, even if caregivers have given them paperwork stating that they are not a danger to themselves or others.

Since most workers and volunteers are not trained to distinguish between violent criminals and harmless people with mental illnesses, the tendency is to be overly cautious and refuse anyone with any mental health issues entry at some (but thankfully not all) shelters. Workers and organizations cannot be blamed for being ill-equipped to handle mentally ill clients because they simply don't have the resources to train volunteers or workers.

17. Discrimination Against LGBTQ People

40% of homeless teens and youth identify as LGBT and often don't use shelters because many of those places, like the parents who discarded them, discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless,

"LGBT youth are also disproportionally homeless due to overt discrimination when seeking alternative housing – widespread discrimination in federally funded institutions frequently contributes to the growing rates of homelessness among LGBT youth. Once homeless, these youth experience greater physical and sexual exploitation than their heterosexual counterparts."

Shelters are often infested with lice or other parasites.

Shelters are often infested with lice or other parasites.

16. Fear of Contracting Parasites like Lice, Scabies, Pubic Lice, or Bedbugs

No matter how clean a facility is kept, the danger of getting parasites there is still very high. Mind you, this is not the fault of staff or organizations running shelters, it is simply a hazard of having sleeping arrangements that hundreds of people cycle through; bedbugs are now even fairly common in high end hotels. Homeless people tend to carry a lot of parasites, likely because they tend to sleep in lots of different places. So if you sleep every night in a different bed that a long string of other people have slept in, or if you sleep too close to an ever-changing assortment of people, eventually you are bound to get head lice, pubic lice, or scabies, and it's hard as heck to get rid of parasites when you have no home.

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Bedbugs are a biting parasite that can easily infest a bedroll, backpack, clothes, or other possessions. Homeless people don't want to infest the homes of people who give them a place to stay for the night or to bring bedbugs to work with them. Volunteers and employees also need to take precautions to avoid bringing bedbugs home with them.

The parasites commonly present in shelters were my second most important reason for avoiding them. I'm itching right now just thinking about the nasty things.

15. Hours of Operation Incompatible with Work Hours

Contrary to popular belief, many homeless people have jobs. Because check-in hours for shelters are often rigid and the process of waiting in line and checking in usually takes hours, many working poor cannot use them. Others work evening or night hours which don't allow them to get inside before curfew. People who work from nine to five usually can't use them, either, since by the time they get off work, it's usually too late for them to get in line for check-in.

Another reason some shelters are incompatible with employment is that they require people to attend AA or other drug abuse rehab classes, often held during normal work hours, every day or most days they use the facility, whether they have a drug or alcohol problem or not. Others require those who use their services to take rudimentary job skill classes or other life-skill classes during business hours even if employed and already well-educated on those topics.

By the time I had a regular job, I had decided to sleep outside exclusively, so this was not a problem for me.

Shelters attract predators.

Shelters attract predators.

14. Danger of Rape or Assault

Homeless shelters and the areas around them are often hunting grounds for human predators. Some of the craftier ones get jobs at the charities while most others just watch for individuals departing in the morning or arriving in the evening. It's not just rapists, either. Predators in search of "excitement" will track a lone person leaving a facility so they can beat him or harass him for fun.

Also, although there are usually attendants of some kind on watch, almost none of them are trained to deal with violent behavior, leaving users vulnerable. Volunteer workers honestly cannot be expected to put themselves in the sort of danger intervening in such situations requires, nor can they have eyes on the backs of their heads or keep watch over everyone. Lack of sufficient staffing is common and people can only do so much.

For me, this was the number one reason to avoid them. Once you get raped or assaulted in a shelter or because you were trailed after leaving one, you just don't want to try it again, no matter how hot or cold or rainy or otherwise unpleasant it is outside.

Criminals are well aware that police seldom take complaints from people without homes seriously. Many people avoid shelters because pretending to not be homeless (which means avoiding shelters, missions, and soup kitchens) is one of the most effective ways to avoid such predators.

13. Fear of Contracting Disease

Diseases spread easily in close quarters. There's always at least one person with a cough. One reason it's hard to fall asleep in a shelter is the almost endless coughing. Many of those with coughs have chronic illnesses or transmissible diseases. Tuberculosis is frighteningly common among people living on the street. When you may have to sleep out in the elements on any given night (there's no guarantee you'll get into a shelter every night), even the flu can be a life-threatening disease to contract.

If you know that many people are homeless due to ill health or chronic illnesses, you'll see why accommodations full of sick people pose an even greater risk to them.

12. An Invasive and Disrespectful Check-In Process

This answer has brought me a lot of flack, but even though it played only a minor part in my decision not to use shelters, I feel it is important to mention: The check-in process in some but not all of these places is sometimes humiliating and dehumanizing.

On more than one occasion, I was asked questions such as, "Do you have any sexual partners you could stay with?" as well as other questions about my sex life. One worker even said that I find a boyfriend to stay with, basically suggesting I exchange sexual favors for a place to sleep. Keep in mind that I, like most women homeless more than a few weeks, had already been the victim of sexual assault. It made me feel horrible, like I was less than a person and had nothing else to offer anyone.

Many shelters don't offer accommodations for the handicapped.

Many shelters don't offer accommodations for the handicapped.

11. Lack of Handicapped Accommodations

While I was waiting to talk to someone about volunteering at an associated soup kitchen, I was shocked to see someone turned away because he was in a wheelchair. Another person and I offered to pull his chair up the stairs and help him inside if he needed it, but they told us it had to do with insurance concerns and said that they were sorry but, no, he couldn't stay.

That was the first time I saw a handicapped person turned away from a homeless shelter but sadly, it was not the last. Many of these organizations make use of old buildings re-purposed to fit a bunch of beds. Sometimes their beds are located above the first floor and they have no elevators. Some don't have railings in the restrooms or ramps into the rooms or buildings either. While it is not the fault of those who run them, some facilities are unable to accommodate people in wheelchairs.

Regardless of what the Americans with Disabilities Act says, some places that provide temporary housing turn away people in wheelchairs or with other mobility limitations such as the need to use a walker or crutches to get around. While sometimes they will offer a hotel voucher to the disabled person, that doesn't always happen. Not every organization has the funds to do this and a shelter can get shut down if they break the rules. They truly don't want to turn away disabled people, but they may have no choice.

10. Drug Addictions

Yes, some people avoid shelters because of drug addictions—their own or others'.

Since many locations have signs insisting they are drug free zones, some drug users will avoid them. However, many drug users and dealers do not, making some of them hot spots of drug activity, and those frightened by drug related activity may come to avoid shelters because of this, quite reasonably fearing for their or their children's safety. Still others are themselves trying to get off drugs and being around other users makes it very difficult for them to do so, so they avoid staying there while trying to kick their drug or alcohol habits.

9. Separation of Family Members

This is a biggie and it's pretty horrible when you think about it: Most homeless shelters separate families.

Women can bring their pre-teen children into most women's facilities, but teenage male children (as young as 13) may be required to go to a men's shelter which they may not even get into. Can you imagine a mother leaving her young teenage son to sleep alone on the street without her protection while she sleeps inside? Most parents will not leave their children, so instead, the whole family sleeps in their car or outside.

Men and women usually cannot stay in the same place, so husbands and wives are separated, knowing their spouse might not get a bed somewhere else. These people are often elderly or disabled and depend on each other for safety and care. So again, most of them will forgo the use of temporary emergency housing so they can take care of each other.

Also, children cannot stay in the vast majority of men's shelters. This leaves single fathers in a very difficult spot, one that is not only heartbreaking but criminal. While some may say the children should just be taken away, the homelessness is usually temporary and the loss of a parent or parents will probably affect a child more deeply than a month or so living with insecurity and discomfort.

why_homeless_people_avoid_shelters

8. Some Service Dogs are Barred from Entry

Service dogs, other than seeing eye and hearing assistance dogs, are sometimes denied entry to homeless facilities. Mobility dogs (that help you stand or get into your wheelchair, assist you up stairs, etc.), dogs that provide assistance for mental conditions such as anxiety or agoraphobia, and other service dogs are even more often denied entry.

People frequently lose their own identification papers, often through no fault of their own, so it is no surprise that they often lose identification papers for their service animals. Even in the case of seeing eye and hearing assistance dogs, if the person has lost the dog's paperwork or doesn't have an official harness, the dog will not be allowed inside. Few people in that situation will abandon a service dog.

While it is perfectly understandable that facilities will not allow animals, especially those that are not service animals, it's also perfectly understandable that disabled people would not be willing to part with an animal that increases their ability to function, especially at the risk of having that animal die from exposure or get lost or stolen. Many people who rely on animals for independence and safety are unwilling to be separated from them for any reason.

7. Staff Assumptions about Drug Use and Criminality

While it was not often said aloud, many shelter employees and volunteers regard all people who need their services as drug addicts and criminals. To avoid being perceived as such, many avoid using those services.

When you are homeless, many people will automatically treat you as a criminal and a drug user. They are unable to comprehend that a person without a home may just be someone down on his or her luck without any wrongdoing on his or her part.

While I'm sure they mean well, many organizations and their employees or volunteers take it upon themselves to cure people of their sometimes non-existent addictions and criminal ways. Some put a lot of pressure on homeless people to attend alcohol and drug abuse counseling even if they are not alcohol or drug abusers.

I remember the smirks and questioning looks I got when I insisted I had no drug or alcohol abuse issues. One employee actually asked me, "Well, then, why are you so skinny?"

Forced participation in substance abuse counseling takes time away from job searches and current employment which the average person in such a situation cannot afford, causing most employed homeless people and those actively seeking employment to avoid shelters that require it.

why_homeless_people_avoid_shelters

6. Danger of Theft

While most homeless people are not thieves, a few of them are. It only takes one to spoil it for everyone else. When you have no home, your little bit of stuff is precious; it's all you have.

While I was not robbed inside a shelter, I heard stories from many who were. They stopped using shelters to protect their few meager possessions from theft.

Shoes are among the most commonly stolen items. Foot care is incredibly important and the loss of your only pair of shoes can be life-threatening. It can also be extremely difficult to replace them if they get stolen.

5. Religious Differences

Most shelters and kitchens have some sort of religious service people are required to sit through to eat or sleep there. I'm an atheist, but this didn't bother me much. Frankly, I was pleased to be in a climate-controlled room and sitting at rest somewhere without fear of getting harassed by gangs or police, no matter what I had to pretend to believe. It didn't even bother me that I had to give lip-service to the notion that I was being punished by God for being a bad person.

However, some people object to this, often people with strong religious beliefs of their own who believe they already have a good relationship with God. I've met a fair number of people unwilling to sit through the services and pretend their situation is a just punishment from God for being a terrible person. Very religious people might get extremely offended when someone looks down on them and tells them they don't have a good enough relationship with Jesus to deserve a place to live.

4. Lack of Privacy and Fear of Crowds

Many homed people would argue that people who are down on their luck are not deserving of privacy. However, the complete lack of privacy can be especially hard on people with mental disorders that make them fear crowds. I encountered several crowd-phobic people who could not be convinced to use a homeless facility even though they were sickly and ill-suited to outdoor sleeping even when the weather was good.

Deserving of privacy or not, people with mental illnesses that cause a fear of crowds or even a fear of a moderate number of people packed into close quarters are genuinely terrified of such conditions, even in the safest of circumstances.

Charities understandably try to make the most of their square footage by squeezing as many beds into their facility as possible. Unfortunately, that can make them frightening to people with PTSD, claustrophobia, social anxiety, or fear of crowds.

3. Lack of Control

By the time a person is on the street, his or her life is usually already careening out of control. That feeling can be enhanced by the regimented check-in times, eating, prayer, sleep times, and check-out in a shelter. Some people stay out-of-doors so they can feel like they have some vestige of control over their own lives.

why_homeless_people_avoid_shelters

2. Rules That Unfairly Endanger Disabled Individuals

Walkers, crutches, and canes are sometimes taken away from users at some organizations during check-in. Sometimes, even appliances such as leg braces are taken away for "safe keeping." While I can understand that the danger of theft is very real, and that some people who are mentally ill might hit people with their crutches, braces, or walkers, it is frightening to be left without mobility in a strange place. So some who have need of medical appliances or mobility assisting devices forgo the use of homeless facilities.

1. Lack of Available Beds

There is not enough safe, legal shelter for everyone. No matter how many people choose not to use them, there are still not nearly enough beds available for those who would like to sleep indoors despite the risks involved.

In most cities in the US, there's space for less than 25% of the homeless people living in that city. In some cities, there is room for less than 5% of their homeless population.

Additionally, many cities have made ordinances limiting the number of people a charity may serve. In some, they may not provide beds for more than 20 people! Additionally, some cities have created ordinances barring services from being located in or near the downtown area (where the churches and other organizations likely to provide such services are most likely to own property) or laws preventing two shelters from being within a certain distance of each other.

This is why lines to check in form so early in the day and staff is often so quick to deny entry to people for the most trivial of reasons. This may be why some facilities have made their requirements for use so restrictive. In fact, some of them have made their requirements so strict that, in some cases and despite a long line of people trying to get a place to sleep, they don't even fill the number of beds they have.

In my opinion, the ordinances are a bigger issue than the lack of funding because the ordinances have prevented people with funding from opening or expanding existing shelters. What you can do about it is find out what your local laws are regarding homeless facilities and write to your congresspeople and representatives as well as donating to local charities and helping to fund new ones.

Would You Be Reluctant to Use a Shelter?

There are not nearly enough shelters and many of them that exist are too hazardous or, more often, too regulation-bound to be effective in providing safe haven from the elements.

The fact of the matter is that almost no one is immune from the possibility of homelessness. In many cases all it takes is one personal catastrophe to put a person or family on the street. Homeless people are just like you and me.

After reading this article and getting some more information on the dangers and indignities you could face in a shelter, do you understand why many people without traditional housing avoid using them? If you wouldn't use a homeless shelter, you can hardly expect homeless people to. I hope you will share this distressing information and help others see why things need to change.

Should Be Grateful for Assistance No Matter How They Are Treated? Or Do People Deserve to Be Treated like Human Beings?

Some people believe that the homeless should just be grateful for any scraps tossed their way, no matter what indignities, dangers, or humiliations they must face to get them. They believe that they should be grateful even if a worker suggests they exchange sexual favors for a place to stay or if they get assaulted in or when leaving a shelter. They believe that anyone who suggests that there is anything wrong with shelters as they currently exist is simply hateful. They believe it's a sin to criticize any efforts to help, no matter how those people being helped are treated. The hate mail I have received regarding this page supports these views.

While I worked in shelters for many years as a volunteer and absolutely know that the vast majority of workers are doing their best, I believe the system is deeply flawed. There are not enough facilities or security, and a homeless person is a person, deserving of a degree of dignity. What do you think?

Do We Need More, Better Homeless Shelters and Help for Existent Ones?

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: Woah! What a sea of comments! I have a quick question. What are some things you think homeless people, already in a shelter, could use? We're planning some care kits for our local shelter here in La Crosse, WI.

Answer: I'd suggest you check out my post, "What to Buy if You're Homeless" for suggestions as to what homeless people might need. Also, you can ask your local shelters.

© 2009 Kylyssa Shay

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