Written by Kylyssa from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA.
A Squidoo transplant, Kylyssa Shay is a soft-hearted, hard-headed, tough-as-nails nail-biter. She’s full of hyphens except in her name. An activist, atheist, and artist, Ms. Shay enjoys writing science fiction, sculpting in a bizarre variety of media, painting, cooking, drawing, and tinkering.
Her favorite activity is experimentation. Items found cooking on the stove in her home may not be edible. Don’t sniff the Buckyballs.
Nicknamed “Aunt MacGyver” by an assortment of children, teens, and adults of various ages, she is known for pulling off strange, spur-of-the-moment repairs which are often quite effective.
Why Homeless People Don’t Use Shelters
When there are homeless shelters why do homeless people sleep outside?
I spent a lot of the time when I was homeless sleeping “in the rough” which is another way of saying outdoors. I’ve been asked a lot of times why I didn’t just stay in homeless shelters. The two answers many homed people often give as to why homeless people don’t use shelters is that either such people are drug users and drug use is against homeless shelter rules or that some people refuse to follow rules pertaining to check in and checkout.
The issue is pretty complex, but no, I was neither using drugs nor too defiant to obey the rules. I’d like to give my reasons for sleeping in the rough and also some of the reasons I’ve seen others avoid shelters while exposing some common homeless shelter dangers. Some of these reasons might surprise you. I know I was shocked to discover a few myself.
photo by Miguel Saavedra
Please, keep in mind that not all shelters have all or even any of these down sides. Some have none of them. These are the things many homeless people who don’t use them anymore have experienced at some facilities in the U.S. which may have caused them to later avoid using shelters. There are good ones out there, too. They can just be hard to find sometimes.
Please Read First
As someone who has worked in homeless shelters I am very aware that the vast majority of homeless shelter workers are good people who are doing their best. I am glad that homeless shelters exist to help people without homes. However, it would be an injustice to pretend that homeless shelters in America are plentiful enough or that all of those shelters that exist are safe enough, or free from downsides.
Fear of Contracting Parasites
A little added something no one wants
No matter how clean a facility is kept, the danger of getting parasites by using it 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 sleep too close to an ever-changing assortmenty of people , eventually you are bound to get head lice, pubic lice or scabies. It’s hard as heck to get rid of parasites when you have no home.
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 homeless shelters were my second most important reason for avoiding them. I’m itching right now just thinking about it.
From the Mouths of Babes
Compelling photographs and unfiltered words from children living in deep poverty and on the streets tell the real story of living without housing.
Before you form an opinion on homeless people, I highly recommend reading this book. Children speak without the filters adults use most of the time. The honesty in their words is powerful.
More Articles on Why People Avoid Homeless Shelters and Sleep Outside Instead
- Why Some Homeless People Choose Streets Over Shelters
Divine Caroline explains why many prefer sleeping outside to using homeless shelters.
- Why Some Homeless Choose The Streets Over Shelters
This is a transcription of an NPR Talk of the Nation episode on the reasons some people choose sleeping outside.
- Why Don’t Homeless People Stay in Shelters?
An article examining the reasons people shun homeless shelters.
Hours of Operation Incompatible with Work Hours
Homeless shelters operate on rigid schedules… So do jobs!
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; by the time they get off work, it’s usually too late for them to get in line to check into a shelter.
Another reason some homeless shelters are incompatible with having a job 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 shelter – whether those people 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 the topics.
By the time I had a regular job, I had decided to sleep outside exclusively so this was not a problem for me.
Danger of Rape or Assault
Homeless shelters and the areas around them are often hunting grounds for human predators. Some very few 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 shelter 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 making users vulnerable to other who are predators. Volunteer workers honestly cannot be expected to put themselves in the sort of danger intervening in such situations creates. Nor can they have eyes on the back 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 homeless 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 take seldom 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.
40% of homeless teens and youth identify as LGBT and often don’t use shelters because many of them, like the parents who discarded them, discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people.
Fear of Contracting Disease
Diseases spread easily in close quarters
One reason it’s hard to fall asleep in a homeless shelter is the almost endless coughing. There’s always at least one person with a cough. Many of those with chronic coughs have chronic illnesses, 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 dangerous disease to contract.
Keep in mind that many people are homeless due to ill health or chronic illnesses and you’ll see why accommodations full of sick people pose an even greater risk to them.
Lack of Handicapped Accommodations
Disabilities make use difficult
While I was waiting to talk to someone about volunteering at an associated soup kitchen I was shocked to see someone turned away from a homeless shelter 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. 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 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 shelters 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 who need 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 sometimes not have any choice.
An Invasive and Disrespectful Check in Process
Surrendering dignity and self-respect completely
This answer has gotten me a lot of flack. Even though it played only a minor part in my decision not to use shelters, I feel it is an important part.
The check in process in some but not all homeless shelters is sometimes humiliating and dehumanizing.
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 on more than one occasion. One worker even suggested that I find a boyfriend to stay with; basically she was 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.
Yes, some people avoid homeless shelters because of drug addictions- their own or those of other people.
Since many 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.
People frightened by drug related activity may come to avoid shelters because of this, quite reasonably fearing for their safety 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 in them while trying to kick their drug or alcohol habits.
Separation of Family Members
Giving up family for a cot
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 shelters 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 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 homeless shelters. This leaves single fathers in a very difficult spot. This seems not only heartbreaking but criminal. While some may say the children should just be taken away, the situation 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.
Some Service Dogs are Barred from Entry
Giving up faithful assistance
Service dogs other than Seeing Eye dogs and hearing assistance dogs are sometimes denied entry to homeless shelters. Mobility dogs (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 dogs 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 in that may possibly not be service animals it’s also perfectly understandable that disabled people would not be willing to part with a service 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 them for independence and safety are unwilling to be separated from them for any reason.
Staff Assumptions about Drug Use and Criminality
You are guilty even if you are innocent
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 addicts and criminals, many people avoid using those services to also avoid job discrimination.
When you are homeless, many people will automatically treat you as a criminal and a drug user. Many people 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 shelters 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 people who use them to attend alcohol and drug abuse counseling even if they are not alcohol or drug abusers.
I remember the smirks and questioning looks 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 even for non-abusers 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.
Danger of Theft
No protection from thieves
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 them 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.
Acting like you share a religious belief for a place to sleep
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 decent 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 seem to 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.
- Why Homeless Shelters Are for Someone Else
An interesting account of one man’s experience with a faith-based charity. The comments are also an interesting read. No, it’s not a recent post but he expressed himself clearly and well and some of the comments provide valuable insights.
Do We Need More, Better Homeless Shelters and Help for Existent Ones?
Do we need to build more homeless shelters and help the ones that already exist?
- Yes, but not in my neighborhood.
- Other, I’ll explain in the guestbook.
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 shelter 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.
Lack of Control
Exchanging freedom for shelter
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 times, prayer times, sleep times, and check out times in a homeless shelter. Some people avoid them so they can feel like they have some vestige of control over their own lives.
Lack of Nonthreatening Rules for Accommodating Disabled Individuals
Giving up the ability to get around in a strange place
Walkers, crutches, and canes are sometimes taken from users at some organizations at check in. Sometimes even appliances such as leg braces are also 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 your mobility in a strange place. So some people who have need of medical appliances or mobility assisting devices forgo the use of homeless shelters.
And the #1 Reason Homeless People Don’t Use Shelters- Lack of Available Beds
There is not enough 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 America there’s space in homeless shelters for less than 25% of the homeless people living in that city. In other cities there is only enough room in shelters for less than 5% of their homeless population. There’s not enough funding to provide beds for every homeless person in America.
Additionally, many areas in America have made ordinances limiting the number of people a charity may serve. In some cities,they may not provide beds for more than 20 people! Additionally, some cities have created ordinances preventing them from being 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 homeless shelters from being within a certain distance of each other.
These reasons are at least part of why lines to get in form so early in the day and why 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 line of a hundred 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 homeless shelters. So what you can do about it is find out what your local laws regarding homeless shelters are and write to your congressmen and representatives as well as donating to local charities and helping to fund new ones.”
Pleas go and red the great comments from folks at original site…
“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.
No Pets Allowed
Trading faithful companionship for somewhere legal to sleep
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 companion. He is your only source of affection and companionship. Could you abandon him without a second thought?
Pets are usually not allowed into homeless shelters so their owners often choose to sleep outside with the only friends who haven’t deserted them, their pets.
Would You Be Reluctant to Use a Homeless Shelter?
There are not nearly enough homeless 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 lens and getting some more information on the dangers and indignities you could face if you use a homeless 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.”